A powerful man—your boss—invites you to discuss business after hours in an intimate setting. You feel uneasy. The man has crossed the line before, singling you out, blowing you kisses, whispering softly in your ear. But to turn him down would be an insult. And let’s face it, you’re a little intrigued. Someone powerful is paying attention to you.
The date is arranged at a swanky spot: the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Green Room at the White House. They both have bedrooms nearby which makes you a little nervous. Still, you assume others will be there. But when you arrive—surprise!— it’s just the two of you. The waitstaff is discreet. You note: “Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”
Your instincts tell you something’s up, but it’s hard to put into words. “The one-on-one setting…was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship.” Bingo! This is not business as usual. There’s an ulterior motive.
The powerful man starts asking questions: Do you like your job? Do you want to keep it? You think your hard work and dedication makes the answers obvious. Still, you respond, “I love my work,” and want to keep at it. The powerful man nods. Then it happens: he moves on you “like a bitch.”
“I need loyalty,” he says. “I expect loyalty.” He lays out the quid pro quo: you make him happy, he’ll make you happy.
You’re stunned. You know you should storm away from the small oval table. Instead, you sit paralyzed. Later, you recall, “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed.” This is typical. When threatened, the nervous system sometimes goes into a “freeze response.” You assess the risk and determine that fight or flight doesn’t help you. Staying put does.
The conversation resumes. You speak of other things. You think the worst is over. Think again. The powerful man has an agenda for this dinner. He wants to break down your defenses—even just a crack. He’ll insist Mike Flynn “is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” And for some reason, instead of saying, “You’re crossing a line,” you’ll agree that Mike Flynn is a good guy. Now your boss can smile. You just told him that someone under criminal investigation was “a good guy.” You played along. You two just shared an intimacy—one might even say “a thing.”
Later, others will question your statement. A Senator from Maine will say: “I remain puzzled by your response. ‘Michael Flynn is a good guy.’ You could have said, Mr. President, this meeting is inappropriate.” Then a Senator from Florida will put the blame on you, insisting, “Someone needs to tell the president he can’t do these things.” You will stammer in your response, something you rarely do.
“I don’t know,” you reply. “I think—as I said earlier, I think the circumstances were such that it was—I was a bit stunned and didn’t have the presence of mind…I don’t know if I would have said to the president with the presence of mind, ‘Sir, that’s wrong.’ In the moment, it didn’t come to my mind. What came to my mind is be careful what you say. I said, ‘I agree Flynn is a good guy.’”
The fact is you didn’t feel safe saying “no” to a powerful man. It happens. And afterward, you feel bad that you didn’t stand up for both yourself and for what’s right. You turn to your colleagues for advice (and maybe a little sympathy.) They share your concerns that it’s your word against his. No wonder you’re thrilled by the prospect of a tape. You discuss going to a superior but reject that idea, too.
As engineer Susan Fowler discovered at Uber, reporting harassment claims often backfire. Institutions look out for themselves. Plus, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was the first Senator to publicly support this powerful man. Who knows which side Sessions would be on?
Actually, we know. Sessions later tacitly endorsed a recommendation that the powerful man fire you. Which is why it’s hard not to wonder about your conclusion that “it made little sense to report it to Attorney General Sessions, who we expected would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations.” Was that true or just an excuse? Deep down, did you worry that by reporting the powerful man’s behavior, your boss might see you as disloyal? Did you keep this information to yourself so you could keep your job?
Calling out colleagues’ bad behavior turns out to be a privilege. I think that’s the point Senator Dianne Feinstein was trying to make in this exchange:
Feinstein: Now, here’s the question, you’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you.
Comey: It’s a great question. Maybe if I were stronger, I would have.
It’s not about being big or strong. It’s about feeling safe. President Donald Trump had power and James Comey didn’t. What happened to the former FBI director wasn’t sexual harassment, but there are similarities. Like so many women, Comey wasn’t weak. He was simply trying to ignore the harassment and keep working hard at a job he loved.
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