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Power, Position, Prestige - and deafening silence

Every closed eye is not sleeping, and every open eye is not seeing.

- Bill Cosby

I used to be a huge Bill Cosby fan.  I was a fan long before his days as Dr Cliff Huxtable, the patriarch of the Huxtable family in The Cosby Show (it never occurred to me to query then why it was called The Cosby Show when the main character was Dr Huxtable, but I suspect narcissism is the answer.  But I digress...)

When he was just a comedian, I used to listen to many audio recordings of his comedy routines including Fat Albert (“Fat Albert had a car”) and his hilarious take on parenthood (“I ran out of petrol, just shutting the car door”).  When he starred in The Cosby Show as Dr Huxtable, the head of a household of five children with a working wife (a lawyer, no less) it was both hilarious and honest, and he became much admired as not just a comedian, but a successful TV star and an admired family man.  Many grieved when his only son was killed in a tragic accident, because they felt they knew him.

Sadly my fan girl days for Bill Cosby are long gone with the increasingly long line of women alleging sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape at his hands.  At last count there were more than 50 women who have come forward with these allegations.

I am far from a fan of trial by media; however even if only 10% of the claims are true, they are horrifying.  It is not a numbers game — that figure of 10% is to answer the many people who are asking 'why now?', and 'are they just in it for the money?'.  Let’s assume for a moment that all of the claims are true (and note that none of these claims have yet been tested in Court) —  how is it possible for a man to avoid prosecution or publicity over the course of  such a long career of harassing women?

The answer is that power, prestige and position engender silence.

Clint Smith (educator and poet), in an excellent, and short, TED talk on the danger of silence, said:

“Silence is the residue of fear.”

He was not talking about sexual harassment specifically, but his words are very true.

In my work as an Investigator, I find that very often women who claim to have been sexually harassed have been reluctant to make the allegations, and this is largely borne out of fear.  They are still fearful even once they have plucked up the courage to come forward- and that decision is not taken lightly.

Fear takes many forms.  One of them is fear for your job.  For example, I once listened to a single mother of two children who was, or had been, on probation in a new job when she experienced sexual harassment.  She said at the time that she feared being terminated while on probation if she raised the issue at the time.  She said “What chance did I have of succeeding in bringing this to a good resolution, when he could have terminated me at any time, and for no reason?  I had two children to feed and I needed that job”.  Unfortunately she tolerated sexual harassment and, from what she told me, sexual assault for fear of being sacked, until she found another job and left.  She left, and her boss is probably treating someone else the same way.

Another very genuine fear  for women is job prospects.  If the person doing the harassing is someone with decision making power over salary or promotions, raising an allegation of sexual harassment can put someone in a difficult position, particularly when there was no one else able to make that kind of decision.  Also, in a structure where the perpetrator is the only one 'talking up' to his immediate supervisor, the likeliood of support is perceived as low.

In Bill Cosby’s case, many of the women were young actresses hoping for a “break” in the industry who needed to work, and the old adage that “You’ll never work in this town again” was no doubt going through their minds at the thought of raising an allegation against the much loved Bill Cosby, after the shock of discovering that the person they were meeting with was not the loveable Cliff Huxtable, but a sexual predator.

Fear of not being believed is  another very genuine fear that women have.  And this is more relevant where the perpetrator does have power, prestige and position.  Who would believe that Dr Cliff Huxtable, the loveable father of five (and note Bill Cosby was also a “happily married” father of five children at the time) could be responsible for such despicable acts?

The same goes for senior men in organisations who appear to have a lot of power and prestige that goes with their position.  When men put on a public face of being happily married, a good boss, kind to animals, or whatever else they want people to believe, it is hard for people to believe they could be capable of assualt or sexual harassment.  In fact, peopld don't want to believe it.

At work, as much as in Hollywood, women fear not being believed, fear losing their jobs or fear that their careers will stall if they speak up.

Silence can be deafening.  Shame associated with the events surrounding the allegations can also be responsible for the silence around this issue.  In cases where alcohol or drug use is involved, after hours, many women feel partially or completely responsible for what happened and do not want the spotlight turned on them, questioning their own behaviour and their contribution to the events that transpired.  This is so akin to victim blaming in rape cases it’s not funny — it's just a question of degrees.  In the words of Beverly Johnson in Vanity Fair:

“I sat there still stunned by what happened the night before, confused and devastated by the idea that someone I admired so much had tried to take advantage of me, and use drugs to do so.  Had I done something to encourage his actions? …

For a long time I thought it was something that only happened to me, and that I was somehow responsible.  So I kept my secret to myself, believing this truth needed to remain in the darkness.  But the last four weeks have changed everything, as so many women have shared similar stories, of which the press have belatedly taken heed.”

Shame is easy to come by; hard to get rid of.  A client I spoke to recently said that she once offered to drive her very drunk boss home from a work function, and that he made a pass at her in the car — at the time she was embarrassed but made no complaint.  However, having rejected his advances, she then became the target of bullying behaviour.  When she plucked up the courage to speak to HR, the first words she was greeted with was 'Why on earth did you get into a car with him?'.  The first reaction was to somehow hold her responsible for his actions.

What is interesting is that in the Bill Cosby case, once someone came forward, other alleged victims of Bill Cosby have also come forward and their stories are disturbingly similar.  In workplaces, it is unlikely that someone who indulges in the sexual harassment of female employees does it only once.  Whilst silence can be golden, it can also mean that the act goes unpunished and other women will suffer the consequences.

Break the silence.  Tell your truth.



Belle Gibson - the art of attention seeking

God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another

- Shakespeare

Belle Gibson, the now disgraced ‘social media entrepreneur’ has become the poster girl for deceit on a large scale in Australia. 

Last night on 60 Minutes, Tara Brown interviewed her, to try and get answers out of Ms Gibson as to how, and why, she managed to deceive so many people for so long, about her cancer diagnosis and recovery, through diet and in particular whole foods.  Ms Gibson made millions out of  a cookbook and an App developed from her cookbook.  Worse, she convinced many people to ignore the advice of oncologists and traditional medical intervention on the basis of her miraculous recovery.  You can see the interview here.  It is clear from the whole fiasco that Ms Gibson is a chronic liar and shameless attention seeker. I still can't believe how few people called Belle Gibson's version of events into question - the whole sorry saga could have easily been prevented.  Sadly, like every other narcissist, Ms Gibson blames everyone but herself for the situation in which she now finds herself.

This is unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence and also occurs in employment relationships.

On a smaller scale, I have twice now investigated employees who have been suspected of faking cancer for both sympathy, and to avoid performance management.  I still say ‘suspected’ because in both cases, the employee resigned before formal performance management commenced, although many years later they are both still very much alive and healthy.

In investigating this type of issue it is important to tread lightly.  While suspicions are aroused for any number of reasons, the truth is that the employee may be terribly ill, in one way or another.   However in both of these cases the following issues arose:

  • Performance was not at the expected level for the role and this continued for a significant period of time
  • The employee was under 30 years of age
  • The employee had regular ‘dramatic’ events in life, not related to health, requiring their absence from work, and garnering a great deal of sympathy
  • The employee was considered to be very ‘brave’ in coming to work when so ill, and gained sympathy and attention from colleagues, making management of the employee difficult.  In one case, other employees had organised fund raising activities for the ‘sick’ employee, as well as home cooked meals
  • The investigation started because the ill health suddenly became dramatically worse when performance issues were raised – in one case, cancer which had been in remission for a number of years, suddenly returned as a secondary cancer
  • The employee refused to allow me to obtain a report from their treating oncologist as the effect of performance management on their treatment and health.  Neither would tell me the name of the treating oncologist, notwithstanding that every other facet of their illness had been freely and embarrassingly shared with other in the workplace
  • Lengthy research had to be done in relation to common treatment regimes for the particular cancers which bore little resemblance to the treatment the employees said they had, or were, undergoing
  • The employee had gone to great lengths to look sick during work hours (including shaved heads and scarves)  yet social media accounts (which were not private) showed them to be enjoying busy social lives which also included heavy drinking and smoking – when challenged as to absence from work on a Monday the reason given was usually treatment rather than a hangover
  • An examination of email and work provided mobile phone records proved the employees had lied about their whereabouts at times of medical appointments or other events requiring their absence from work, including occasions when compassionate leave had been granted
  • The employee resigned when asked to respond to issues raised with them


I suspect this was a pattern of behaviour -  leaving their employment when the deceit was discovered and probably starting the deceit again.  It should be noted, however, that at no stage was an allegation put to the employee about having 'faked' being sick. The allegations were about lying about other events related to their employment, but in also asking for details of their treating oncologist, each will have known that suspicions had been raised.

Following their departure from the organisations, further investigations revealed other instances of deceit involving credit, taxi vouchers and various other work related benefits.

The level of hurt and anger in those organisations when the level of the deception was uncovered cannot be described.  Staff who had been through treatment for cancer or who had lost a loved one to cancer were among those who had provided support.

Sadly, I believe in one of these cases the employee was psychiatrically ill, but in the other the employee was no more than a narcissistic attention seeker, who was a chronic liar!  I don’t know if either sought help, but the most important lesson from this for me was to trust my instincts.  I thought something was not quite right from a short time after their employment commenced.

For employers, as with all investigations, policies which allow workplace investigators to review email correspondence and phone records for work provided mobile phones are vital to uncovering the truth.  Unlike most workplace investigations which involve allegations made by one person against another,  this type of investigation requires a slow and steady approach, particularly as the employee may be seriously ill.



Is your Valentine a co-worker?

Human behaviour flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.

- Plato

Office romances are as old as, well, office buildings.  It is hardly a surprise given the numbers of people who work, and the amount of time they spend there.  Often people spend more time with work colleagues than with anyone else, including partners and children in some cases.  Throw in a stressful job, a work colleague who understands the pressures, common interests, and romance is sure to follow, at least for those who are otherwise unattached or in committed relationships.  One of the most successful relationships that started in the office is that of Michelle and Barack Obama. Michelle Robinson as she then was, was assigned to mentor the young Barack Obama, as a work experience student. On the other side of the Presidential coin however is the more infamous office romance between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

A recent survey by Vault.com called 'Love is in the Air' has some interesting statistics for us on office romances.  For both men and women, 8% said they found their permanent partners at work, while about 50% of each (slightly more men) admitted to having a relationship with a work colleague.

So office romance and relationships are here to stay, but unfortunately can give rise to many and varied problems in the workplace - not least of which of course is the secret relationship that is found out in the most embarrassing of ways by ending up on the front page of the newspaper, and as the latest youtube hit.  For this unfortunate couple, they learned the hard way (pardon the pun), that  in the current technologically literate world, a  sexual interlude after business hours, can be caught on camera and shared. Even more regrettable is the fact that the partner and former partner of the two involved (and in one case, children) have been embarrassed by the publicity.  And while as a general rule relationships are no one else's business, in this case their employer has been embarrassed as well, by being named.  It is likely that because of the way Google works, this article may well be the first that comes up when one searches Marsh Ltd.

While it is unlikely, according to news reports,  they will lose their jobs over this incident, it is said that they will no longer be able to work together (and they may still face disciplinary action).  Of course the embarrassment and identification of the parties involved may mean that they leave the workplace voluntarily.

Leaving aside infidelity for the purposes of this article, working together is one of the most difficult aspects of office based romances. The emphasis is on the word work, because you are still expected to be able to do your job, while conducting a personal relationship. This is largely because those involved in office romances try to keep it a secret.   

So consider this - what is the reason for it being kept a secret?  The very fact that you don't want anyone to know indicates that perhaps you think there may be a perception of impropriety.

If you are considering throwing caution to the wind, consider these problem situations:

Is one of you in a position to affect decisions about promotion or salary?

In this situation you need not just to decline to  participate in a discussion about promotion or salary, you need to absent yourself from the room.  Other people may feel that they can't speak freely if you are in the room.  So clearly this is difficult to do if the relationship is a secret.

Can you honestly avoid allegations of favouritism?

Imagine if you have contributed to an important decision about your lover - and it comes to light after the event that you were in a relationship at the time.  Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the decision, there will always be a perception of impropriety.

Are you in a situation where one reports to the other?

This situation can also lead to accusations of favouritism - the best work, always good feedback, favourable treatment re leave, taking holidays together. Allegations of conflict of interest may arise.   Sadly, if the relationship doesn't last, it will be unworkable unless both parties are extraordinarily mature.

If you want to be part of the 8% who meet their permanent partners at work, honesty is the best policy. On that note, be aware that use of company funds to conduct a relationship with a co-worker can lead to summary dismissal.  So beware the conference attendance together, flights and miscellaneous lunches that get put on the company credit card, or exorbitant phone bills including texts and phone calls between you.  If your employer is looking for a reason to dismiss you, this will be the reason, not the relationship itself.

'Secrecy, once accepted, becomes an addiction' - Edward Teller

Unlimited leave? -- check the fine print

You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn to walk by doing, and by falling over

Richard Branson

Richard Branson is an entrpreneur, and a very successful one.  So I am not about to make a song and dance about how ridiculous his latest plan is, to do away with annual leave, as such, and allow staff to take leave as and when they see fit.  Except it is ridiculous, as are the headlines.  But the headlines make for excellent PR.

The Virgin Group employs thousands of people and this scheme is going to apply to about 160 people in the UK and the USA.  These people will be a certain group of people with very clear KPIs, budgets and projects to complete, and probably high achieving type A personalities who struggle to take leave at the best of times. Assuming they are not in constant contact with the office while they are on leave anyway.  They are not the client or customer facing, low paid workers who can't possibly just decide not to turn up to work one day because they feel like having a day off.  A baggage handler or cabin steward working for one of the Virgin airlines for instance will not enjoy unlimited and unplanned leave.

But there are innovative ways employers can offer more leave, and not be quite as bold as Richard Branson.

More and more employers are discovering that flexibilty with employees pays off in terms of lower turnover, increased morale and productivity.  Additional, salary sacrificed leave is one of the ways this can be easily done.  Designing jobs so that peak times are acknowledged as requiring long hours, and in down times offering reduced hours or additional days off is also an innovation that works in some industries.  One off, special leave days such as the first day of school for a child, or the day someone becomes a grandparent (or allowing those people to access carer's leave for that purpose) are also innovative and easy to implement.

Think laterally about how you run your business and how you can implement some changes to the way your leave policies work - for both you and your employees.