Employers should view the findings from the investigation of Cuomo as a wake-up call to action

August 10, 2021

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been found to have engaged in sexual harassment of at least 11 women following an independent investigation.

The far-reaching report identified behaviors by the governor that are entirely inappropriate for any workplace. The investigators concluded that Cuomo created a hostile working environment for the women who were interviewed.

Cuomo publicly has denied engaging in the misconduct and has blamed the victims, the investigators, politics, and his cultural and generational confusion.

This report should be a wake-up call to every employer. No one can be above your policies or the law.

The governor’s conduct and lack of remorse or accountability highlights an ongoing problem in today’s workplaces: abuse of power, confusion around what constitutes harassment, failure of a company’s leadership to address known behaviors, and an inability to self-reflect on how one’s own behaviors are perceived.

When conducting civility and anti-harassment training for managers and employees, organizations must make it clear that certain behaviors are off-limits, including touching, any discussion of sex, being too familiar about another person’s personal life, creepy behaviors and the like.

The behaviors need to be off-limits even if no one is complaining or the person is seemingly consenting.

The reality is that many people simply smile or participate when offensive conduct happens in the workplace. They are not consenting; they are simply going along to get along.

The victim is not ever required to tell a perpetrator to stop or that the behavior is unwelcome before the conduct can be considered harassment. It is the expectation of the perpetrator not to engage in the behavior in the first place.

Organizations must also provide for a process to receive complaints and conduct objective investigations into them, which in this case was absent. Instead, those who surrounded Cuomo protected him and failed to stop the misconduct.

When one woman complained to the governor’s chief of staff, she was moved to another location. No investigation was conducted.

Instead, the office implemented a practice whereby women staff members would not be left alone with the governor. This is an unacceptable response.

The report also found the governor’s office tried to publicly discredit a victim, including by disseminating to the media confidential internal documents that painted her in a negative light and circulating a proposed op-ed or letter disparaging her.

This type of retaliation against victims who complain of harassment cannot be tolerated. Victims of harassment must be guaranteed that they will not be retaliated against for raising concerns of harassment or discrimination.

One woman reported to the investigators, “for whatever reason, in his office the rules were different. It was just, you should view it as a compliment if the governor finds you aesthetically pleasing enough, if he finds you interesting enough to ask questions like that. And so even though it was strange and uncomfortable and technically not permissible in a typical workplace environment, I was in this mindset that it was the twilight zone and … the typical rules did not apply.”

Powerful people in organizations and elected officials too often believe they are above the rules. Some mandate training for everyone but themselves.

In a recent implicit bias training that I conducted, the chairman of a federal agency kicked off the meeting by expressing the importance of the topic while attending the entire training. This sent a strong message to the participants that their leadership fully supported the importance of a respectful and inclusive workplace.

Company leaders should consistently promote and model the expectations, and hold themselves as accountable as they hold everyone else.