Ideally, safeguards will work in this tricky situation.
Q: I’m a male program manager in my 30s. I often have to request information from other departments. Recently, I asked “Stacey,” a female co-worker in her mid-20s, for some data I needed to publish. Stacey said she would send the information in a couple of days. After a week, I reminded her I was waiting for the data. Finally, two weeks later, I asked Stacey’s boss if anyone else on the team could provide the information. I mentioned I’d already asked Stacey.
Hours after I spoke to her boss, Stacey emailed me the data. The next day, she came to my desk and said, “You didn’t have to go behind my back to my boss. How would you like it if I got you in trouble with your boss?” I replied, “How would you do that? I didn’t do anything wrong.” She said, “If I told him you sexually harassed me, that would probably get you into some trouble.” I was stunned.
If I tell my boss or human resources what Stacey said, she could just deny it. How am I supposed to work with her if she’s the type of person to threaten to get me fired by lying about sexual harassment? What are my options, besides looking for another job?
A: My advice to you is the same as it would be to someone experiencing unwanted advances or suggestive comments: Tell your boss what happened, provide any supporting emails and witnesses, and express your concern about what she’s threatened to do.
It’s true, you’ll face some risks: Your account might be disbelieved or dismissed. You might be told that it’s your fault for “provoking” Stacey or that she “didn’t mean it” or was “just kidding.” And, yes, she’ll probably deny it.
But what other options do you have? Quit? Stay but live in dread? Let her believe that such threats are acceptable?
“If the HR department is trained correctly, they should conduct an objective investigation,” says Sharon Sellers, president of a South Carolina HR consulting firm, SLS Consulting. That means asking both parties and any bystanders for their accounts, weighing evidence and assessing credibility, says Allison West, principal at Employment Practices Specialists, a consulting practice in San Francisco. As West puts it, “If [your reader] has a good reputation, why wouldn’t his boss believe him?”
In short, the same investigative measures employers use to protect workers against sexual harassment should protect against false claims. Even if the results are inconclusive, the process should make Stacey think twice about making malicious threats in the future.
Lest anyone think this letter suggests that sexual harassment claims are as likely as not to be fabrications designed to ruin men’s careers (and, hey, Stacey, thanks for perpetuating that notion), I asked West and Sellers for their perspectives:
Statistics are hard to come by, West says, but deliberately false claims seem to be “a pretty small percentage” in her experience.
In the few incidents of confirmed fabrications that Sellers can recall, from decades of investigations, she says those stories fell apart under investigation — which is why employers should “investigate first before they take any corrective actions.”