Sexual Harassment: Lessons from Failure

Since 2007, Christianity Today (CT) has led the charge against sexual misconduct in the Christian workplace. But on March 15th, 2022, CT sadly announced, “we fell short of protecting our employees.”

When reading that story, Christians may be tempted to say, “Thank you, God, that I am not like those sinners.” But more accurately, they should look in the mirror. Are they sure they are without sin? Any organization, no matter how faithful, can mishandle harassment in similar circumstances and find itself in trouble.

In the face of misconduct allegations, transparency is rare and risky. Important employment law principals limit what can be said about people. Organizations also need to be careful about potential defamation claims. In spite of this, CT has embraced a policy of transparency surrounding the allegations. For them, this was the right move. And by doing so, they provided a unique opportunity for us to unpack what went wrong and examine, “What we can learn from their mistakes?”

“No one has ever reported him, he has a spotless record.”

The first thing that went wrong for CT was documentation around the two offenders. Over many years, and for multiple offenses, those receiving complaints at CT failed to reprimand or document the two offenders’ behavior. This created a cycle where each offense appeared to be a first-time offense. As such, there would be no formal reprimand or documentation. Without documentation, the next offense also seemed like a first offense, and the cycle continued. For example, in one incident one man placed his hand under a woman’s bra clasp. When she reported the issue to HR they informed her, “No one has ever reported him . . . he has a spotless record.” But by this time, his record should have been far from spotless.

Failed confidentiality led to retaliation.

The second thing that went wrong was confidentiality for the complainant. Occasionally, whether by intent or accident, both men were allowed to know who their accuser was. In the case of one, he angrily demanded an apology. As described in the report, such a confrontation is retaliatory. While the other simply asked his accuser to, “Just come and talk to me directly next time.”

While the men spoke differently, the effect was the same: lack of reprimand and risk of backlash made women in the workplace reticent to report. Many feared that HR would sympathize with their harasser. Women decided not to report workplace abuses as they dealt with the issue among themselves. In short, they feared retaliation, which is another type of misconduct.

Past behavior provides context for discipline.

Lack of documentation created a major problem. Not only is it extremely difficult to deal with behavior that you know nothing about, but how you deal with an allegation may and often should change based on the offender’s past behavior.

In this case, one offender was known to stare at coworker’s breasts during meetings. The other was reported to have an authoritarian streak. For example, he ignored a “do not disturb” sign, barged in on a nursing mother, and then asserted that the sign “doesn’t apply to me” when confronted on it.

As a policy approach, addressing boundary violations before they escalate into flagrant harassment can prevent the worst of abuses. And knowing that an employee is inclined to disrespect the boundaries of a nursing mother, or that he stares at breasts, can be valuable information if there’s an allegation.

Changing of the guard changed the situation.

On paper, CT had robust anti-harassment policies. But not documenting allegations, failing to preserve confidentiality, and not taking note of repeated “red flag behaviors” blinded CT to ongoing workplace issues. This continued until Jaime Patrick and Timothy Dalrymple came on board as HR Director and CEO respectively.

When one of the offenders hugged a woman from behind, Patrick escalated the issue to Dalrymple, who then confronted the man with a verbal warning. When that same offender touched a woman’s bottom, and shook another by the shoulders, he was issued a formal reprimand. This was the first time in nearly 30 years that any allegation left a record in this offender’s file.

The offender retired two months later, but in 2021 was alleged to have felt up a CT employee at an event. This prompted CT to retain an outside investigation by Guidepost, which in turn uncovered his history of offenses. Guidepost did not find evidence of systemic sexism, but it did find evidence of a flawed institutional response.

Banish secrets.

Mold grows best in darkness. And harassment grows best in secret. Not documenting allegations or reprimanding boundary violations created an “accidental veil” of secrecy surrounding harassment at CT. The victims knew. The victim’s friends knew. But HR was kept in the dark by its own bad choices. Once harassment allegations were documented, and the behavior formally reprimanded, the situation changed nearly immediately. While one offender retired two months after receiving a formal reprimand, even had he stayed, the situation could not have continued as it was.

What happened to these victims can happen in your own church, or in your own workplace. Ask your friends. If they haven’t experienced harassment, they likely know someone who has. In a fallen world, ensuring employees never experience harassment may not be possible. But organizations that swiftly document and respond to harassment allegations not only bring justice to victims, they may drive away harassers altogether.

Create a harassment-free work environment.

Documenting and enforcing an anti-harassment policy can go a long way to prevent harassment. But relying on poor policies may cause more problems than it prevents. For example, many organizations implement “Mathew 18 Policies” that require direct person-to-person confrontation in the case of conflicts. This may be appropriate for disagreements about the office temperature setting. But forcing potential harassment victims to confront their alleged offenders not only discourages honest reporting, it’s prohibited by the EEOC. It’s also a simplistic view of what the Scripture actually teaches about conflict resolution.

Ensuring that policies are robust and compliant will require training. Employees need to know when and how to report. Managers need to know how to respond. And leadership needs to understand when specialists, outside investigators, and legal counsel should be involved.

For many organizations, training their employees is the first step in preventing harassment. And following their policies, reprimanding offenders, and documenting allegations proves that training meant something.

We’ve compiled a list of useful and free resources your organization can use to get started.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations