When the Accuser Becomes the Accused

When Sharon Bialek accused presidential contender Herman Cain of sexually touching and harassing her, Cain responded by denying the charges and assailing her credibility, citing Ms. Bialek's history of financial troubles and frequent job changes. The accusations against him are grave and threaten not only his presidential ambitions, but his reputation and any future career. In that regard, he is right to question the credibility of his accuser, as he was right to ask who is funding her legal team and whether or not his accuser made any deals that would reward her financially for her story.

Nonetheless, the scrutiny Ms. Bialek now faces, which will include not only her financial and professional history, but her social life, her personal and sexual relationships, her lifestyle and any other source of potentially incriminating information, demonstrates how very risky it is for anyone to report violations of law or ethics against anyone in a position of authority or influence. As laws intended to protect the rights of workers from harassing and discriminatory practices increasingly vilify the accused, those making the reports face equal vilification if not in public, then in the private sphere of the workplace and well into professional networks. Indeed, Ms. Bialek's professional reputation may now be seriously damaged, regardless of her credibility and veracity.

Yet in the workplace, workers are routinely assured that they can safely report sexual harassment, discriminatory treatment and similar abusive behaviors (including "bullying") and they will be protected by management and by law from retaliation. But it is because the stakes are so high, that anyone making such a report is very likely to face gossip, shunning, and escalating professional smears once they do (a process termed "mobbing" as more people join in the attacks). Indeed, one of Mr. Cain's accusers noted that once she did report the conduct, her managers treated her coldly and she was ultimately forced to leave her job. Likewise, should any worker be compelled to file a lawsuit to protect their rights, they may find other employers will not consider hiring them; the discovery process may include scrutiny of everything from their personal computers to their medical records; and they may endure unrelenting professional and personal smears for years.

The power of an accusation to destroy a person's reputation, regardless of its accuracy, makes it an effective weapon against one's rivals. This very power makes assessing the veracity of the accuser(s), and presuming the innocence of the accused, imperative. But all too often, such assessments are not made based upon facts, but upon emotion, leading to prejudicial reporting, hasty conclusions, specious investigations, and public displays of hostility masking as virtue, depending on the power and popularity of the accused and the accuser, and the nature of the accusation. And the more an accusation evokes social fears and repulsion, the greater the damage to the accused, no matter how false and malicious the accusation may have been. Thus, both accuser and accused suffer gravely from such claims, but rarely will facts and reason prevail in public perception of the players.

Successful professionals are well aware of the backlash workers face if they report their concerns to management, and this awareness contributes to the ostracism and professional damage that those who make such reports face when their colleagues react to them adversely for not handling the matter in private. With responses that range from, "You knew this would happen if you pursued it," to "You have nobody to blame for yourself for making such a stink," the professional and social stigma to anyone raising concerns is huge.

Yet ironically, as we have enacted laws to protect workers from such conduct, we have simultaneously closed off avenues for more constructive, and discreet, resolutions that would protect both the accuser and the accused. Policies intended to safeguard a company from litigation by compelling managers to report any concerns of discriminatory or harassing behaviors have the unfortunate consequence of either silencing the workforce into tolerating the bad behavior quietly, or escalating an otherwise resolvable conflict or misunderstanding into a full-blown legal battle that is far more destructive than constructive to all parties.

In the case of the accusations against Mr. Cain, the events took place, and were seemingly resolved, years ago, but his decision to seek the office of the president of the United States made them relevant once again. For a presidential candidate to act surprised that they would be brought up now is absurd, yet to his accusers, the fact that their claims face renewed scrutiny shows how lasting the damage to those making reports can be. Yet Mr. Cain is well within his rights, and wise, to question the motivations, credibility and veracity of his accusers. Nonetheless, there is a fine line between credibility assessment and character assassination.

The character assassination of Ms. Bialek which Mr. Cain has commenced demonstrates that anyone who speaks out against someone who has abused their authority or trust, will face similar attacks that go beyond mere credibility assessment. These attacks will also be aimed at anyone who pursues their legal rights and files reports of workplace misconduct, discrimination or harassment. Such attacks may not play out in the spotlight of the media, but through the internal investigations in the workplace, the discovery process of the judicial system, or the unseen gossip of professional networks, but they will play out against those who speak out.

Despite the momentous public testimony of Anita Hill that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, we have made little progress in our responses to charges of professional or sexual misconduct in the last two decades. It is unlikely that anyone testifying of unsavory behavior in a public forum as Ms. Hill was compelled to do in 1991, would be treated any differently than was Anita Hill. With these thoughts in mind, I wonder, are workers who exercise their legal rights in the workplace anymore secure from retaliation, character assassination and professional damage now than twenty years ago? And are the accused any more assured of fair and compassionate responses?