A generation of compliance training hasn’t fixed the American workplace. Nine women tell their stories.
If you run a company in California, you have to take state-mandated anti-harassment training every two years. This October, Matt MacInnis, founder of a digital distribution business called Inkling, clicked through two hours’ worth of slides about inappropriate touching and sexual comments in an online course produced by an HR services company. As he answered multiple-choice questions to prove he’d paid attention, a thought occurred to him: This is a farce. MacInnis couldn’t see how an online training course would keep “an a--hole from still being an a--hole,” as he puts it. “There is a laudable goal, but the way we address sexual harassment now, the whole system is flawed,” he says. “I mean, is there anti-murder training?”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which by law must investigate all federal harassment claims before they can proceed in court, received 13,000 sexual-harassment complaints last year (16 percent of them from men), outpacing the number it received for racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination. “We by no means think that’s the extent of the harassment,” says Peggy Mastroianni, the organization’s legal counsel. She estimates that as many as 90 percent of people who experience sexually inappropriate behavior at work never take formal action. Many who do are contractually obligated to litigate through private arbitration, which the EEOC can’t track. But decades of surveys show that harassment remains prevalent: In a 1981 Harvard Business Review survey, 60 percent of women said they’d been “eyed up and down” by male co-workers; last year the EEOC reported that somewhere from 50 percent to 75 percent of women have experienced sexual comments or touches that made them feel uneasy at work.
For more than three decades, U.S. companies and institutions have addressed such behavior through corporate policies and awareness programs, although there’s little evidence they’re effective. Compliance training makes up a sizable portion of what market-research company IBISWorld estimates is a $4 billion HR software market. In California, which has the most robust training requirements of any state, companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars on courses every year. About 80 percent of companies offer some form of training, although only three states—Connecticut and Maine, in addition to California—require them to do so. (Thirteen more states order training for at least some government employees.) They use all sorts of courses, produced by dozens of companies, from the cut-and-dried to risible theatrical re-creations.
Skillsoft makes compliance videos covering everything from data privacy to environmental sustainability for about 7,000 companies; it leans heavily on hired actors who demonstrate legal definitions in generic corporate scenes. HR Learning Center advertises one of its courses with a picture of a man and a woman making out on top of a filing cabinet. Inspired eLearning, which MacInnis used at Inkling, starts one of its videos with the words “charges of sexual and other forms of harassment can land your company in court,” followed by a picture of a frightened gray-haired man on what appears to be a witness stand. Emtrain, which creates online courses and runs in-person events for companies such as Chevron, Netflix, and Nordstrom, urges employees to mentally color-code their comments—green is respectful, red is offensive—and to call out their co-workers with gentle warnings such as “that’s a little orange.”
Early versions of these programs first cropped up in the 1980s, but their use didn’t pick up until two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1998 clarified when companies can be held liable for harassment. In the cases, which considered what’s known as “hostile work environment” harassment (frequent sexualized comments or touches), as opposed to the “quid pro quo” variety (the classic “sleep with me or you’re fired”), the court decided that a company will be held liable when a boss harasses a subordinate unless it can prove that it takes steps to prevent and address such behavior.
Catchall policies that disavowed harassment quickly became the norm. Pick any major institution today, and you’ll find one: “We do not tolerate harassment or inappropriate conduct,” JPMorgan Chase’s official code of conduct reads. Apple is committed to “a workplace free of harassment.” In addition to the standard prohibitory language, Google urges its employees to “be excellent to each other.” Goldman Sachs says it does “not tolerate any form of discrimination prohibited by law.” Despite the recent outpouring of harassment complaints regarding former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, the policy at the network’s parent company, 21st Century Fox, says that “unwelcome sexual advances [or] … verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” aren’t allowed, and people should feel free to report any harassment they see or experience.
These policies often go hand in hand with the training courses, which typically cover the legal definition of harassment and what kind of behavior can get people into trouble. Maine and Connecticut passed their laws requiring training in 1992, in direct response to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. California followed suit in 2004 after 16 women accused then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of harassment. (“With your background, you probably ought to sign it,” Sarah Reyes, the state assemblywoman who introduced the bill, said about Schwarzenegger at the time.) But according to employment attorneys, HR managers, and the companies that design the courses, their goal isn’t to stop harassment—it’s to guard against lawsuits.
“You’re building a defense in the event of an incident, passing liability from the organization to the individual,” says Eugene Van Biert, vice president for global compliance solutions at Skillsoft. His company offers different levels of training; he says most of its clients pick the basic online course that employees click through to learn the legal do’s and don’ts. “They want to generate a record so they can say they’ve done it, then they want to move on,” he says. Skillsoft’s most comprehensive program includes a way for people to report harassment they’ve experienced in the past, but Van Biert says fewer than 20 percent of his clients choose the service.
Despite its popularity, there’s little research on this kind of training. Last year the EEOC established a task force to investigate workplace harassment and concluded that “much of the training done over the last 30 years has not worked as a prevention tool.” The commission could find only three studies, the most recent of which is 15 years old, that evaluated training programs over time at companies. “These training companies are making buttloads of money off these courses, but what little information we have on them raises serious questions about their efficacy,” says Vicki Magley, an organizational psychology professor at the University of Connecticut who co-authored two of the studies. There’s other academic research, Magley says, but it usually deals with fictional programs designed by researchers rather than actual courses that companies might use. In her experience, compliance courses help employees understand the definition of sexual harassment, but don’t change people’s behavior. “I have absolutely no faith that any kind of an online course is going to do anything to stop harassment,” she says.
The companies that design the courses—and the HR departments that implement them—also have trouble measuring their impact. “I kind of don’t have any answers,” says Phyllis Hartman, an HR consultant who’s been working on anti-harassment training for 25 years. “You just sort of do it and hope it’ll be better.” Emtrain’s chief executive officer, Janine Yancey, says her company plans to publish a report demonstrating how its services decrease harassment complaints, but it hasn’t released any results yet. As a researcher, Magley once teamed up with a company to evaluate its anti-harassment training but had to discontinue her study after the company got nervous about legal liability should she find it didn’t work. “The attorneys from this company came in and said, ‘We are not finding out that information.’ They pulled out of the study because they didn’t want to know,” she says. “If we could ask companies, ‘Have you had fewer HR complaints after taking our training?’ ” says Felix Odigie, Inspired eLearning’s CEO, “and gather that kind of intel, it would be gold. But I don’t know what company would provide that information. I asked the head of my own HR department if they’d be comfortable with that, and she looked at me like I had two heads.”
Focusing on the legal limits of harassment can make these courses culturally tone-deaf. Last year an internal investigation by the University of California at Berkeley found that a renowned astronomy professor, Geoff Marcy, had for more than a decade repeatedly groped female students who worked in his lab. (Marcy referred Bloomberg Businessweek to his lawyer, who did not respond.) And yet the school’s online anti-harassment training course included a hypothetical scenario that was almost the opposite of what the university was dealing with. The course described a fictional female student who “is attracted to her dissertation advisor, Dr. Randy Risktaker, and for months has repeatedly asked him out on dates.” Instead of discouraging a relationship, Berkeley’s training course noted that legally, Randy Risktaker could date the student as long as he first stopped being her adviser. “I have to tell you, that is not a problem most of us encounter as professors,” says Michael Eisen, a biology professor at Berkeley who took the course.
Sindy Warren, an employment attorney whose firm, Warren & Associates, investigates workplace harassment, says the best courses go beyond the law. “If you draw lines around behavior that’s just illegal, you’re missing the broader point. Lots of things are not illegal, but they’re not respectful or appropriate,” she says. But she’s quick to point out that compliance training is better than no training at all. The EEOC’s task force doesn’t want to do away with it either; it recommends that companies supplement training with initiatives that emphasize broader topics such as civility and respect.
MacInnis says he tries to do that at Inkling. Because his company has only 150 employees, he often meets one-on-one with people and asks about their concerns. Not long ago, for instance, he had lunch with a recent college graduate, and they wound up talking about the gender wage gap most of the time because it was on her mind. “The idea is that more nuanced engagement will create the kind of environment where, if it’s necessary, people can bring it up,” he says.
Even so, in the seven years since he founded his company, MacInnis has dealt with a few internal harassment cases. “I have friends who are CEOs who’ve dealt with way more gnarly stuff than I have,” he says. “I’d like to say I’m lucky, but usually there’s some sort of observable behavior that you can see before it rises to the level of something really serious.”
In October, Donald Trump’s senior campaign adviser, A.J. Delgado, told MSNBC that the women accusing the now president-elect of past assault and harassment couldn’t possibly be telling the truth because “these allegations are decades old. If somebody actually did that … any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something.” The same why-didn’t-you-say-something-earlier question has been asked during almost every headline-making sexual-harassment scandal. Earlier this year it was lobbed at former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson when she complained about her then-boss, Roger Ailes. Paula Jones got it in 1994 about Bill Clinton.
Veiled character attacks aside, many women do, quite reasonably, assume they would come forward immediately if they were in that situation, says Louise Fitzgerald, professor emerita of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who specializes in the psychological effects of harassment. “But that’s not what happens,” she says.
In a landmark study published in 2001 in the Journal of Social Issues, psychologists Julie Woodzicka and Marianne LaFrance interviewed 197 women about what they would do if they were confronted with inappropriate or aggressive sexual provocation in a professional setting. The women said they would get angry and refuse to put up with it. But when Woodzicka and LaFrance subjected 50 of the women to inappropriate comments in what they believed were real job interviews—the interviewer asked if they wore bras to work, if they felt they were sexually desirable—every woman, without exception, sat through the interview and answered the questions. None reported the interviewer’s behavior. Later, they said they hadn’t been angry. What they’d felt was fear.
“We really didn’t think the difference between their assumptions and their behavior would be so stark,” says LaFrance, a professor at Yale. “My first response as a scientist was, ‘Wow, this data is so great!’ My second thought was, ‘Oh God, this is awful for women.’ ”
When the women were being harassed, their most common reaction was to smile. “It was this fake placeholder smile that they plastered on their face,” says Woodzicka, a professor at Washington and Lee University, “and then just left there for the duration of the job interview.”
“It’s like they were literally grinning and bearing it,” LaFrance says. In a follow-up study published in 2004, the psychologists showed footage of the women’s interviews to men and women and found that men were more likely to misread the smiles as genuine.
Woodzicka and LaFrance studied only in-the-moment reactions, however. After the incidents, Fitzgerald explains, rational considerations about whether and how to respond come into play. A woman who’s been harassed might consider who did it and how important that person is to the company. Will she be believed? Can she afford to lose her job or burn a professional bridge?
Quitting is often not an option for people living paycheck to paycheck. But Fitzgerald says highly paid women with prestigious careers also put up with harassment, because “the higher you go up the employment ladder, the more difficult it is to find a job to replace the one you’re leaving.”
During Anita Hill’s testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about the sexualized atmosphere she experienced while working for Clarence Thomas in the 1980s, she was criticized for having kept in touch with him and for following him across two jobs (one, ironically, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). “You might need to call on this person for references,” says Hill, now a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. “Unless you’re willing to explain to future employers why you’re not speaking to this person, there is an understanding that if this is someone you worked for, someone who holds a key to your future in his hands, you’re going to have to maintain some kind of relationship.
“I like to believe that now we understand these kinds of situations better,” she adds. “But people should remember that even if it takes them years, or they don’t come forward at all, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Marie Billiel, 27
It started pretty quickly, within the first two weeks that I was working at the diner. One of the cooks grabbed my wrist and tried to pull me into the walk-in freezer where there aren’t any cameras, because he wanted to kiss me. I said no. I pulled away, went back out. I was 18 and didn’t know how to deal with it.
We were whistled at all the time. Some girls were oinked at. They would watch pornography on their cell phones and then try to show it to us. I was kissed without my consent. There were other women there who got straight-up groped. If I resisted their advances, they would retaliate by “forgetting” to make my food or burning my orders or making other people’s orders first. My tip goes down because of that.
There was one point where I was in a walk-in freezer with a cook who was consistently trying to get me to go out with him. One of the other cooks shut the door on us and turned the lights out as this man was approaching me and asking if he could bite me. [It] was less than five minutes, but at the time it feels like an eternity.
I told one of my managers. She passed it along to the owner, and nothing was done. I heard the reason was because they’d heard that I had already been sexual with him, which is not the word they used. That was untrue, but they decided they weren’t going to intervene based on something they’d heard through the grapevine.
[After Billiel left the diner and, in 2014, blogged about her experiences, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Massachusetts attorney general’s office filed separate complaints. The diner settled without admitting to any wrongdoing. Billiel and at least nine other women will share a settlement of between $112,000 and $200,000.]
Receiving a settlement doesn’t necessarily feel good. The diner closed. I still had friends who worked there, and I’m not any less traumatized; I’m not any less assaulted.
I work for a political group. We do a lot of networking events. When you get people out of an office setting, they change. This one time I was at an event, standing in a room full of 300 people, and an elected official came up behind me, grabbed me, and then put his hand between my legs. A colleague saw it happen. He pulled me into the hallway and said, “If you don’t tell your boss, I will.” So I did. Having someone else see it validated my story. The man couldn’t claim I was flirting with him or it didn’t happen.
I know the elected official was talked to. I would’ve liked to see him banned from our meetings, but he wasn’t. One time he caught me after a meeting and said, “I was out of line, I was drinking, and I know that’s no excuse, but I’m sorry.” That was three years ago. I still see him, but it’s better now.
I actually wrote the sexual-harassment policy for our organization’s meetings after that. We didn’t have a formal one. I mean, it’s 2016 for God’s sake.
*For the women who asked to remain anonymous, we have verified their names, place of employment at the time of the incident, and the names of the alleged harassers.
Alexandra Marchuk, 30
I worked at Faruqi & Faruqi my second summer of law school. They offered me a job when I graduated in 2011. It’s a small civil litigation firm in New York. The two founders are brother and sister, but the partners are mostly men. There were some female attorneys and of course women paralegals and receptionists. Midway through that [first] summer, Juan Monteverde was hired. He specializes in intervening in mergers on behalf of shareholders, saying the disclosures you’re making are insufficient. He was really good at his job, sort of the rainmaker.
Juan had said some weird things to me when I worked there over the summer. Once we’d been out at dinner, and he joked in front of other people that I should give him a blow job for picking up the check. I didn’t know until right before I started that I’d be working directly for him. I was hesitant, but I also had $250,000 in student loan debt and was really happy to have a job.
On my third day at work, we’d just come back from a court hearing and were having a drink at a bar when Juan started kissing me. He asked me to go have sex with him. I was like, “What? No.” He started making comments all the time. He’d touch me in the elevator when I couldn’t get away. He kept inviting me out on his boat. He’d comment about my body in front of other people at the firm, asking me to go to hearings with him so I could be “eye candy” for the judge.
A few weeks into this, one of the female partners took me out to dinner, and I told her what was going on. I got the sense later that she talked to people about him, but nothing was done. So I just ... I don’t know. It went on and on. We did a case involving a company called BJ’s Wholesale, and he’d joke in front of another attorney about how much he liked getting BJs. Sometimes it wasn’t even sexual. He’d just do things like make me work all weekend on something that wasn’t necessary; or he’d threaten to fire me knowing I had all this student debt; or he said he’d chip in on my rent if I let him sleep over at my apartment.
I dreaded going into the office. I had to police everything I said and did and what I wore. I remember one time I was visiting home, and my mom took me shopping at Brooks Brothers. There was a pencil skirt she wanted me to buy, but I said, “No, Juan would comment on it.” I paid attention to when other people left for the day so I wasn’t alone. It took an incredible amount of energy to make sure I wasn’t putting myself in a dangerous position. And I still had to do the actual work.
I had this plan to wait until I got some experience and then jump ship. I was trying to strike this balance—don’t complain so you don’t get fired. In December , I’d been there three months, and we were at the firm’s holiday party. I started talking to Juan about yearend bonuses, and he said he wouldn’t recommend me for one. We’d been drinking, and he said we should go back to the office, and I agreed. That’s when he—we ...
[In a lawsuit Marchuk later filed against Monteverde and the firm, she said that back in the empty office, he “quickly, forcefully, and painfully had sex with her.” In his own court filing, Monteverde disputed her account.]
I actually went to work for two days after that, but the second night I was like, “I can’t do this.” I called my mom, and she drove into the city and picked me up.
I filed a lawsuit. I had gotten a full-time job in Omaha before I filed, and I’m still with that company. They let me deal with it in the best kind of way. So on that front, I was OK. But I didn’t think it would be covered so closely by law blogs or followed by the law community. There are details in there that, when you Google me—I mean, bloodstains on the carpet. One of my close friends thought to e-mail every single person in her firm about it. It was entertainment for a lot of people.
The firm denied it. [Monteverde said the relationship was consensual.] They countersued me for $15 million, claiming I was “obsessed” with him. The lies they told don’t even make sense. They said I hadn’t been eligible for a bonus. Well, I kept my offer letter, and it says I’m eligible for a bonus. They claimed I’d e-mailed the lawsuit to Juan and his wife and the firm’s clients. But it turned out that the IP address where the e-mail came from was within Faruqi, after I’d already quit. They ended up dropping the countersuit.
I was deposed for a full day. All of the named defendants got to sit in the room and look at me as I did it. They had a psychologist evaluate me. It was a three-hour session in the library of an attorney’s law firm, and he asked a lot of questions about my hobbies. It seemed to bother everyone that I had gone hiking on a vacation once during all of this. They asked a lot of questions about how I paid for the vacation. They decided not to use the psychologist in the trial, so I don’t know what the point of that was.
The trial went on for weeks and was insanely stressful. I read discovery from some of my friends, and what they said about me in e-mails and Gchats behind my back. By the time the jury had their verdict, so much had been argued that I didn’t know what to expect. [Marchuk lost under federal and New York state harassment law, but won under New York City’s human-rights law and was awarded $140,000. In a postdecision interview with the Above the Law blog, a juror explained that the jury didn’t believe Monteverde’s sexual advances were entirely unwelcome, that Marchuk’s private e-mails contained contradictory messages about how she felt about the law firm, and that the firm had dutifully recorded what Marchuk told the female partner about Monteverde’s actions.]
The decision was disappointing but well within the range of anything that could have happened. You just don’t know. It’s just a bunch of strangers who get to judge whether or not you deserved it.
In a statement, Faruqi & Faruqi founding partner Lubna Faruqi says the law firm “takes the safety and well-being of our team members very seriously. We have policies and procedures regarding employment issues, including but not limited to, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. We considered Ms. Marchuk’s complaint to be without merit and vigorously defended ourselves in New York federal court.” Monteverde didn’t respond to a request for comment.
I started at DreamWorks around the winter holidays, so there were a lot of parties. That’s where I met him. He’d stop by my office, send me e-mails asking if I wanted to have lunch. One night he invited me to sushi for dinner. He said it would be a big group of co-workers. When I got to the restaurant, though, there was nobody else there. I ate dinner to be polite, but then I went home, because it was weird.
He started e-mailing me multiple messages a day. He sent me flowers. He’d say things like, “A friend of mine is a pilot and could fly us to Catalina Island for the weekend,” or “Do you want to go on a hot air balloon ride in the desert?” It was never, “Hey, let’s get coffee.” I turned him down, but he would just keep asking. And asking. And asking.
I stopped being polite and started flat out telling him no. That made him escalate. I eventually told my supervisor and was like, “Am I overreacting? Is this guy crossing the line?” I wasn’t sure. My supervisor said, “Absolutely he is. He should not be sending you flowers and asking you out when you tell him not to.” He said he’d talk to him. That was it. Everything stopped.
I learned later from my supervisor that they’d had other issues with him. Two other women complained about him after I did. I know they take this stuff very seriously there, and I’ve always felt very safe. But he still works at the studio. He’s had promotions.
DreamWorks declined to comment.
The first firm I worked for after law school, I was a junior associate. The head of paralegal was a guy who was about 20 years older than me. Because I’m an attorney, I was above him. He took great issue with this. He’d say things to me like, “Why are you always such a b----?” “Why are you a hard ass?” It was offensive and all, but it was just talk. I just thought he had something in his craw about a woman of color being his superior.
One day he came into my office, closed the door, and grabbed me. It was so sudden I was like, “What is going on?” He got me in this bear hug. He’s a much bigger guy than me, and I couldn’t move. He started shoving his hands up my shirt. I told him to stop it right now, or I’ll scream. The walls were thin, and I knew all I had to do was make noise, and someone could come in. He stopped.
I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. The owner of the firm wasn’t very good at dealing with conflict. If I had reported it, I’m pretty sure I would have gotten fired. They’d come up with an excuse. This was in 2010 or so, and legal jobs were really scarce. Instead, I just made sure other people were always around. Pretty soon after that, we moved to another office, and I shared office space with someone, so I was rarely alone. Even so, I still felt on edge. It’s a hard feeling to describe, because once it’s there, it’s always present. It was a harsh transition into the real world. It goes against everything I believe, but honestly the best way to deal with that is to just blow it off.
Magdalena Zylinska, 45
Elmwood Park, Ill.
In one of the houses I used to clean, the man was always taking his clothes off. He expected us to clean while he was working naked. Sometimes he would ask if you wanted to touch him. I didn’t know whether to run or stay and work or what. I had a mortgage. I had a kid. I needed the money. At the time I was undocumented. So I stayed, but I made sure that when I cleaned his house, there was always someone with me. I’d tell them, “If I scream, you just run and call the police.” When I left [his house], I tried to think about something else, not about the problems. But the first couple of years, it was really, really bad. You’d be working, and he’s nowhere around, and you go to the basement to do laundry, and he’s there on the treadmill, naked.
After three years or so, I just told him, you either look for somebody else or I’m going to call the police. He stopped. I guess he kind of respected me for saying something. I still clean for him, and sometimes he asks, “Can I get naked?” I’m like, “No.”
To protect Zylinska, who still works for the client, we didn’t contact the homeowner for verification.
I had recently switched teams at Google and had received a new manager as a result. I was in my early 20s and was the most junior member on our team. I was also the only woman.
When I was still new to the role, we had a week of team-bonding events planned. This was the first time I’d spent extended time with my manager. He made a number of highly inappropriate comments to me in professional and after-work events: comparing women from different Asian countries, telling me that every guy goes through an Asian fetish, asking me to sit on his lap (I didn’t), telling me about his sex life during a one-on-one meeting, and asking me to touch the flesh of his palm as a way of describing why he had developed a strong sex drive at an early age. I responded with nervous laughter and by changing the topic. In retrospect, I still feel shame and regret for not standing up for myself in the moment. Did my nervous laughter egg him on or give him implicit consent to keep going? Why didn’t I tell him to his face, immediately, that this was misogynist, racist, and unprofessional? He was my direct superior.
At work, I couldn’t focus. I lost my motivation. I was enraged at him for making these comments and angry at myself for not being stronger. I struggled with whether or not I should report my manager to HR, or if I should keep my head down and let it go. I was scared that I was blowing things out of proportion. He was well-respected on the team, and I was concerned about what might happen to our team if he was disciplined or even fired. What would happen if his wife found out, and I ruined their marriage? I couldn’t make sense of why I continued to feel such empathy amidst my anger. It took me two to three weeks, but ultimately I decided to report his behavior to HR.
HR set up an interview with me so I could recount what happened. They asked for the names of people who might have witnessed the events, as well as specific times and locations. I cried. It was humiliation all over again. From there, they worked on corroborating my story with the witnesses I provided and also talked to my manager to get his side of the story. Afterward, they provided me with a summary of their findings, a vague statement that disciplinary action was taken and that it should never happen again, and assurances that Google had a no-retaliation policy in effect, so I should be protected in my own career. They also checked in to see how I was feeling after everything.
I don’t know the specifics of how Google reprimanded him, but I know that he was given additional sexual-harassment training. He apologized to me for his actions and promised not to do them again. He remained my manager for another year but was very careful to only act professionally. He’s still at Google today.
On the whole, I felt like Google and the HR department were on my side. They took my concerns seriously. But it took a long time to rebuild my self-confidence. Later when I was promoted, I wondered if I deserved the promotion or if it was given to me out of guilt.
Google declined to comment. We reached out to the manager for comment but didn’t receive a response.
For two years starting in 2002, I worked a summer job at a horse farm. I was doing things like setting up jumps [and] putting holes in the ground for fence posts. I worked with farm laborers who were all illegal. They were an all-male crew. Hispanic. The guy who hired me, who paid me—in cash, by the way—was this older, 50-year-old guy named H. He is also sort of related to me: H. is married to my dad’s first wife.
One of the first incidents I remember was when we were washing off fencing for the steeplechase course. I was wearing Carhartt pants and a white T-shirt. H. came around to check on what we were doing. He made this comment: “I should require you to wear white shirts and always be wet while you’re working.”
Every time I ran into him after that, there’d be a little comment about the size of my breasts or how he needed to hug me, because it’d make his day better. As he’d hug me, he’d say, “I love feeling you press up against me.” It’s so gross to talk about it even now.
Sometimes he said this stuff in front of other people, but most of the time it was the illegal workers—who were great, by the way, always respectful. I think if they hadn’t been illegal, they probably would’ve said something. But around certain people he’d act normal. I used to like to build fences with this one man in his 50s, because when I was with him, H. wouldn’t say anything when he came by. I don’t know if it was because he was older, or English-speaking, or what. My primary way of dealing with the situation was to avoid him. He’s out of shape and smokes a lot, and I knew if I was building a fence in a field somewhere, I was safer because he wouldn’t bother to go out there.
I worked there the next summer, too. I know you’re going to ask why, but I really loved that job. I love working outside. It’s hard as a woman to get someone to hire you to do manual labor. I applied at a few other stables, but they didn’t look twice at me. Also, part of me was like, maybe I’m being too sensitive. Now it’s so clear to me that’s not at all the case, but at the time I thought, well, maybe the problem was me.
I didn’t even think about reporting him. It just wasn’t an option. He’s probably not even going to remember a lot of the instances that caused me so much stress, because to him it was another day at work.
Cynthia Brzak, 64
I started working at the United Nations in 1979. In December 2003, I was in a meeting with six men, including Ruud Lubbers, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, who used to be prime minister of the Netherlands. When I got up to leave, two men on my side of the table stepped back to let me pass in front of them, but Mr. Lubbers grabbed me from behind, pulled me against him, and shoved his groin into me. I was in shock. When I got out of the room and by the elevators, the director of human resources said, “Oh, Cynthia, I saw what the high commissioner tried to do!”
At a follow-up meeting to what we’d been talking about, I was waiting for the elevators to go up to the office, and the director of human resources comes up to me laughing and says, “Cynthia, what are you going to do if Mr. Lubbers tries it again?” He makes like to grab me again, and I’m ducking out of his way. I said, “Why didn’t you protect me ... or at least say something? You’re the director of human resources!” As the elevator doors closed, he replied, “So?”
For two whole months I didn’t do anything. I never told my best friends, my family, nobody. You have to realize, I’d been there 24 years. We have code of conduct training, we played the game, mouthing the politically correct stuff. But I knew what the culture was really like.
Six-thousand staff members chose me to speak with management about personnel matters. [Brzak was staff council representative.] If I didn’t say “Enough!” who would? So a few months later, I reported it. An internal investigation verified everything and recommended Mr. Lubbers be reprimanded. But Kofi Annan, who was secretary-general at the time, decided not to do anything. I wasn’t allowed to see the report; it was mailed to me anonymously six months later. In 2006, I sued. But UN employees have diplomatic immunity. I took my case to U.S. District Court in New York, which upheld the immunity. I appealed. In 2010 we petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if the diplomatic immunity was even constitutional. They declined to hear the case. So that was it.
When I sued, it made the news, and all of a sudden then Lubbers gets asked to leave.
I worked at the UN until November 2010, when I accepted an agreed-upon separation package. I’ve had a hard time finding a new job. Had I known back in 2004 that my weird last name would be so Google-able that when even my children apply for jobs, they’d be asked, “What happened to your mother?” I don’t know if I would have done it.
Contacted through his personal website, Lubbers didn’t respond to requests for comment.
—With Josh Eidelson