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One Thomas Harassment Story Begats Another

As published in the Tampa Tribune October 11, 2007

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has a new book out and is talking trash about Anita Hill. Knicks coach Isiah Thomas is in the hot seat for hurling names and unwanted attentions at a top Knicks female executive.

And yet the media keeps robo-repeating, “Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony forever changed what’s acceptable behavior in the workplace.”


Since 1991, I’ve had a boss who regularly left pictures of naked women buried in the papers of my in-box. Another who “playfully” cornered me in the copy room, blocking my attempts to escape for several long, weird moments. It was scary and disturbing but I continued working for him for more than a year. When I finally quit and reminded him of that incident, he laughed it off, saying “Come on, that was just a joke!”

One Christmas, a company boss called me into his office where he and another male employee presented me with a bonus check for several thousand dollars for my role in helping the company achieve a certain revenue goal.

I’d barely begun to say “I really appreciate this …” when my boss smiled, leaned back in his executive chair, clasped his hands behind his head and said “Okay, now show us your breasts.”

Talk about a sucker punch.

I thought about how much I needed the money, needed my job. I wanted to tear the check up and fling it in their faces, but I didn’t. I knew it wasn’t about sex. It was about power and putting me in my place. I think they resented the bonus but since I had earned it, and it was a well-known company policy, they had to give it to me. That didn’t stop them from trying to exact their pound of flesh, however.

These were successful, well-regarded businessmen. If you called any of them into a hearing today and asked, “Did you do this?” I imagine they’d vehemently deny it all, and be outraged by the mere suggestion of impropriety. “That never happened,” they’d say, and in their minds, it probably didn’t.

To them, it was all just joking, goofing around. Maybe a little bit of trying to get under a woman’s skin, but nothing serious.

For a few women at the exalted end of the employment spectrum, women like Anita Hill or the Knicks exec, the rewards – the prestigious position or the powerhouse paycheck – may be worth toughing it out in workplaces that are occasionally demeaning.

For the rest of us in the trenches, it’s about simple survival. You ignore the boys behaving badly because bottom line, you’ve got to pay the bills.

Now, sixteen years after the first Thomas fracas, we’ve got another Thomas brouhaha with a woman again crying foul and a man again crying “ho.”

Who’s lying? Who’s out for revenge and who’s simply standing up for themselves? It’s impossible to know the truth – if you weren’t there, you’ll never know precisely what happened.

But I’ve got serious doubts about those workplace changes the media keeps crowing about. Maybe some folks’ eyes were opened, but for men harboring serious Thomas-like tendencies, Hill’s testimony and the ensuing years of sexual harassment training didn’t change a damn thing.

A few high-profile cases and multi-million dollar lawsuits do not a changed man make.

Posted on October 1st, 2007Comments RSS Feed

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