Anita Hill Again?

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, Ginni Thomas, called Anita Hill over a recent weekend to ask her to apologize for her sexual harassment claim against her husband twenty years ago.

Talk about holding a grudge.

“Good morning Anita Hill, it’s Ginni Thomas,” the message said. “I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and the years and ask you to consider something. I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”

Ms. Thomas went on. “So give it some thought. And certainly pray about this and hope that one day you will help us understand why you did what you did. O.K., have a good day.”

As I remember the familiar images from the hearings play out over the newscasts and thought of some recent sexual harassment investigations that I’ve done, I was shocked at how little we’ve learned about this topic in twenty years.

If anyone would have told me that we would still be facing this issue when I wrote my first book about harassment in 1992, Sexual Harassment a Reference Handbook (ABC-CLIO) I would have not believed them.

Yet I just completed a really messy investigation with executives making the same kind of unwelcome and sexual comments to employees, including an allegation that a male executive said in the office that he “beat off” while thinking about a female employee.

As we watched the Thomas/Hill saga unfold, however, one thing we did not receive was good modeling about how to conduct investigations.

For example, the employer’s obligation is to be neutral. The Bush administration clearly was not.

Investigations should also be kept as confidential as possible. Broadcasting on national TV? Not so much.

The investigator should ask open ended, non leading questions. Did we see that? No. As usual in congressional hearings, there were a lot of speeches, not questions.

An investigator should interview all relevant witnesses. The democrats had a second witness, Angela Wright, ready to testify that she experienced the same kind of conduct from Thomas when she worked for him. For a variety of political reasons, she did not end up testifying.

The standard should be a preponderance of the evidence, not a criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.

In their book, Strange Justice, Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson, then with the Wall Street Journal, wrote that the evidence suggested that Hill was telling the truth and that much evidence was ignored. The senators seemed stuck on the idea that they had to prove beyond a doubt who was telling the truth. In reality, an investigator merely has to conduct a full and fair investigation and come to a reasonable conclusion. Even if it’s the wrong conclusion, the investigation itself will be defensible.

Live and learn? Not so much.

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Posted in Discrimination, Harassment, Worker rights on October 26, 2010