Readers Respond to Column on False Accusations

Oct. 13, 2000 -- More than 3,300 readers responded to my recent column on false accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace. Here are some of the most interesting responses.

One of the most provocative e-mails came from a woman who said she had falsely accused someone of sexual harassment:

Young and Inexperienced

“I once made a false claim of sexual harassment against someone. It was neither intentional nor vindictive — it was the result of too many players on the field and some serious miscommunication. I was young, inexperienced and not really good with office relations. It all started when the accused’s comments to me were overheard. My cubicle mate told my boss, my boss initiated certain procedures and another fellow in the department who very much liked me (and later became my fiancé) had words with him. So, when I finally convinced myself that there was a problem and then told the accused that he was frightening me, things had already gotten out of hand. I claimed that I thought he was sexually harassing me because. 1) I didn’t really know what sexual harassment was, and 2) my co-workers insisted it was and that things were only going to get worse if I didn’t speak up. The accused was forced to publicly apologize to the entire section. About a week later, the accused and I were able to sort things through. It seemed like a simple matter of communication (or lack of it) that had spiraled into something worse when other players got involved and because I didn’t have the experience in how to deal with office interactions early on. The whole event worries me because it happened so easily, without a lot of my encouragement. All it takes is a little misinterpretation and a lot of people, with or without good intentions. I’m sure that’s not an uncommon mix in the working world.”

Joann B.

Column Hits Close to Home

From a woman who says she was falsely accused by a male co-worker of sexual harassment:

“This hit very close to home! “I work for the federal government and was falsely accused of sexual harassment by a male co-worker. I had to go through a four-month-long investigation. Management started treating me differently and, from the day I was informed of the allegations, made me feel as if I were guilty. “The investigation has just concluded and the allegation was not substantiated and the case was closed. Meanwhile, my co-worker received a promotion! I asked to be moved out of that building away from my accuser and those supervisors and was told ‘No.’ “So to this day I keep working in the hostile environment this false sexual harassment claim has caused. It has been like one big domino effect on me. Being falsely accused of sexual harassment is a detrimental downfall to anyone’s career, but I have learned the best way to get even with your accuser is to forgive.”

Karen L.

There’s No Such Thing

From a woman who believes that no one is ever falsely accused of sexual harassment: “We live in a society where the person harassed usually ends up without a job, not the other way around. No one is ever falsely accused for harassment. “In some form or fashion, if any employee feels that there is unacceptable behavior in the workplace, and it violates a person’s rights, then there is nothing false about the claim. It is, however, a false pretense when the employer continues to cover up for the accused employee(s). “This no picnic for anyone. It affects everyone — families, friends and co-workers. To those individuals, I take my hat off.” Cynthia K.

Punish the False Accuser

From a man who believes people who falsely accuse someone of sexual harassment should be punished:

“Your column glaringly omitted what should happen to the worker who makes the falseaccusation. There is only one way to prevent abuses of sexual harassment charges. If a person is found innocent of charges, the company should then immediately investigate whether the charges were filed in bad faith. If a nefarious or questionable motive can be shown to exist, the accuser should then be punished and the accused should be publicly apologized to. “Because a charge of sexual harassment is so serious, there needs to be more of a checks and balances approach. “At the very least, a false charge should require the accuser to undergo counseling, just like the accused would have to do if found guilty. Until this kind of double investigation I propose becomes the norm, the only practical response to being falsely accused of sexual harassment is to simply leave and find another job as soon as possible, even before the investigation begins.”

Another Vote for Punishment

Another woman agrees with the previous e-mailer:

“I think if a person brings a charge of sexual harassment that later proves to be untrue, the accuser should terminated. While I realize that this type of harassment is real I feel that things have gone totally overboard. If you have problems in the workplace you need to confront the problem and not run to your personnel department at the least bit of discomfort. “Now, you may believe this is a political incorrect position for a woman to hold. You’re probably right; however, I would rather work for a company where there is a free exchange of ideas and things are accomplished than one that you have to walk on eggshells for fear of offending the person sitting next to you.”

Avis W.

Winning Entry on Topic

And now, the winning entry on the topic:

“The person (usually a man) accused of sexual harassment faces the challenge of executing a delicate political dance while stepping through the emotional and legal minefield known as the sexual harassment investigation. “While on the one hand, the accusations may or may not be true, and even if true may or may not constitute sexual harassment, the law grants some level of immunity to the employer that conducts a prompt investigation and then brings disciplinary action against the ‘alleged harasser’ that conveys strong ‘disapproval’ of sexual harassment. “Thus, the employer will face a strong temptation to issue disciplinary action regardless of what their investigation determines and regardless of whether or not the employer believes that any inappropriate conduct actually occurred. Furthermore, many employers believe that if they don’t issue some disciplinary action, there is an increased likelihood that they will be sued for sexual harassment. “On the other hand, if the employer has some doubts about whether the conduct occurred as claimed and there has been some delay in bringing an investigation or if the claims involve conduct that has gone on for a period of time despite prior complaints, the employer may be reluctant to be viewed as ‘admitting’ that there was wrongful conduct by issuing disciplinary action. The employer’s resolution of this dilemma is of crucial importance to the person accused of sexual harassment.

“The first step that a person accused of sexual harassment should take is to get legal counsel that (1) can operate in the background to provide advice, strategy and moral support, and (2) step in on short notice to take an active role if things start to get out of control. “The second step is to obtain the clearest possible understanding of the precise accusations that have been made. This is not as easy as it sounds because the person talking to the ‘alleged harasser’ may be providing a synopsis that has passed through three or four different people and now bears little resemblance to the complaint made by the ‘victim.’ The third step is to determine whether the ‘accused’ employee can obtain reimbursement for the legal expense of his sexual harassment defense.

“As a practical matter, the person accused of sexual harassment may find that the most feasible course of action is to stall for time while looking for a new job.”

Peter M.