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What should you do if you’re forced to toe the company line on a sexual harassment case?

by Meera Jagannathan for Moneyish/Dow Jones  

Peacock Network women are reportedly under pressure.

Female NBC News staffers felt “forced” to sign a letter in support of embattled newsman Tom Brokaw, according to a Page Six report. The letter, which last week drew dozens of signatures and support from big-name colleagues like Andrea Mitchell, Rachel Maddow, Maria Shriver and Mika Brzezinski, came after two women accused the longtime “Nightly News” anchor of sexual misconduct in accounts to the Washington Post and Variety. (A third accuser aired her own allegations Tuesday in a first-person piece for The Villager.)

“We felt forced to sign the letter supporting Brokaw. We had no choice, particularly the lower level staffers,” an anonymous NBC News staffer told Page Six. “The letter was being handed around the office and the unspoken threat was that if your name was not on it, there would be some repercussion down the road. Execs are watching to see who signed and who didn’t. This was all about coming out in force to protect NBC’s golden boy; the network’s reputation is tied to Brokaw . . . If more women come forward, that’s a big problem.”

NBC newcomer Megyn Kelly, for her part, expressed love for Brokaw on her “Today” show hour Monday — but pointed out that “letters like that can be dicey,” as “you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Brokaw has denied the allegations, calling them “sensational claims.” And while reps for NBC News did not return a Moneyish request for comment, a network spokesperson told Page Six the letter was “a purely grassroots effort, led by women outside of the company who are motivated by their own support for Tom Brokaw,” and that management played no role. Goldman Sachs executive Liz Bowyer, who worked as a producer on Brokaw’s NBC documentary unit, reportedly led the effort. (Bowyer, meanwhile, told the L.A. Times on Tuesday there was no attempt to coerce women who didn’t respond to a request to sign.)

It’s difficult to make a legal case for “pressure” unless there’s tangible evidence of retaliation, employment attorney Mary Kuntz of the Washington, D.C. firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch told Moneyish. “I would need one of these people to call me and say, ‘Look, I got demoted to the mailroom because I was the only woman in the office who didn’t sign the Brokaw letter,’” she said. “Right now, it’s just a kind of feeling that people can see who signed and who didn’t … And that certainly is conceivable, but it can also just be a feeling that a person has.”

But while Kuntz defended the tactic of fighting a sexual harassment allegation by having supportive female colleagues testify — “It’s not bad evidence; it’s just not conclusive evidence” — she took issue with the format itself, as many of the people signing the letter may not even know Brokaw well. “I think those are the ones that are saying, ‘Don’t pressure me to sign this.’ … And in some ways they’re right, but it’s not that they’re being pressured to sign — they need to say, ‘I don’t actually know him,’” she said. “Don’t sign a petition; this isn’t something you petition for. What you need to do is go on the record with your experience.”

Employment attorney Paula Brantner, a senior adviser to the nonprofit Workplace Fairness, argued that the power dynamics of a work environment mean that such a letter “just can’t be truly voluntary.” “You’re always part of a power structure and a supervision structure, so you always have to worry about your loyalties and what you need to do to protect your job,” she told Moneyish.

“An individual who is working in this environment, where there is a significant fear of retaliation for the reporting of a complaint, might very well feel pressure to support someone who was accused of harassment when asked to do so by their manager or by someone who has direct or even indirect control over their working conditions,” added employment attorney and HR consultant Lori Rassas, author of “The Perpetual Paycheck,” in an email.

“It is not a significant leap to assume that if someone could be subject to adverse consequences for reporting harassing behavior, then they might also be subject to adverse consequences for declining to show support for the alleged harasser,” Rassas said.

If you’re reluctant to signal your support for an alleged workplace harasser — whether it’s because you don’t know them, don’t want to be involved or have an allegation of your own — here’s expert advice on what to do:

  • Say no, but be smart about it. Even if you’re a lower-level staffer, Kuntz said, “at some point you have to say no” — you just have to find a way to finesse it. “You don’t have to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ … Say, ‘Gee, I guess I see him in the hallways occasionally, but I don’t really think I can sign this because I don’t really know him,’” she said. “‘But let me take it over to her over there and see if she wants to sign it.’ And just get rid of it.”

  • Stall. “There’s always the kind of ‘action by inaction’ strategy,” Brantner said. You might say you’d like to wait and see if you hear from human resources, she said, or say you want to check with your boss to see if they want you to be involved.

  • Write your own letter. “Stay true to your knowledge of the person or of the issue and … don’t sign on to a letter unless you have as much knowledge of whatever the issue is as the person who originally wrote the letter,” Kuntz said. “If you have no knowledge, then you don’t sign it — just like you don’t testify to an accident that you didn’t witness.” It’s hard for others to object to your offer to write your own letter, she added; plus, you can simply say you’re writing one and then not do it. And if you happen to have had negative experiences with that person, you can write that damning account.

  • Seek strength in numbers. “Employees kind of taking a stand may be helpful to nipping this in the bud,” Brantner said. “Talk to other coworkers and get a sense of how other people feel about it, and (see) if there’s a way for everyone to stand firm on it.” If your workplace is unionized, she added, consult with your union rep about what kind of participation you can be forced to have.


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