Risk of discarding fairness in some workplace sexual harassment cases

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Sarah Thomson, a former mayoral candidate, recently used her own website “Women’s Post”, to publish an allegation implying that Steve Paikin, in the presence of her male assistant at the time, during a 2010 lunch asked whether she would sleep with him. According to the Star Report Thompson said that her assistant “told me he questioned the talk show host to see if asking directly for sex actually worked for him,” she wrote. “The host said it worked 50 percent of the time.”

The allegation appears to have a workplace connection because Paikin apparently met with the then candidate to discuss her appearance on his show. According to the February 05, 2018 issue of the Toronto Star, Thompson alleged that because of those comments, male candidates competing for the job of mayor were handed an unfair advantage as they did not have to sleep with the journalist in order to be invited on his show. Nine years after Ms Thompson lost her bid to be Toronto’s mayor she makes this allegation which, apparently Paikin received in his work email and proceeded to report the allegation to TVO.

Citing the present state of the evidence collected from the investigation thus far TVO has apparently not removed Mr. Paikin from his role at the public broadcaster. Paikin has since denied the allegations describing them as “fiction”.

Thomson’s allegation made against Paikin may well be true. Who knows? This is yet another case of he said she said, except in this case, on Thompson’s version of the events, there is a witness, who thus far has not come forward to substantiate the claim. According to the Toronto Star’s report, Thompson, in 2002, said she would sleep with former media mogul Conrad Black in exchange for an interview. In 2013, Thompson apparently told the Star that the Conrad Black comment was made as a joke. This is the same Sarah Thompson who had accused Rob Ford of grabbing her from behind in the course of the elections that Ford ultimately won.

Whether Paikin made the alleged sexual comments to Thompson is not so much the point of this opinion. Thompson’s allegation raises some interesting points. Firstly, male journalists interviewing females, including female professionals, should pause for a moment and plan the interview to avoid these kinds of allegations. The job as a journalist requires interviewing subjects at all times of the day and at times in less than ideal locations. Thompson’s allegations should send chills through the journalist community. Male journalists, in the performance of their roles and duties, ought to develop ways to protect themselves against these types of allegations. One’s eagerness to get breaking news can easily crack a huge and gaping hole in the person’s career if preventative and protective measures are not taken. Of course, male journalists ought to put pressure on their employers to provide then with a protocol to follow in order to ward off the fraction of sexual harassment cases that may be bogus.

Secondly, Thompson’s joke that she would sleep with Black in exchange for an interview is troubling on several levels.  Why in the heck would an aspiring politician want to make such a joke is beyond me. Leaving aside the negative implications, Ms Thompson’s joke has negative consequences on employment equity, driven by a merit-based approach. Let’s examine the so-called joke and its far-reaching implications for men in hiring positions.  Thompson’s joke suggests a quid pro quo. According to the so-called joke, she would trade sexual intercourse simply to get an interview with Mr. Black. How exactly would she have positioned that intention with Mr. Black? What would she have said to let her desires known? How would she have conducted herself to let it be known that she is open for at least one sexual encounter with him? Would she even openly mention the trade to him in their discussions? If yes, how would she have timed broaching the bargain? What would that negotiation look like to increase her chances of getting to “yes”? What would she do if Mr. Black summarily rejected the deal and did not give her an interview? What would happen if Mr. Black slept with her and not honor the deal? Supposing, for instance, Mr. Black and Ms Thompson did end up having sex and he kept his end of the bargain and gave that interview, does that mean she could use that same method to extract more favours from Mr. Black? If yes, then does that create an expectation of any kind; or should it? What if it does create expectations then what happens when Mr. Black wants out and she disagrees, what might she do?  What If the sex was so bad that one or the other regretted the encounter, then what?

The truth is that while Thompson may well have been joking when she commented that she would sleep with Mr. Black in exchange for an interview that kind of calculus is not foreign in the world of business.  Thompson’s joke is not to say that she is likely to be responsive if just any man approached her. Rather, in her example she has identified the man she wants to approach; the man to whom she would jump at the opportunity were he to approach her; and if he did not, she might orchestrate the meeting simply to get what she desired. Simply put, she has targeted her prey.

In Thompson’s joke, she alone knows when the joke starts and ends. Thompson alone knows when the joke shifts into reality mode. Thompson alone identified the target. Thompson alone decided the minimum acceptable reward. Thompson alone would orchestrate any ensuing scheme. Thompson alone would discern the best way. Why Thompson would joke that she is prepared to sleep with a powerful man to get an interview, is beyond me.  The joke that she would trade her body merely for an interview begs the question whether she would continue to trade her body for any kind of position. Thompson alone would start out the dance designed to achieve the stated goal.  When the plan gets executed, Mr. Black, to the extent he does not say no, gets drawn into something, the true intent and purpose of which unfolds with time. Before he knows it he could be engulfed with risks far more exacting than he may have first realized.

When a woman like Ms Thompson makes an allegation of sexual harassment against Paikin, how are we to treat it? Were Paikin Mr. Black, there may or may not have been an allegation made, depending of course on the facts. It may well be true that Mr. Paikin did ask Ms Thompson to sleep with him. I do not know.  However, if she is afforded with the right to joke about Mr. Black, why could Paikin not do the same with her, or at least broach the subject, especially if he really does like her and wishes for her to be his partner? The allegations do not ever say that Paikin refused to agree to her appearance on the show. The Star’s article does not say that Thompson even rejected the overture, assuming it happened.

Here is the point. Ms Thompson’s allegation should be treated seriously as should all allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace.  The disposition of every allegation of workplace harassment should be on the basis of “facts” and evidence. However, there needs to be a degree of procedural fairness so that men do not lose their jobs until evidence is uncovered that could substantiate. A distinction should be made between sexual harassment and a genuine request made by a man to ask out a woman in his work sphere..

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