As lawmakers call for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s resignation in light of sexual misconduct allegations, it’s important to know how to handle workplace sexual harassment if it happens to you.
The New York Democrat, already taking heat after a New York attorney general report found that his administration may have undercounted COVID-19 nursing-home deaths by up to 50%, has faced fresh scrutiny in recent weeks after three different women came forward with sexual-harassment allegations. In a news conference Wednesday, Cuomo apologized “for whatever pain I caused anyone” but said he wouldn’t resign.
“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable. It was unintentional, and I truly and deeply apologize for it,” Cuomo said. “I feel awful about it, and frankly, I am embarrassed by it.”
But, he added, “I never touched anyone inappropriately. I never knew at the time that I was making anyone feel uncomfortable. … And I certainly never, ever meant to offend anyone or hurt anyone or cause anyone any pain.”
The latest allegation came this week from Anna Ruch, who told the New York Times the governor had put his hands on her cheeks at a friend’s 2019 wedding reception and asked if he could kiss her. Lindsey Boylan and Charlotte Bennett, two former aides to Cuomo, had earlier accused the governor of sexual harassment, including an unwanted kiss and inappropriate questions about sex.
In a Feb. 28 statement following Boylan’s and Bennett’s accounts, Cuomo denied ever having inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone, but acknowledged that “some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation,” and apologized.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Monday that her office would pursue an independent investigation of sexual-harassment claims against the governor. Cuomo on Wednesday said he would cooperate with that investigation and urged New Yorkers to “wait for the facts” before forming an opinion.
Meanwhile, some New York lawmakers — Democrats included — have called on the governor to resign. Bennett, for her part, said in a statement Monday that Cuomo had “refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for his predatory behavior,” the Times reported.
“As we know, abusers — particularly those with tremendous amounts of power — are often repeat offenders who engage in manipulative tactics to diminish allegations, blame victims, deny wrongdoing and escape consequences,” Bennett said. “It took the governor 24 hours and significant backlash to allow for a truly independent investigation. These are not the actions of someone who simply feels misunderstood; they are the actions of an individual who wields his power to avoid justice.”
Bennett’s lawyer, Debra Katz, later called Cuomo’s Wednesday press conference “full of falsehoods and inaccurate information.”
Experts previously spoke with MarketWatch about what to do if you find yourself fending off sexual harassment — physical or verbal — from a coworker or boss. Here’s what they said:
Think ahead about how you might handle it
“It’s very common that you just freeze” when you get sexually harassed, said employment lawyer Paula Brantner, the president and principal of the firm PB Work Solutions. “The best way to keep that from happening is to kind of walk through in advance what you would do if this happened.”
Sending a “loud and clear” message in the moment can both help establish that the overture was unwanted from a legal perspective, and potentially nip the problem in the bud, Brantner said.
Write down what was said, when it was said and who else might have heard “as quickly as you can after the fact,” Brantner said, “because it often becomes a he-said, she-said situation.” “Memories fade,” she added.
Document requests for sexual favors, retaliation that resulted from your not giving in, lost opportunities and any other offenses, and save emails that might help make a case, said employment lawyer Davida Perry, a partner at Schwartz, Perry & Heller. Don’t record anything using work property, she said — keep a notebook of your own that’s easily accessible. And keep a confidante or spouse in the loop as the incidents occur.
Talk to supportive and trustworthy coworkers
“If it’s happened to you, it may have happened to other people,” said Brantner. “So you may wish to find out what you can about this person’s history and whether there have been any other situations.”
Report the behavior
“From my perspective, you need to talk about it; you need to report it. You need to speak to somebody who has the power and authority to take some action,” said Perry. Learn about your company’s policies and procedures for filing a sexual harassment complaint, Brantner added.
Remember that HR isn’t necessarily your friend
“Their role is to protect the company and their role is to conduct what they believe to be an impartial investigation,” Brantner said. “If you decide to go that route, you should be aware that even under policies where companies are supposed to do an investigation, they may not talk to everyone that you recommend, they may not be very thorough and they may not be very impartial.”
Document your conversation with HR: Either enter your meeting with HR armed with a written account of the harassment or write a summary of the meeting right after it’s over, Perry said. That way, “HR can’t come back and say, ‘We never talked about sexual harassment or discrimination,’” she said. “It happens often.”
Talk to an employment lawyer
“It’s always OK to check in with an attorney on any of this, even if it’s a one-time situation that never happens again,” Brantner said. Even if the attorney says, “This is gross, it shouldn’t have happened, but it’s not a lawsuit,” she added, “at least you’ll know what to look for in the future if something happens again.”
Sexual harassment, defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” is a form of sex discrimination. It’s illegal “when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision,” the EEOC says.
Aside from pursuing a federal EEOC claim, look within your state and city laws for possible additional protections, Perry said.
Know that you’re not alone — and it’s not your fault
“This has happened to countless numbers of women,” Brantner said. “It’s not something you asked for. … The urge is to kind of reconsider everything you did or said that might’ve led somebody on, but it’s about power and exerting that power in the workplace.”
“We’ve got to speak out about it — there’s too much at stake,” Perry said. “(From) the strong and the financially sound to the single mom who’s making $10 an hour, it just breaks you. And you’ve gotta fight back with whatever you have.”