Can Harassers Be Healed in Business and at Work?

In other news in the “You can’t make this HR stuff up” department, San Diego’s embattled Mayor Bob Filner continues to publicly circle the drain of his career (from yesterday’s USA Today) in spite of the overwhelming outcry of the sexual harassment allegations against him, and his own admission of inappropriate behavior:

Calls for embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to resign escalated on Friday as word trickled out from his lawyers that he is finishing is behavior modification therapy earlier than anticipated.


Calls for embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to resign escalated on Friday as word came from his lawyers that he is finishing behavior modification therapy earlier than anticipated.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., reiterated her call for the mayor defending a sexual harassment lawsuit to step down. Two San Diego city council members also issued a joint statement calling on the mayor to resign immediately.

Outside of a former staffer, Irene McCormack Jackson, who has filed a sexual harassment suit against Filner, 13 more women have stepped forward to say he made unwanted sexual advances toward them.

Boxer on Friday released a letter that opened with “Dear Bob,” in which she indicated she and Filner have worked together on issues over the years from creating jobs to protecting the environment.

“So I am speaking to you now on a personal and professional level, and asking you to step down as mayor and get the help you need as a private citizen,” Boxer wrote. “Bob, you must resign because you have betrayed the trust of the women you have victimized, the San Diegans you represent and the people you have worked with throughout your decades in public life.”

The joint statement issued Friday by San Diego council members Marti Emerald and Myrtle Cole opened up with the words “Enough is enough” and said that additional women in Filner’s office were telling investigators about alleged harassment and abuse from the mayor.

“We are shocked by his conduct and his lack of respect for women, his employees, and the office he holds,” the statement read. “Mr. Filner, without further delay, we insist you resign and allow the healing of our city to begin.”

The statement by the two councilmembers means the council is unanimous in wanting Filner to step down.

Filner’s lawyer, James Payne of Los Angeles, said Filner would complete his behavior modification therapy early and finish on an outpatient basis, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

“Mayor Filner is taking personal time next week and will be unavailable for comment,” the statement read. “At this time, we do not have information as to when he will be available for comment.”

The Union-Tribune also reported that city attorney Jan Goldsmith said the locks to Filner’s City Hall office were changed.

Goldsmith told the news organization that the city attorney’s office was working in cooperation with chief of staff Lee Burdick and chief operating officer Walt Ekard.

The lawsuit against Filner filed by former communications director Irene McCormack Jackson seeks unspecified damages.

Apparently, only the voters of San Diego can fire Filner, via a recall vote.  And Filner, a 70 year-old career politician, is dancing as fast as he can to keep his job:  admitting that he was inappropriate; “volunteering” for behavior-modification therapy (which he apparently cut short a day ago); and taking enough responsibility in his own mind so he can keep a job that a majority of San Diego and California public officials wish he would leave.

Aside from the untenable conundrum of the inability to properly investigate and consequently remove Filner substantively from his job, I’m fascinated by Filner “volunteering” for behavior modification therapy.  I’m also disappointed by the grandstanding of it all:  if Filner really has a problem with compulsively and systemically harassing women at work (including but not limited to the anachronistic pinching of women subordinates’ butts and incessant requests for dates), the time to ask for help is not after everyone finds out about how he repeatedly violated policy and the public trust.  Otherwise, the timing of seeking such help is inauthentic and frankly, manipulative.  The general public is a bit more savvy than that.

But let’s say Filner raised his hand for help before he put his hands in places where by policy and reputation they absolutely did not belong.  Can harassers be healed?

In my experience investigating, adjudicating and resolving harassment issues, it depends. Harassers can be compulsive (but not always), and often have related compulsions.  Like all compulsions taken too far, harassers have the potential to be healed if they hit a low enough bottom – e.g., if they lose most everything, their jobs, their reputations, etc. – as concrete motivation to change their behavior with any reliability.  In that instance, there exists the remote possibility that a harasser can be healed – but the stars need to be aligned, and the motivation to be healed and re-learn has to be as strong, if not stronger, as the compulsion to harass.  Filner has not yet learned that lesson – he’s hanging on to his job for dear life, begging to have his harassment cake and eat it, too. (By the way, Filner has the power to fire any unclassified city employee.)

For the city of San Diego, time might be better spent ensuring that no one in public service is exempt from investigation, discipline and termination when it is determined that policies have been egregiously and disrespectfully violated.  Only then, can we begin to effective heal institutional harassment, in business and at work.

STOP sign isolated on white.


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