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Sexual Harassment Revisited: The Case of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo

The Entitlement Culture of Politicians

The case of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo and the sexual harassment charges against him is interesting from the point of view of entitlement. Did Cuomo feel entitled to say things to female staffers or make certain gestures that others should not do?  How can we explain his actions given he was an early supporter of the #MeToo movement? He also introduced a Women’s Equality Act proposal in June 2013 that included banning “sexual harassment in every workplace.” Cuomo seemed not to realize that the objectionable words he said to female staffers could create a hostile work environment. In this case, Cuomo suffered from ethical blind spots, that is, he did not see how his actions would be taken as inappropriate by the staffers.

Brief Overview of the Sexual Harassment Rules

According to a 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOC), around 75% of people who experience workplace harassment fail to bring it up with a manager, supervisor, or union representative. One major reason is that employees fear that they will be retaliated against at work. However, another possible reason for underreporting is that employees who are subjected to inappropriate behavior aren’t clear on when it crosses the line into illegal harassment.

The delay in reporting sexual harassment seems to be why multiple women are now charging NY Governor Andrew Cuomo with sexual harassment. Once the first staffer came out with her allegations, it seems that others felt comfortable doing so.

Workplace sexual harassment is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, outlaws two types of sexual harassment:

  • Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a supervisor’s request for sexual favors or other sexual conduct results in a tangible job action. Examples include “I’ll give you the promotion if you sleep with me” or “I’ll fire you unless you go out with me.”
  • Hostile work environment occurs when an employee is subjected to unwelcome physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that is so severe or pervasive as to alter the employee’s working conditions or create an abusive work environment.

While quid pro quo harassment is relatively straightforward, hostile work environment claims can be more difficult to detect. What types of behaviors qualify as harassment?

Types of Inappropriate Conduct

Some workplace conduct is clearly sexual harassment—for example, unwanted kissing, touching of breasts or genitals, butt slapping, rape, other forms of sexual assault, requests for sexual favors, making sexually explicit comments, uninvited massages, sexually suggestive gestures, catcalls, ogling, or cornering someone in a tight space.

While overt forms of sexual harassment certainly still happen in the workplace, more subtle forms of harassment are on the rise. For example, any of the following actions can be sexual harassment if they happen often enough or are severe enough to make an employee uncomfortable, intimidated, or distracted enough to interfere with their work:

  • repeated compliments of an employee’s appearance
  • commenting on the attractiveness of others in front of an employee
  • discussing one’s sex life in front of an employee
  • asking an employee about his or her sex life
  • circulating nude photos or photos of women in bikinis or shirtless men in the workplace
  • making sexual jokes
  • sending sexually suggestive text messages or emails
  • leaving unwanted gifts of a sexual or romantic nature
  • spreading sexual rumors about an employee, or
  • repeated hugs or other unwanted touching (such as a hand on an employee’s back).

To qualify as a hostile work environment, the conduct must be offensive not only to the employee, but also to a reasonable person in the same circumstances. For example, a female employee might be truly offended that a male employee complimented her haircut and opened the door for her on the way into work. However, the average person probably would not consider that conduct alone to rise to the level of harassment.

Cuomo’s Actions Sexual harassment

Charlotte Bennett left the Cuomo administration in November 2020. She had been an aide to Cuomo and accused him of sexually harassing her in 2019 Cuomo had asked her about her sex life and whether she had ever had sex with older men. She told The New York Times that Cuomo had asked her about her sex life and whether she had ever had sex with older men.

Ms. Bennett described one instance in which, when she was alone with Cuomo at his State Capitol office, where he asked whether she thought age mattered in romantic relationships. She took the remark as an overture to a sexual relationship.

“I understood that the governor wanted to sleep with me, and felt horribly uncomfortable and scared,” Ms. Bennett told The Times. “And was wondering how I was going to get out of it and assumed it was the end of my job.”

Ms. Bennett said she reported the interaction to Mr. Cuomo’s chief of staff and was then transferred to a different job. She said she also provided a lengthy statement about the episode to a special counsel to the governor.

The Times corroborated Ms. Bennett’s account through interviews with friends and family members whom she had told about the episodes when they happened and through a review of contemporaneous text messages and emails.

In a statement, Cuomo described Ms. Bennett as a “hard-working and valued member” of his staff and said he respected her “right to speak out.” “I never made advances toward Ms. Bennett, nor did I ever intend to act in any way that was inappropriate,” he said.

Another former aid, Lindsey Boylan, elaborated on sexual harassment accusations against the governor that she had previously aired publicly. In an essay published online, Ms. Boylan, who worked at the state’s economic development agency from 2015 to 2018, detailed several years of uncomfortable interactions with Mr. Cuomo.

She said her boss at the time had told her that Mr. Cuomo had a “crush” on her and that the governor had gone “out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs.”

In October 2017, during a return flight from an event in Western New York, Ms. Boylan wrote that Mr. Cuomo had told her they should “play strip poker.” And in 2018, she said, Mr. Cuomo gave her an unsolicited kiss after a one-on-one meeting at his Manhattan office.

“As I got up to leave and walk toward an open door, he stepped in front of me and kissed me on the lips,” Ms. Boylan wrote. “I was in shock, but I kept walking.” The governor’s office denied Ms. Boylan’s allegations and did not call for them to be independently reviewed.

Anna Ruch said that she had encountered Cuomo at a wedding in September 2019 and that they had begun talking about a toast the governor had made. Cuomo then put his hand on her bare lower back, Ms. Ruch said.

When she removed his hand, she said, the governor remarked that she seemed “aggressive” and he placed his hands on her cheeks and asked if he could kiss her. Ms. Ruch said she had pulled away as Mr. Cuomo drew closer.

“I was so confused and shocked and embarrassed,” said Ms. Ruch, whose recollection was corroborated by a friend, photographs from the event and contemporaneous text messages. “I turned my head away and didn’t have words in that moment.”

The circumstances surrounding Ms. Ruch’s allegation are distinct from those of Ms. Bennett and Ms. Boylan: She has never been employed by the governor or the state. Still, her experience reinforced escalating questions about Mr. Cuomo’s personal conduct.

What Should Cuomo Do?

Initially, the governor had apologized for acting “in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” but he has said that he did so unintentionally. He has also suggested that some of the claims about his behavior lack credibility. More recently, with the increase in reported cases has come more of a mea culpa. Cuomo now says he can see why some women might have taken his words and actions as creating an unwelcome environment. However, like most politicians Cuomo admits guilt after initially denying any inappropriate behavior now that it appears he has been caught making inappropriate comments/gestures/overtures to many women. Had he come out right away with a heartfelt apology, perhaps those in Congress calling on him to resign would have been more supportive.

Beyond the optics of the situation, making any inappropriate comments or asking any inappropriate personal questions should not be tolerated especially considering the #MeToo movement. Given the heightened concern about sexual harassment in the workplace, the Governor should do the right thing. If one or two staffers accused him of sexual harassment, that would be one thing. The fact that multiple women have accused him is quite another. Generally, where there is fuel, there is fire. Moreover, the fact that one employee, Charlotte Bennett, alleged harassment just last year indicates his offensive comments persist. They have occurred at least from 2015 going forward.

Politicians should not be allowed to play by a separate set of rules than the rest of the public. They are not entitled to skirt responsibility for their inappropriate behavior because of their position in life. A clear signal should be set by NY courts and the Legislature that Cuomo’s behavior was unacceptable, and he needs to be held accountable for his actions. Resigning is a way to make that happen.

Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on March 25, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.

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