July 22, 2019

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Facing Company Pressure in Sexual Harassment Claims

News Room

At the end of April, former NBC news correspondent, Linda Vester, came forward in an interview with Variety, alleging that Tom Brokaw, the venerated anchor at NBC, had groped and assaulted her in the 90s. Vester told Variety that Brokaw had twice attempted to forcibly kiss her, and on a separate occasion, groped her in the office. Then, Vester claimed, the elder newsman arrived at her hotel room uninvited.

Vester has long been respected for her courageous journalism, having done three tours in Africa and the Middle East during times of conflict. In 1993, only 28 years old, she was, by her own account, one of the youngest correspondents at the network. It was in Denver, while covering the Pope’s visit, that she allegedly encountered Brokaw in a conference room, where he grabbed her from behind and tickled her “up and down [her] waist,” while other co-workers milled about, without uttering a word. She never said anything because, in her words, “It can torpedo your career.”

Backlash

Now, after exposing Brokaw’s alleged misconduct, the newsman has vehemently denied the allegations and a team of powerful women have banded together to defend his integrity. That team –which includes Rachel Maddow, Mika Brzezinski, Maria Shriver and over 100 other women – signed a letter, which was circulated at NBC, where low-level staffers have felt pressured to place their signatures on the document.

Yet again, in the face cultural and material pressures, women, afraid to lose their jobs, must decide whether to support an alleged harasser or potentially face consequences in the workplace. Thus, the question emerges: what does one do when confronted with such a dilemma?

Unspoken Pressure

One NBC employee spoke with Page Six, decrying the news agency’s unspoken pressure: “We felt forced to sign the letter supporting Brokaw. We had no choice, particularly the lower level staffers. 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.”

Another employee remarked on the force of the letter, as it contains names of some of the most powerful women in television. It’s intimidating, the employee said, and it could “have a chilling effect on other women coming forward.”

NBC’s Equivocation

Though the company denies any allegations of pressuring employees, it is difficult to ignore the obvious undertones of such a public document, which it should be noted, was spearheaded by Liz Bowyer, who currently works at Goldman Sachs but who used to work as a producer for Brokaw’s documentary unit. Despite Bowyer’s obvious connections to NBC, a spokesperson for NBC told Page Six the following: “The letter is a purely grass-roots effort, led by women outside of the company who are motivated by their own support for Tom Brokaw … Management has played absolutely no role whatsoever.”

Just a Feeling

Sadly, proving the existence of such pressure could very difficult, according to Mary Kuntz, an employment attorney who spoke with Moneyish. Without any material evidence, it would be difficult to construct a legal argument. Currently, there is only a feeling. Instead, Kuntz suggested, someone would need to be demoted – or face similar negative consequences – after refusing to sign the letter.

Still, as noted by Paula Brantner, “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.” Thus, it follows that signing the letter may not be “truly voluntary.”

What Is To Be Done?

So what is a person to do in this situation? How do you avoid signing such a document without risking retaliation? According to Kuntz, it’s all about finesse. You might set off alarms if you flat out refuse and say “I am not signing that document.” Instead, you might elaborate, saying that, even if you see him around sometimes, you don’t really know Mr. Brokaw and so can’t, in good conscience, sign the letter. You can even offer to pass the letter around and then, when you walk away, chuck it in the waste bin. You may even offer to write your own letter and then never go through with it. Similarly, according to Branter, you can just stall, telling your employer that you have to wait and see what HR (or your supervisor) says.

Finally, it might be beneficial to ask around and get the temperature amongst other staff members. If a large number of people feel the same way, then you can refuse to sign it as a group. It is much harder to retaliate against a whole phalanx of employees than it is a single worker.

If you or someone you care about needs an employment law firm, contact an experienced employment lawyer today.

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