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Harassers and bullies succeed in tech because silence is encouraged

Countless people signed away the right to have their trauma acknowledged, and that can’t stand

Column A few years back, I sat in astonishment as a young and very promising scientist explained that her colleagues kept lists of the people she’d want to avoid working for, because they had been identified - privately - as sexual harassers.

Ever since, I’ve wondered how some individuals can maintain multi-generation careers, exposed as harassers and bullies (and worse) only long after their departure, with damage done.

The problem infects the world of IT, too. It’s big — and getting worse.

Yet we pretend it doesn’t exist. For decades it has ruined lives and careers. We respond with silence, because non-disparagement clauses in many employment contracts mean people cannot speak the truth of their experiences.

They can’t tell the world how they have been treated, what they had to endure - and what they must still suffer.

In silence.

A young scientist explained that her colleagues kept lists of the people she’d want to avoid working for

These clauses exist because employers don’t want to be exposed for sheltering - or, worse, promoting - abuse. That’s not a good look, and inevitably leads to some hard questions in the boardroom, and from the shareholders.

Better by far to gag the employees affected with a clause that makes them liable for any reputational damages incurred by breaking the seal and speaking the truth. With their jobs and all their worldly assets on the line, employees behave as these legal instructions direct - they keep quiet.

Kicking the can down the road only gives the toxic truths time needed to ripen and create more powerful explosions. The Catholic Church will spend at least another generation decontaminating itself from its broad (and broadly suppressed) scandals of clerical abuse. Mention the name “Andy Rubin” to any of the Google Board, then watch the colour bleed from their faces. Even with all the lawyers in the world on the case, the truth always comes out.

In the meantime, countless people live with trauma that they don’t even dare to acknowledge, because that acknowledgement means speaking their truth - and violating those agreements. That’s a further abuse, compounding the initial abuse, and all too often it overwhelms those condemned to wear that dual burden.

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More than anything else, this is why it has to stop.

There’s another very important reason to call time on this rolling horror: silence allows the harassers to move onto fresh pastures, starting the cycle of harassment all over again. These clauses not only protect institutions, they protect precisely the individuals who should be held fully accountable for their actions. The law must not be used to shield the guilty simply to preserve a business from reputational damage.

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Last week, social media giant Pinterest reportedly announced a change in policy, allowing its employees to blow the whistle on harassment despite any agreements they may have signed. The company has signalled the need for its staff to speak – and be heard – which is more important than branding or marketing.

But it only did so after an employee, Ifeoma Ozoma, felt she was given no choice but to leave after raising issues of wage discrimination and a lengthy scandal about her plight and Pinterest’s weak response.

What would it take to get all of IT to make a similar pledge – and to avoid the horrible initial reaction? Such changes in direction need to be driven by the board - reminding their C-suites that these agreements inevitably accumulate, toxify, and erupt. Too many boards don’t even know how many harassers they’ve shielded over the years with these agreements. Perhaps the first step is simply to ask for an accounting. The answer they receive could provide the motivation needed to shed this legal weaponry and give people permission to speak their truth. ®

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