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How not to handle a sexual harassment charge

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford does something no leader should ever do in response to an allegation

By Todd Humber

Local politics in any city can be a bit of a circus act. I know — city council was my beat in my early days as a journalist.

But local government in Toronto has elevated the three ring act to new heights. To say that the mayor’s office in Canada’s largest city has been controversial since Mayor Rob Ford was elected is an understatement.

Pick a controversy — there’s a good chance the mayor’s office has dealt with it. Depending on what side of the political spectrum you fall, Toronto’s right-wing mayor is either a bumbling idiot or a saviour who is finally respecting taxpayer dollars after years of waste.

But regardless of where you sit on said spectrum, and particularly through an HR lens, the way Ford has reacted to an allegation of sexual harassment against him is problematic.

Here’s the Reader’s Digest version of events: Last Thursday, Ford attended a party held by a Jewish political group. In attendance was Sarah Thomson, a well-known figure in Toronto and someone who ran against Ford for the mayor’s seat in the last election.

Thomson and Ford posed for a photo at the event, and she alleged — via a Facebook post — that Ford groped her and made suggestive comments.

One can question the wisdom of laying such a charge via social media, but in an age where anyone can post anything to a mass audience at any time, it’s a hardly surprising — though regrettable — knee-jerk reaction.

But one can’t question the wisdom of Ford’s inappropriate response. Here’s what he said on a radio show he regularly hosts: “I’ve always said I don’t know if she’s playing with a full deck.”

Denying the accusation is one thing. At the moment, only two people really know what happened — Ford and Thomson — and they’re telling different stories. It’s impossible to objectively know who is telling the truth.

But, in a sexual harassment allegation, it’s never a smart move to try to sway opinion by questioning the accuser’s sanity. Politics is a different animal than corporate life, but that’s a tactic that could lead to a pretty expensive judgment if a CEO or business leader tried it out.

In a statement to the media, also posted on Facebook, Thomson said the following in response:

“Decades ago, powerful men who sexually assaulted women would call them ‘hysterical’ or ‘crazy’ to debase their credibility. It pushed many assaulted women into silence. Today Mayor Ford stated he wondered if I was ‘playing with a full deck’ to try to discredit me. He will not push me in to silence and I hope his accusations do not reignite the old fears that once silenced women.”

Charges of sexual harassment should never be taken lightly. It requires a full investigation into the alleged wrongdoing, sometimes by third-party professionals.

But the last reaction any leader should have is to try and discredit the accuser. There’s nothing wrong with strongly denying it happened, if that’s the case, or laying out a solid case in your defense.

But name calling? That’s not even acceptable on the playground.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com or visit www.hrreporter.com for more information.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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6 Comments
  • Leaders must take high road
    Tuesday, March 12, 2013 9:25:00 AM by Todd Humber
    My point was simply that someone in a leadership position — be it the Mayor, a CEO or some other executive — needs to take the high road when faced with an accusation like this. One of the unfortunate facts of being in a position of power is that people will come at you. Being accused of sexual assault should never be taken lightly or shrugged off, but there are much better and effective ways of handling it than leveling accusations regarding your accuser’s sanity.

    Leaders like Rob Ford need to stay above the fray. It doesn’t mean he can’t make a strong, effective denial — but he can certainly do that without resorting to name calling.

    I don’t see this a “right” or “left” issue. It’s just a question of how someone in a position of power should react when faced with such an accusation.