So, I work at a small, family-run business that has re-opened its office (we’re all vaccinated and we test for active infection once a week, mandatory). The other day, I overheard a manager from across the office talking about a high-profile sexual assault case to a newer hire, a young woman. It was so loud (to be fair, our office allows sound to carry pretty well) that I couldn't ignore it. The optics of this manager arguing the facts of the case (he was claiming it's too time-consuming to vet people in positions of power for past indiscretions) to a female subordinate incensed me.
There is no real HR and our operations officer is totally conflict-averse. How should I address this?
Wow. Yes, that would have incensed me, too. Not only is that wildly inappropriate to discuss loudly in full view of staff but to do so with a young woman new to the environment is indefensible. Had that been me on the receiving end of this manager’s diatribe, I would be having a lot of second thoughts about working in an office where worker safety is so dismissed. The way you describe it, he was essentially advertising that this workplace was unconcerned about hiring sexual predators to the point that they don’t even check—and under the guise of it being a drag to do so. Now, I can attest to that. It is a drag to vet candidates for this sort of thing. But you know what’s worse? Sexual assault.
As is putting your people in unnecessary danger instead of simply doing your due diligence.
My first instinct is to advise you to speak with him very frankly about it, but on reflection, that feels unwise to do alone. You have no authority over him, presumably, and that conversation has very real potential to backfire on you at a time when the economy remains uncertain, even optimistically. And since you said this is a family-run business, I’m guessing there is the very real possibility he is related to the CEO, which places you in an even more awkward position if you were to report him to higher-ups. If you’re able, I would seek outside legal counsel to establish what your rights are and go about documenting and reporting this incident, and others like it, in a way that protects you as much as it addresses the problem itself.
Further, some states have government employment agencies with the authority to investigate accusations of workplace impropriety, although that might require you to go through company channels first. If you feel as if you cannot report this higher up without fear of retaliation, perhaps you can request an early performance review to establish and document your competence and capabilities as a hedge against retaliatory action from above; if nothing else, such documentation would be valuable in a wrongful dismissal.
I know these feel like drastic measures, but I want to urge you to think about the consequences of inaction, both to yourself and to every other woman in your office. A manager who will not investigate hires for abusive behavior, especially to those lower than they on the org chart, is, at minimum, perfectly ok putting their employees in harm's way. Further, a manager who insists on loudly broadcasting to the whole office that investigations into harassment claims are too burdensome could potentially be seen as discouraging employees from reporting future offenses (retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, while not criminal, is certainly prohibited by law
in the US).
A manager who will not investigate hires for abusive behavior, especially to those lower than they on the org chart, is, at minimum, perfectly ok putting their employees in harm's way.
And if this is part of a larger pattern of behavior—especially behavior that is insulating abusers, punishing employees who report harassment, and making employees feel unsafe—there may be a claim to be made that this is creating a hostile work environment.
In the meantime, stay safe, diligently document future incidents, and (if you feel comfortable) speak with the young woman in question to take her temperature on what happened. It may bolster your efforts down the line.