Nearly 30 years ago, when I was publisher of a small-town newspaper, I voluntarily stepped down from the CEO’s position. I decided to return to the newsroom because three years as a publisher convinced me I should be running the journalism side of a newspaper, not the business side.
My wife questioned my sanity. (Not an uncommon occurrence.) I was giving up a company car, a stupendously sweet annual bonus and some other nice perks. But, hey. I like playing with words. Not numbers. Besides, it just so happened that our newspaper group had a guy ready to replace me. The company had recently closed one of its other papers and the former publisher there was only too happy to fill the vacancy I had created.
It seemed I had crafted the perfect scenario. I would go back to being editor (filling a vacancy created when the editor who replaced me decided to leave for another newspaper). Even better: I was creating an opportunity for a publisher who otherwise might be out of a job. You’re welcome, sir.
A win-win, right? I thought so, until I started hearing the rumor. It seems my successor, a capable, experienced publisher, also carried in his portfolio a reputation for office shenanigans with female employees.
Was the rumor true?
I have no hard evidence. I never saw anything untoward. And I certainly didn’t ask him. But for the longest time, I worried that I had visited upon my friends and colleagues a curse that was all my doing — and possibly their undoing.
Six months after returning to the news side, I transferred to another paper in the chain. But the worries lingered. For a time, I heard from former colleagues that the new publisher didn’t do things the way that I had done them.
But no horror stories. Because, duh. No one was going to tell me they’d been sexually harassed or, worse, sexually violated.
So, the current wave of accusations about serial sex offenders is a good thing. But it must necessarily move from the level of “Celebrities and Famous People Who Are Alleged Sexual Predators” — as if it’s a category on Jeopardy! — to a place where every workplace in every city has a mechanism allowing victims to report ghastly behavior without fear of reprisal or shame.
Doing that will require a cultural shift so enormous as to seem unattainable. But we landed people on the moon. We allowed women to vote. We said gay people could marry each other. Making it easy for people to report disturbing behavior by people in positions of authority shouldn’t be that difficult. It will require CEOs and business owners and board members to root out the creeps they already know about and to acknowledge simultaneously the insidiousness of the problem.
Of course, some of those CEOs may be the offenders who should be rooted out. They’re probably not going to turn themselves in. But a culture that encourages open communication and vigorous investigation will eventually turn the tide.
Believe me, it will take time. But the process has begun and we shouldn’t let it ebb. On the same day that my Seattle Business colleagues and I were in a meeting discussing how our magazine might address the issue, including wondering if we should be asking people to come forward and name names, The Seattle Times published a notice asking its readers to do exactly that.
We may never eradicate the problem of people in powerful positions abusing other people for their own sexual gratification, but if we increase the likelihood that they will be found out and punished, we will have won a small victory. Perhaps then, an executive handing the reins over to another won’t have to worry so much.
JOHN LEVESQUE is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.