Commentary Violence

Allegations of Workplace Sexual Harassment at FitzGibbon Media: We’ve Seen This Movie Too Many Times Before

Jodi Jacobson

When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Last week, the widely respected progressive consulting firm FitzGibbon Media abruptly closed its doors after allegations surfaced of sexual harassment and abuse of numerous women by Trevor FitzGibbon, founder and owner of the firm.

The final straw came when, at a recent staff retreat in Austin, Texas, FitzGibbon allegedly propositioned Sierra Pedraja, who had applied for a job with the company. Pedraja reported the incident to other FitzGibbon Media staffers, prompting revelations by numerous employees and clients of creepy behavior, harassment, and assault allegedly perpetrated by FitzGibbon. (Full disclosure: Rewire was for a brief time a client of FitzGibbon Media, but did not work directly with Trevor.) FitzGibbon is accused of sexually harassing a number of women and sexually assaulting at least two others, all while running a firm with clients such as UltraViolet and NARAL Pro-Choice America, both of which work to advance women’s rights. The women on staff reportedly were too afraid for their jobs or too intimated by FitzGibbon’s professional reputation in the progressive community to speak up.

We now know that Trevor FitzGibbon’s reputation should have included “serial harasser.” It turns out he was also accused of sexually harassing some of his colleagues in a previous position at another well-known and otherwise well-regarded firm.

How can a guy known for this kind of reported abuse go from one place to another and not suffer consequences? And why are the victims of such harassment often so reluctant to report it?

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To a large degree, the answers to both questions are the same: When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man, many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when, among other things, their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Too often, in my personal experience, victims of harassment or assault feel that they are largely invisible, and abusers are made to appear invincible. In many organizations, charismatic leaders hold the power and the purse strings, leaving staff vulnerable to abuse. And our society’s tendency to lionize specific individuals gives them an aura of being invincible, especially when they are a widely celebrated in a specific field or community. The degree of invisibility versus invincibility seems to me inversely related to the height of the pedestal on which certain leaders—or entertainers, athletes, politicians—are put. The more power the perpetrator has, the less likely the victim is to come forward. It’s at once obvious and can’t be overstated.

The first time I can remember someone touching me inappropriately was in religious school. I was 11 years old and the clergyman who ran our school was in his late 60s. He seemed nice and caring. But he also constantly rubbed my back, shoulders, and back of my bra. I hated it. But I was 11, somehow I felt ashamed, and I never thought of telling anyone. I came from what can only be called a dysfunctional family. I didn’t know what was normal and what was not. I just tried to stay out of the way and not be alone with him because he always got too close.

The second time was at summer camp, when the 70-something director, widely respected by parents, did much the same thing, regularly, to female campers. He’d come through the dining hall, circling the girls’ tables, touching us, rubbing our shoulders and our bra straps. We all hated it. But we were told by counselors to just to get over it. “Oh, that’s just Tex,” they’d say. “He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s a great guy.” Translation: Don’t make waves.

The third time was at Yale University, to which I’d been accepted for grad school. During an orientation visit, I met with the professor who would have been my adviser. He suggested we grab some lunch and talk about the program, and at his direction we ended up at a small Italian restaurant nearby campus. At that point in my life, I understood immediately what was happening when he slid too close on the half-circle banquette and put his hand on my thigh under the table cloth. I moved away, putting as much distance between us as I could. I later learned he had a reputation for seeking out and having sex with students.

Rather than enrolling, that summer I gave up my space at Yale in favor of a job in D.C., yet found myself back in the same place, rhetorically speaking. I was one of two young women on the research staff at a prominent think tank. It was the kind of place filled with ambitious young professionals who were given the chance to write and publish on important topics. The head of the organization was considered a “genius.” Reporters ate out of his hands. Celebrities and important people visited our offices. And most of the staff wanted nothing more than to be favored by the boss.

But the inappropriate behavior started right away. He would call me into his office to discuss a project, close the door, and sit way too close on the couch, pressing his leg against mine. It made me grossly uncomfortable and really, all I wanted was to do my job. I tried to express my concern early on to a vice president of the organization, a woman, but it was quickly made clear to me that “my discomfort” was my problem and I should not rock the boat.

I learned from this that you weren’t supposed to complain when he remarked on your looks, or when you were repeatedly asked to work late or come into the office on the weekend only to find yourself alone with him. You didn’t say anything when you found him first standing in the doorway of your small office, then coming in and closing the door behind “just to discuss the findings in your paper.” You did what you could to keep it completely professional, and then said you had to use the restroom, or someone was waiting for you, or you really needed to get home for some reason, any reason, so you could get out of there. You didn’t react when people talked about all the women in the field with whom he’d had affairs. You were told you lacked a sense of humor when you couldn’t laugh it off. And when it finally became too much, you left.

I left knowing that no matter how renowned, smart, well-regarded, or successful a person is, he or she can still use the power of their position to abuse someone else, to make a staff person uncomfortable or worse, and then make it look as though the employee was the real problem. I also learned that the more widely heralded the abuser, the harder it is to expose the abuse because there is a sort of protective shield that surrounds such prominent people, created by the board members, funders, colleagues, or others invested in the reputation of that particular leader by virtue of their own proximity to or investment in genius or celebrity. The protective layer surrounding “invincible” people also invariably includes other leaders in the same community from whom you might later seek a job, but by then you’re already labeled a troublemaker.

From what little I know, the story of what reportedly happened at FitzGibbon Media tracks closely with my experiences: Women (and in this case at least it was women) working in a widely lauded firm on issues about which they care deeply suddenly found themselves put in uncomfortable and degrading positions of having to fend off the boss or another superior. And they knew or at least felt speaking up would get them nowhere but unemployed.

In this case, history suggests there’s a good reason for FitzGibbon employees to be skeptical of confronting him.

That’s because FitzGibbon had been “disciplined” for predatory behavior while at Fenton Communications, another well-known media firm that bills itself as “social change communications.”

As Amanda Terkel, Ryan Grim, and Sam Stein wrote at the Huffington Post:

During his prior employment at Fenton Communications, a major PR firm, a female colleague accused him of sexual harassment, Bill Werde, Fenton’s current CEO, confirmed to The Huffington Post on Thursday night.

“The firm immediately investigated the claims and brought in a nationally recognized workplace expert to conduct a day long training with all employees in the Washington office, focused on preventing and handling any incidences of sexual harassment,” Werde said in a statement. “Employees were also offered follow-up consultations with the expert.”

At the time of that complaint, FitzGibbon was a senior staffer, according to a source who worked with him. He was disciplined, the source said, but not fired. After the accusation and the firm’s investigation, other female employees came forward with similar harassment complaints. Fenton’s leadership closely monitored FitzGibbon’s behavior, Werde said. And for the remaining years of his tenure, which ended in 2008, Werde said that “no other complaints were brought to the company’s attention.”

An “expert” was brought in who apparently did not recommend removing the abuser from the place of his abuse? Fenton’s leadership “closely monitored” FitzGibbon’s behavior? Really?

Here is how that translates for me. Someone who was allegedly harassing and exhibiting at least abusive behavior toward several female employees was “disciplined” but retained his position in the firm, presumably including his pay, benefits, retirement accounts, vacation, and sick leave. He went on sabbatical and later returned to work, likely in close proximity to the women he’d harassed. Fenton’s Werde notes that “for the remaining years of his term, no complaints were brought to the company’s attention.” To which I feel like the appropriate response is “Duh.” Why would anyone bring anything to the attention of the same largely white male leadership that basically gave a pass to a guy who serially harassed several female employees because he was apparently too valuable to lose?

In situations where these conditions flourish, people facing abuse are not going to come forward, especially not when the abuser is apparently or ostensibly so irreplaceable that the health, well-being, and security of the people who support that work are secondary considerations if they are considered at all, or when the admission of abuse becomes an obstacle to the reputation of the firm.

The stark reality of what happens to staff in these situations is being played out today.

“Junior staffers are living paycheck to paycheck,” Ginny Simmons, former vice president, digital, at FitzGibbon Media told Rewire. “And the last one will be Dec 31. We didn’t get the bonuses that were owed to us and many were planning for. We got no severance. No advance notice.”

“Our healthcare ends Jan 31,” she continued. “One staffer is 6 months pregnant with twins. She is very worried about getting a new job at this point. We have two staffers who are recent cancer survivors who are about to lose their health insurance.”

“Nothing is OK about anything that has happened,” Simmons concluded. To help out, allies have set up a fund for the former employees as they attempt to find new work.

The progressive community is about social change. Too often, though, that change is envisioned as creating a world that does not apply to what happens in the domain of those in power. “The world,” however, does indeed include what happens on your watch and under your proverbial roof. The people who work with and for you are not any different—no less deserving of fair pay, equal rights, health-care benefits, family leave, or protection from harassment, abuse, and violence—than are the populations for which your clients pay you to advocate.

And yet, there are too many stories even in the progressive community of egregious behavior we would not accept elsewhere.

Sometimes it feels like nothing will ever change. I don’t have the answers to whether and how it will. I would like not to feel that things I experienced years ago are still happening to people today, at least not within the community that in principle ostensibly stands against violence and harassment of all kinds. And yet here we are.

Still, I am very cautiously optimistic. There is, right now, a lot of soul-searching going on in the progressive community and a great deal of discussion underway, some of it appropriately angry, hurt, and disappointed. Individuals and groups are grappling with what it takes first to stop abuse from happening, and to ensure that no victim of abuse is made invisible or feels they have nowhere to go.

These are as yet just conversations, so caution is warranted. But it is past time for all individuals, groups, and leaders in the progressive community to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be progressive? Are we as progressive inside as we strive to be outside? What is needed to ensure all employees entering new jobs find a welcoming environment; that all employees know their rights and have mechanisms to exercise them; and that every employee is “visible,” while no one is seen as “invincible?”

There are no easy answers to any of this. Instead, it will take hard work and constant vigilance from within and throughout our community to be the change we claim to want in the wider world. Six months from now Rewire will come back to you with a report on what has come out of this, because unless we all hold ourselves accountable, no one will be.

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