The Noble Law is thrilled to share the first episode of our employment law podcast, Workplace in Progress. Through this podcast series, Managing Partner, Laura Noble, will discuss laws surrounding employment, their effects, and where change is needed with insightful guests who are knowledgeable in law and specific industries of employment.
In our pilot episode, Laura meets with Emily Martin, Vice President for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center, to discuss the investigation and subsequent resignation of New York Governor Cuomo. They review the investigation process, the impact this event has made on the #MeToo movement, and how the National Women’s Law Center and TIME’s UP Legal Defense Fund continues to connect victims of sexual discrimination and harassment with the legal assistance they need.
Allegations Against Governor Cuomo
In December 2020, multiple women came forward with allegations that Governor Cuomo sexually harassed them. The Executive Chamber made a referral to the New York State Attorney General to investigate the allegations. The investigation began in March 2021. The investigators interviewed 179 people and reviewed more than 74,000 documents. After 5 months, the investigation ended.
Their report’s major findings were that:
- Governor Cuomo sexually harassed multiple women — including former and current state employees — by engaging in unwanted groping, kissing, and hugging, and making inappropriate comments.
- The governor and his senior staff retaliated against one former employee for coming forward with her story.
- The Executive Chamber fostered a “toxic” workplace that enabled “harassment to occur and created a hostile work environment.”
The Report concluded that Governor Cuomo’s actions and those of the Executive Chamber violated multiple state and federal laws, as well as the Executive Chamber’s own written policies.
The investigation of Governor Cuomo was atypical treatment for a high-profile public official. What made this investigation unique was not only the thorough and transparent process, but the availability of the investigation’s findings to the public. It is a testament of the progress we have made in taking sexual harassment allegations and investigations seriously, and it can act as a model for future investigations.
Authority and Workplace Environment
Workplace environment is one of the most influential factors when it comes to preventing or condoning sexual harassment. If a workplace allows even minor abuses of power, that imbalance can snowball into much more serious issues.
Prior to the #MeToo movement in 2017, there was no certainty that coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace would result in a serious investigation. There was no guarantee that anyone would believe a victim enough to listen, enough to take action, and, subsequently, enough to demand accountability from their abuser. However, victims did have the guarantee that speaking up could end in retaliation of some kind by their employer, and still exists to this day.
Accountability for High-Profile Figures
When you’re working in politics, you care about your party and its policy. Coming forward with a sexual harassment claim not only reflects poorly on the public official in question, but on your party as a whole. It can feel as though making your story public will ruin the hard work you have put into supporting a cause you truly care for. Because of this, women who work in nonprofits, politics, and academics are much less likely to speak out against high-profile figures associated with their work.
It is a common misconception that making allegations about sexual harassment is an easy venture, that in a post #MeToo era, everyone will listen and unconditionally support the accuser. In reality, making a complaint about harassment still frequently results in retaliation of some kind. The public will question the integrity and motives of the person making allegations, particularly when the allegations are being made against a political figure. The findings of Governor Cuomo’s investigation make clear that both the governor and those working close to him established a workplace where reasonable fear of retaliation existed. Even in his response, Governor Cuomo perpetuated the notion that the allegations were “politically motivated,” although the investigation did not determine this to be the case.
To supporters of Governor Cuomo, and of high-profile figures who have faced similar allegations, the loss of such leaders seems disproportionate to the harassment of which they are accused. However, per Emily Martin, “it isn’t that there is such a shortage of leadership in the nation that we have to accept abuses by the people in charge.” It is possible to support a leader who will bring about positive change without committing workplace misconduct, and it is possible for Andrew Cuomo to continue supporting positive change without the title of governor.
“Be Heard in the Workplace” Act
The National Women’s Law Center has proposed a new bill to Congress regarding workplace rights, which they have titled the “Be Heard in the Workplace” Act. The bill proposes that everyone who works should be protected from harassment and discrimination in the workplace, despite current legal limitations such as independent contractor status or the size of their employing company. Additionally, it seeks revise the outdated requirements currently in place to prove sexual harassment in court and extend the time limit victims have to bring harassment charges to the EEOC. You can learn more about the many benefits of the “Be Heard in the Workplace” Act and the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund on the National Women’s Law Center website.