Do you remember that time millions of women all over the world virtually simultaneous came forward to publicly disclose, over various social media platforms, that they too had experienced sexual harassment or assault at work? It was accurately described as an avalanche, a turning point, a global phenomenon. The sheer numbers were shocking to behold.
Within days over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo” had been shared in 85 countries.
To many, this was definitive proof of the almost-universality of this scourge. It planted tiny seeds of hope that perhaps the damning revelation, the prolific extent to which girls and women experienced abuse and assault and harassment in schools, hospitals, board rooms, construction sites, film sets, restaurants, public transport, everywhere and anywhere, might, finally, trigger a reckoning.
I’m thinking about that right now. I’m angry.
Do you remember how this hashtag #MeToo was consider something of a harbinger for men’s lives being ruined? How so many innocent men would fall prey to scurrilous accusations of misconduct by vengeful women? How the potential for ‘misunderstanding’ was going to make life impossibly difficult for men in workplaces? How senior men would be scared to mentor young women lest they face allegations of harassment or assault. Remember that?
I do. And I remember feeling enraged. Not even a backdrop of 1.7 million women telling the same torrid tales in just a few days was enough to put the spotlight firmly on the multitudes of men who had abused their power to assault or harass women in their midst. We needed to think of the men who did not abuse their power. We needed to think of the women who concocted these stories for their own gain. We needed to think about protecting men at work from a culture in which accountability featured.
The fact that since time immemorial there is not a single woman who springs to mind who has ‘won’ by making an allegation of sexual harassment against a man the trope continues. Women do not win. Whatever the criteria. Women leave workplaces. They forgo promotions. They walk away from careers they worked hard at having a shot at. They have their motives scrutinised. They have their honesty questioned. They have their names smeared. Women do not “win” when it comes to sexual harassment.
But men? They sometimes do. And even one man ‘winning’ after being found to have harassed a female colleague is too many.
In recent weeks it was reported that a senior executive at AMP, Boe Pahari, was promoted after he had been fined $500,000 for harassing a female colleague. That’s ‘winning’. He was deemed an appropriate candidate for a more senior role despite the fact his employer had found he perpetrated conduct against a colleague that was deemed inappropriate to the tune of half a million dollars.
That’s pretty gobsmacking. I don’t know how many employers would look at conduct – totally unrelated to actual work undertaken – that cost an individual $500,000 and still deem them worthy for greater responsibility.
When I first read those early reports I was staggered by the values it revealed about a publicly listed organisation. About the message it sent to other employees: to potential peddlers of harassment as well as victims.
Given AMP is an organisation that had reasonable grounds for being more than a little alert to issues that may give rise to reputational damage than others made it even more alarming. But that wasn’t even the worst of it.
Despite wanting to get on with her life and protect her privacy, Julia Szlakowski, the executive who was allegedly subject to serious sexual harassment by her former boss, Pahari, in 2017 is speaking out.
“After reading the various statements about these matters from AMP, I feel compelled to defend my reputation by setting the record straight,” she said in a statement.
Following the Financial Review’s initial investigation into Pahari, AMP described Pahari’s conduct as constituting “lower-level breaches” of the company’s code of conduct. The statements issued on behalf of both AMP and Pahari said the executive had “apologised” for the “comments”.
But Szlakowski has confirmed via her lawyers Maurice Blackburn, she has not received an apology and wants the full seven-page document outlining the behaviour she was subject to made public. She also wants AMP to release its full report from the investigation.
“The conduct Ms Szlakowski alleged did not constitute an isolated incident of poor judgment, nor simple ‘comments’ that could be brushed aside as merely ‘uncomfortable’, as AMP and Mr Pahari had described in their public statement,” Maurice Blackburn said.
In the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday Josh Bornstein from Maurice Blackburn said “lower level breaches of the company’s code of conduct” ordinarily means telling “crude sexualised jokes or engaged in something of that nature”.
“Now having reviewed the detailed allegations, it is clear that the company’s public statements are deceptive and misleading because they trivialise what happened to Julia Szlakowski. There is nothing in AMP’s public statements that acknowledge that Ms Szlakowski was [allegedly] sexually harassed and traumatised and that her career with the company was prematurely finished as a result of what happened,” he said.
The details that have emerged from Szlakowski’s account of her experience in 2017, which AMP reportedly found to be factually correct, are deeply troubling.
She was warned about Pahari’s interest in late night “work” functions early in her employment. Among other things Pahari used $13,000 in company funds to fly Julia to a meeting in London her direct boss said she didn’t need to attend. He personally extended her hotel room for additional nights so she could stay longer, gave her his credit card to buy a new dress for a fancy dinner and suggested if she didn’t it would be as humiliating as being told he had a “limp dick”. He allegedly separated her from the rest of the team at a dinner and then insisted she accompany him late at night to exclusive members-only club. He allegedly encouraged her to communicate with him via WhatsApp because that way AMP couldn’t see their messages.
She returned from the trip in June 2017 and filed a complaint to her employer. Of filing the complaint she said: “It was impressed upon me that my success at AMP was inextricably tied to my harasser’s support and mentorship. That ultimately proved to be true.”
She left AMP in March 2018. This week she’s broken her silence in response to the way AMP has sought to frame her former colleague’s conduct.
A few things are clear and a few things are not.
What is not clear to me is how any employee in any organisation can reportedly misuse company money and misappropriate another employee’s time without that, in and of itself, representing something of a dampener on their future progression?
What is clear is that this matter cannot accurately be described as “low-level” anything and it’s opportunistic and insulting to suggest otherwise. But even worse, that AMP issued a statement suggesting that an apology had been made when that had not been made. If there is proof of the impunity a company believes it ought to enjoy, that is pretty damning.
It is bad enough to Szlakowski had to encounter a work colleague who sought to abuse his position the way Pahari allegedly did. It is worse that after making “one of the most nerve-racking decisions of [her] life” to make a complaint, she left the workplace while he was promoted. But the fact her former employer would choose to defend its actions to promote that person by trivialising what she faced and by dishonestly claiming it had the decency to issue an apology that has never been offered, is utterly repugnant.
Thank you must be extended to Julia Szlakowski for being willing to call that out. To correct the record.
It seems clear that the respect AMP is interested in extending towards her now remains unchanged from when she was in its employ and made the difficult decision to make a detailed complaint. It’s non-existent.
At the very least she is entitled to privacy, to move on and to never think of the Australian company she once worked for ever again. She has traded that in to reveal the devastating and insulting chasm between this company’s public line and the ugly reality. May her courage – this time – make a difference.
“Now AMP has two choices: it can continue to downplay a credible sexual harassment complaint, which impugns all survivors, or take action to bring about lasting and meaningful change.”