Moments before President Trump’s first State of the Union address Tuesday, Hillary Clinton dropped a lengthy statement on her decision not to fire a high-level campaign staffer accused of sexual harassment. We edited the 1,500-word Facebook post to make it more clear, accurate, and concise.
The most important work of my life has been to support and empower women to obtain as much political power as I can, regardless of what it cost me and other women around me. I’ve tried to do so here at home, around the world, and in the organizations I’ve run. I started in my twenties, and four decades later I’m nowhere near being done making excuses. In fact I’m proud that it’s the work I’m most associated with, and it remains what I’m most dedicated to. of myself.
So I very much understand the question I’m being asked as to why I let an employee on my 2008 campaign keep his job despite his inappropriate workplace behavior my knowledge that he inappropriately touched a woman who worked for me, and otherwise sexually harassed her.
The short answer is this: If I had it to do again, I wouldn’t. At the time it was politically expedient to keep him on and cover the whole thing up, but now it’s not.
Before giving some of the reasons why I made a different choice chose back then to protect a man accused of sexual harassment at the expense of a woman who works for me and why looking back I wish I’d done it differently I continue to tell myself it’s NBD, here’s what happened and what my thinking was at the time.
In 2007, a woman working on my campaign came forward with a complaint about her supervisor behaving inappropriately toward her sexually harassing her. She and her complaint were taken seriously were dealt with in order to cause minimal damage to my campaign. Senior campaign staff and legal counsel spoke to both her and the offender. They determined that he had in fact engaged in inappropriate behavior sexually harassed her. My then-campaign manager, a woman, presented me with her findings – the woman’s superior had kissed and touched her inappropriately, and sent her suggestive emails that made her so uncomfortable she never wanted to interact with him in a work capacity again. She recommended that he be fired.
Instead of taking the woman’s story and the advice of my female campaign manager seriously, I quickly thought of my own political interests. I asked for steps that could be taken short of termination. In the end, I decided to demote him, docking his pay; separate him from the woman allow him more opportunities to harass other female staffers; assign her to a different job work directly for my then-deputy-campaign manager; put in place technical barriers to his emailing her because he couldn’t be trusted to treat her with respect; and require that he seek counseling. He would also be warned that any subsequent harassment of any kind toward anyone would result in immediate termination.
I did this because I didn’t think firing him was the best solution to the problem. He needed to be punished, change his behavior, and understand why his actions were wrong so he could continue helping me achieve my political goals. The young woman needed to be able to thrive and feel safe. I thought both could happen without him losing his job causing me political damage. I believed the punishment was severe and the message to him unambiguous.
I also believe in second chances, particularly when I stand to benefit politically. I’ve been given second and third, and fourth chances to hurt the women I claim to champion, and I have given them to others. I want to continue to believe in them. But sometimes they’re squandered. In this case, while there were no further complaints against him for the duration of the campaign, several years after working for me he was terminated from another job for inappropriate behavior accused of harassing another young woman who worked for him and fired. That reoccurrence troubles me greatly makes it hard for me to excuse my choice to shield him, and it alone makes clear that the lesson I hoped he had learned while working for me went unheeded my decision almost certainly enabled him to continue harassing women. Would he have done better – been better – if I had fired him? Would he have gotten that next job? There is no way I can go back 10 years and know the answers. But you can bet I’m asking myself these questions right now. This raises questions that are very frustrating for me politically.
Over the years, I have made, directly and indirectly, thousands of personnel decisions – everything from hiring to promoting to disciplining to firing. Most of these decisions worked out well. But I’ve gotten some wrong: I’ve hired the wrong people for the wrong jobs; I’ve come down on people too hard at times. Through it all, I’ve always taken firing very seriously. Okay, time to start making excuses. Taking away someone’s livelihood is perhaps the most serious thing an employer can do. When faced with a situation like this, if I think it’s possible to avoid termination while still doing right by everyone involved, I am inclined in that direction. I do not put this forward as a virtue or a vice – just as a fact about how I view these matters. First, firing people is hard, especially when it might hurt my public image.
When The New York Times reported on this incident last week, my first thought was for the young woman involved. So I reached out to her – most importantly, to see how she was doing, but also to help me reflect on my decision and its consequences I immediately went into damage control mode. It’s never easy for me when something painful or personal like this surfaces, much less when it appears all over the news. I called her not knowing what I’d hear. Whatever she had to say, I wanted her to be able to say it, and say it to me. hoping she would give me a pass for my actions.
She expressed appreciation that she worked on a campaign where she knew she could come forward without fear. She was glad that her accusations were taken seriously, that there was a clear process in place for dealing with harassment, and that it was followed. Most importantly, she told me that for the remainder of the campaign, she flourished in her new role. We talked about her career, policy issues related to the work she’s doing now, and her commitment to public service. And she did! I told her how grateful I was to her for working on my campaign and believing in me as a candidate. She’s read every word of this and has given me permission to share it. Wow, she really came through for me.
It was reassuring to hear that she felt supported back then – and that all these years later, those feelings haven’t changed. That again left me glad that my campaign had in place a comprehensive process for dealing with complaints. even if she wasn’t. The fact that the woman involved felt heard and supported reinforced my belief that the process worked – at least to a degree. At the time, I believed the punishment I imposed was severe and fit the offense. Indeed, while we are revisiting whether my decision from a decade ago was harsh enough, many employers would be well served to take actions at least as severe when confronted with problems now – including the very media outlet that broke this story. They recently opted to suspend and reinstate one of their journalists who exhibited similarly inappropriate behavior, rather than terminate him. A decade from now, that decision may not look as tough as it feels today. The norms around sexual harassment will likely have continued to change as swiftly and significantly in the years to come as they have over the years until now.
Over the past year, a seismic shift has occurred in the way we approach and respond to sexual harassment, both as a society and as individuals. This shift was long overdue. It occurred thanks to women unlike myself across industries who stood up and spoke out, from Hollywood to sports to farm workers – to the very woman who worked for me.
For most of my life, harassment wasn’t something talked about or even acknowledged. More women than not experience it to some degree in their life, and until recently, the response was often to laugh it off or tough it out. That’s changing, and that’s a good thing. My own decision to write in my memoir about my experiences being sexually harassed and physically threatened early in my career – the first time was in college – was more agonizing than it should have been. I know that I’m one of the lucky ones, and what happened to me seemed so commonplace that I wondered if it was even worth sharing. But in the end, that’s exactly why I chose to write about it: because I don’t want this behavior or these attitudes to be accepted as “normal” for any woman, especially those just starting out in their lives.
No woman should have to endure harassment or assault – at work, at school, or anywhere. And men are now on notice that they will truly be held accountable for their actions. Especially now that people are confronting me with the consequences of my choice to shield a man accused of sexual harassment, we all need to be thinking about the complexities of sexual harassment, and be willing to challenge ourselves to reassess and question our own views.
In other words, everyone’s now on their second chance, both the offenders and the decision-makers. Let’s do our best to make the most of it.
We can’t go back, but we can certainly look back, informed by the present. We can acknowledge that even those of us who have spent much of our life thinking about gender issues and who have firsthand experiences of navigating a male-dominated industry or career may not always get it right.
I recognize that the situation on my 2008 campaign was unusual in that a woman complained to a woman who brought the issue to a woman who was the ultimate decision maker. There was no man in the chain of command. The boss was a woman campaigning for president as a champion of women. Does a woman have a responsibility to come down even harder on the perpetrator? Should other women be held accountable for their actions in cases like these? I don’t know. But I do believe that a woman boss has an extra responsibility to look out for the women who work for her, and to better understand how issues like these can affect them. that I should be given a free pass.
I was inspired by my conversation with this young woman to express my own thinking on the matter. You may question why it’s taken me time to speak on this at length. The answer is simple: I’ve been grappling with this and thinking about how best to share my thoughts. I hope that my doing so will push others to keep having this conversation – to ask and try to answer the hard questions, not just in the abstract but in the real-life contexts of our roles as men, women, bosses, employees, advocates, and public officials. I hope that women will continue to talk and write about their own experiences and that they will continue leading this critical debate, which, done right, will lead to a better, fairer, safer country for us all.
Since Clinton’s statement doesn’t constitute much of an apology (or sufficient explanation), we went one step further and wrote her a new one. Here’s what a more genuine statement of remorse might look like:
“I’m sorry I put my career and ambitions ahead of the well-being of a young woman. I’m sorry I derailed her career aspirations to keep a scandal inside my campaign from becoming public. I’m sorry I didn’t follow the advice of the people who told me to fire him. Most of all, I’m sorry for giving America yet another example of politicians living contrary to the beliefs they publicly espouse. And last but not least, I’m sorry I tried to use Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address as cover for this lame, poorly constructed apology.”