How should one apologize when confronted with — and admitting to — sexual misconduct or harassment allegations? A number of alleged perpetrators have been taken to task for their less-than-heartfelt, or just plain tone-deaf public apologies. Actor Kevin Spacey, who was accused of molesting a minor, was criticized for turning his apology into an announcement that he is gay. And just before the holidays, Chef Mario Batali, who was fired from daytime TV cooking show “The Chew” after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, sent an apology via newsletter to the show’s subscribers. He said he accepted “full responsibility” for his “wrong” behavior, and ended his letter with a P.S. — a holiday recipe for Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls.
We cover the topic of sexual harassment in the events industry in our January issue, with the results of a recent poll on the topic — in which 80 percent of meeting planner respondents said they have experienced on-the-job sexual harassment — and interviews with three women who anonymously shared their experiences with me. One of the women (I call her Sara in the story) was groped and kissed by her company’s drunken head of HR at an after-party following a successful end-of-conference celebration, in full view of her colleagues. After a protracted legal investigation into the incident (spoiler alert: he wasn’t terminated), Sara was asked by the higher-ups at her company if it would help her “to have closure” on this incident if the head of HR apologized to her.
Sara said, “Yeah, I would like him to look me in the face and acknowledge that he did this and apologize to me for it.”
Sara expected the apology would probably take place “in a facilitated situation.” But then a week later, she was called into a meeting with the company’s CFO, and he said, “We’ve kind of talked through this. And we talked through it with legal counsel, and they feel like it’s probably not the best way to go about things. So he’s going to write you a written apology.”
Sara said okay, but she said she thought she wished she could get off so easy after doing something wrong. “Like I don’t have to face it,” she said. “So I got a hand-written apology from him where he never … he didn’t apologize. He didn’t take accountability. He said, ‘I’m sorry that you felt the way you did.’ He put it back on me. I saved this note for years and years because it bothered me. And I felt like it was such an example of how I didn’t want to ever apologize. I don’t know if it’s because he didn’t want to put it in writing that he had done something, or whether he doesn’t remember what he did, or he didn’t agree with it, or whatever. But he wouldn’t come right out and say, ‘I’m sorry I did XYZ to you.'”
For Sara, and others who have been harassed, “That is a huge piece that’s missing from this whole discussion,” she said. “As a wrap-up, you have to take accountability for it. You have to apologize for how your actions affected another person.”
That requires putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Perhaps perpetrators will never be able to make things right again, but glossing over the real hurt they caused only compounds the problem. Even if you’re a big fan of cinnamon buns.