I Was Falsely Accused of Sexual Harassment and Fired. I Sued.

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer

2/5/2019

Euromoney’s office in Hong Kong

Few things have dominated headlines in the US like the Me Too movement. Dubbed a revolution by its proponents, and an inquisition by its critics, it has carved a swath through American society, changing campuses and workplaces, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, felling the guilty and the innocent alike, embroiling the blameworthy, the clumsy, and the merely unfortunate.

 

In Asia, though, it seems less of a thing. Which is not to say such cases don’t exist. I would know. One of them is mine.

***

Our story begins in 2017. I was a reporter at the Hong Kong office of Euromoney Institutional Investor, a business and financial information company. The six months I spent there were pleasant. My colleagues, on the whole, were great, and I got along with most of them, as I did with my boss, who was based in London. The standards there were boringly easy to meet, and everyone seemed pleased with my performance.

 

It was a lunch that would precipitate the end of my time there, though, a lunch for a colleague who was leaving, held at a nearby restaurant. I arrived late, and had to take the only remaining place at the big round table, next to a female colleague named Joey Law. I had a placemat, but no chair, so I had to drag one in. The guy to my left moved to make space for me, but Joey did not. I sat down, but my chair still couldn’t be pulled up to the table properly, and so I nudged Joey and asked her to scoot over to give me more room. She did, and I sat down and ate with everyone else. After lunch we all returned to the office, and I returned to my work.

 

Three hours later I noticed I’d received an email from Joey with the ominous subject “Final Warning.”

 

You deliberately pressed on my waist with your hand when you squeezed into the table during the farewell lunch today, when you could just pat on my shoulder and tell me to scoot over. I found it extremely disturbing and unacceptable and I believe I have been sexually harassed by you. There is no excuse to it and I am writing this letter to serve as the final warning. If you ever touch me again, for whatever reasons, I am reporting to HR and the police.

I demand a proper apology from you as this is a very serious and offensive matter.

 

A few things about Joey. First, I never paid much attention to her; I didn’t work with her in any capacity, and the last time I voluntarily spoke to her was something like five months prior. Second, she’s not in the least bit attractive.

 

A sexual harassment allegation is shocking. It’s one of those things you don’t think will ever happen to you until it does. I think anyone who’s been accused of sexual harassment should do some introspection. Presumably, no one would accuse someone of that solely from something as innocuous as a nudge. Surely there must have been some history there, some context, something that would make her suspect I had a sexual interest in her. Had anything like that happened before? Did I seem too friendly to her in the past? Did I smile too much? Did I stand too close to her? Did I maintain too much eye contact?

 

However, since I knew I barely interacted with her whatsoever, and regarded her only with indifference or vague dislike, the answer all to those questions could only have been “No,” and she had no sound cause to make her allegation. If she truly believed her own accusation, she was nuts, and if she didn’t, she was a liar.

 

Was I insulted? Yes. It’s bad enough to be accused of being a creep; I was being accused of being a creep with bad taste.

It’s bad enough to be accused of being a creep; I was being accused of being a creep with bad taste.

Still, it’s important to respond with tact and sensitivity:

What on earth are you talking about? Please don’t flatter yourself, that would never happen in a million years.

I have no interest in you whatsoever and I almost never interact with you.

You can report it if you wish, but there’s really no reason anyone would take you seriously.

I think you might need therapy.

S

 

After replying, I went back to my work.

***

Picture Credit: ctj71081

“Dude, that could be really serious,” a friend of mine told me over drinks that night.

 

I yawned. “Unlikely. No one’s gonna be dumb enough to believe her story, and even if they did, I, what, nudged her waist in a sexual manner? What the hell is that supposed to be?”

 

“True, not like she’s saying you grabbed her ass or something.”

 

I shuddered dramatically.

 

“Still, though. You should take steps to protect yourself. You should try to report it before she does. The first thing you should do when you get back on Monday is go to HR and tell them what happened and that you didn’t-”

 

“I’m not gonna do that. It’s undignified.”

 

“Seriously, man. Go to HR and get it on record. You need to protect yourself.”

 

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

***

I didn’t think about it. Or at least not for long. Why? Yes, it did seem rather undignified to be running scared over such a spurious allegation. And, the whole thing was so dumb! If we ended up having to waste time on this nonsense, it sure as hell wouldn’t be because I initiated it.

 

The week after I was called in for a meeting with the human resource manager, Catherine Wong. She conveyed to me Joey’s allegation and her demand that I apologize. I explained to her why the allegation was absurd, because, for one thing, who’d be dumb enough to sexually harass someone in broad daylight in front of all their colleagues, and with the supervisor just two seats away? I also flatly refused Joey’s demand. I wasn’t gonna apologize for nudging someone to move, something people do all the time in crowded trains and buses and elevators when others are in their personal space.

 

“Apologies are for people who have done something wrong,” I said, “and I have not done anything wrong.”

The following week I was called in to speak with Ralph Cunningham, the de facto supervisor of the Legal Media Group at Euromoney, of which Joey and I were a part. Ralph told me that Joey was demanding I apologize in writing. Again, I refused. Apologizing here smacked of appeasement, and I doubted whether it would solve the problem. If a nudge could trigger her, anything could. What would happen a month or two later?

 

“What happens if in future I’m walking down the corridor and I pass her and she claims that I looked at her funny, and she makes an issue out of that?” I asked.

 

Ralph replied that in that case they’d look into it, depending on the circumstances.

 

As you can imagine, I didn’t find that terribly reassuring. And in that scenario, I’d have been in a weaker position for having apologized in the past.

 

Something was very odd. I’d always liked Ralph, and I’d trusted him to do right by me. Now, though, he wouldn’t even look me in the eye. He seemed frustrated and nervous. His eyes darted furtively around the room like rats trying to get out of a cage. He ended the meeting by saying he was very disappointed in my attitude on the matter.

His eyes darted furtively around the room like rats trying to get out of a cage.

I sent Catherine and Ralph a memo explaining my position and my reasons for it, but received no reply. A few days later, I was called into another meeting, this time with both of them. There, they told me they had conducted an investigation, spoken to two other colleagues Joey had brought in, and had decided to fire me.

 

I asked what they said, but Catherine and Ralph wouldn’t tell me. I asked how their testimony could be relevant, given that they were too far away at the lunch to have seen anything, but again they wouldn’t tell me.

 

Nor had they checked to see if Joey had interfered with her witnesses, nor given me the chance to cross-examine my accusers, nor the chance to produce witnesses in my defense, if only to attest to my character. There was CCTV at the restaurant that might clarify the matter, I said. Had they tried to obtain it? They hadn’t.

 

I asked them what in the hells kind of investigation they’d conducted, then. Ralph told me I’d been offered a way out through apologizing, but I’d refused to take it. They told me that they’d consulted their lawyers, and under Hong Kong law I had virtually no rights as an employee since I’d been working there for less than two years and they could fire me for any reason or no reason at all, but were offering to let me resign.

 

I threw their offer back in their faces. They tried to get me to sign a document that waived any legal rights I might have, and I threw that back in their faces too. Soon after I left, many of my former colleagues asked me what happened.

 

“That’s so fucking stupid,” said one, when I replied.

 

“Man, I don’t believe you’d do anything like that,” said another. “You are not that kind of a person.”

***

It would be nice to say that my story is unusual, that all men fired because of sexual harassment allegations are reprehensible and abusive and vile, as many of them no doubt are, but that would not be true.

 

The lack of due process and the low standards of proof required for sexual harassment allegations to be believed or acted upon, or sometimes even the dispensation with the need for any standards at all, mean that the innocent will often be harmed along with the guilty.

 

In 2017, a female journalist accused Harold E. Ford Jr., a former congressman and a Morgan Stanley executive, of sexual harassment. Ford denied the accusation, and after conducting an investigation, Morgan Stanley concluded that it was a he-said, she-said situation and found no proof of harassment. It fired Ford anyway. Morgan Stanley officials briefed on the process told the New York Times that “amid a national outcry over sexual harassment, the bank had little choice but to fire Ford after it learned of the allegation,” apparently regardless of whether he had actually done it or not.

 

Especially harmful are nonsensical slogans like “Believe Women” and “Believe Survivors/Victims.” The first, insofar as it means “Believe women over men” (which it usually does), is blatantly sexist. The second is circular. If someone is really a survivor or victim, that means he or she’s telling the truth about being sexually assaulted or harassed, so obviously that person should be believed by everyone. The problem is it’s often impossible or difficult to know who’s telling the truth, at least not without a careful investigation or trial, which is why we have those things in the first place. In an article in the New Yorker, Harvard Law School Professor Jeannie Suk Gersen criticized the “near religious teaching among many people today that if you are against sexual assault, then you must always believe individuals who say they have been assaulted.” She noted how “[e]xamining evidence and concluding that a particular accuser is not indeed a survivor, or a particular accused is not an assailant, is a sin that reveals that one is a rape denier, or biased in favor of perpetrators.”

Picture Credit: Mobilus In Mobili

But why would a woman accuse someone of sexual assault or harassment if it hadn’t actually happened? That question used to give me more pause. From my own experience, and from some other cases I’ve read about, however, I now know that the answer can be because she was mentally unstable, or because she disliked that person (or his politics) and wanted to mess with him, or because she wanted his job, or because she wanted attention, or because she was bored, or because she wanted to “feel part of something bigger than herself,” or because of any number of other base reasons.

 

This is not to say, of course, that women are not reliable or trustworthy, only that they are human, that just like men, they can be motivated by animus and self-interest; just like men, they are capable of craziness and envy and duplicity and manipulation. “My fundamental position is that women are human beings,” the author and feminist Margaret Atwood wrote in response to the Me Too movement, “with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviors this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.”

Margaret Attwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale

In March, Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor at Harvard Law School, wrote that he was being accused of sexual misconduct by two women even though he wasn’t even in the same place they were at the time the incident is alleged to have occurred. To clear his name, he called for the FBI to open a criminal investigation into his own past.

 

In August 2017, a woman named Jemma Beale was convicted and jailed for 10 years for falsely accusing 15 men of sexual assault. Before police realized she was a serial accuser, she had received some $14,000 from the taxpayer in compensation, and one of the men she had falsely accused had already spent two years in prison.

Jemma Beale

The solution to this problem is due process. Unfortunately, due process in cases of alleged sexual misconduct is becoming an increasingly rare commodity. Many organizations are so paranoid about being branded “soft on sexual misconduct” that they’re willing to dispense with it to avoid that perception. This seems especially bad on college campuses in the US. In an interview February 2018, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed that in some colleges, males accused of sexual misconduct were not being given a fair hearing, which she said contravened “one of the basic tenets of our system.” In August 2017, four feminist Harvard law professors – Gersen, Elizabeth Bartholet, Nancy Gertner, and Janet Halley – released a paper called “Fairness for All,” writing that procedures on campuses “are frequently so unfair as to be truly shocking.” For example, “some colleges and universities fail even to give students the complaint against them, or notice of the factual basis of the charges, the evidence gathered, or the identities of witnesses.” I can relate.

 

Particular opprobrium should go to those who call for action against people who’ve been accused of trivial things. A demand that action be taken against someone you suspect to be a rapist, even in the absence of due process, is understandable (though still not excusable). I have far less sympathy when the alleged offense itself is minor or innocuous, the sexual equivalent of a “microaggression.” The case of former Vice President Joe Biden, who was heavily criticized for kissing a female legislator on the back of the head before a rally, is the prime example. That a man as good and earnest as Biden, someone who has spent much of his life fighting for women’s rights, is smeared as some sort of molester for his ebullient warmth is an indication of how out of control the Me Too movement has gotten. Far from being something that empowers women, it’s becoming something that weakens them, that cripples them with neuroses and urges them to take offence at any perceived slight or informality. This is something that should be resisted by women as well as men. In an article in the New York Times, Daphne Merkin worried about a return to a “victimology paradigm,” in which young women “are perceived to be – and perceive themselves to be – as frail as Victorian housewives.” “Let’s not turn women into snowflakes,” former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking on the same issue, told CNN. “Let’s not infantilize women.”

Joe Biden

Faith Moore, writing in PJ Media, put it more bluntly. “Imagine a conversation in which one person says, ‘I was sexually harassed,’ and the other says, ‘Me too!’ but the first person is talking about being violently forced to submit to sexual intercourse against her will, and the second person is talking about being asked out for a drink. I feel like the first person would be justified in punching the second one in the face.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the excesses of the Me Too movement have caused a pushback. One of the few good things the Trump administration has done is in the sphere of education, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos allowing schools to raise the standard of proof required for findings of sexual misconduct on campuses and calling for investigations to be fair and unbiased and for punishments to be proportionate to the offence. “Any school that refuses to take seriously a student who reports sexual misconduct is one that discriminates,” she said in a speech. “And any school that uses a system biased toward finding a student responsible for sexual misconduct also commits discrimination.”

Betsy DeVos

Much of this pushback is also happening in the courts. Since 2011, over 200 lawsuits have been filed by students (almost all male) accused of sexual misconduct against their universities, according to an advocacy group. “And these plaintiffs are getting an increasingly positive response from judges, who often express astonishment at the campus procedures that have been promulgated,” wrote Emily Yoffe in Politico. In 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an institution’s motivation “to favor the accusing female over the accused male,” in order to shield itself from lawsuits or criticism for not protecting women from sexual assault, could be evidence in itself of unlawful sex discrimination against males. In an article in the New Yorker, Gersen anticipated that there would be an increasing number of cases brought by men fired over sexual misconduct allegations against their former employers, claiming that a desire to implement a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual harassment made these employers biased against men, resulting in termination without proper investigation or due process.

 

Indeed, that’s the very sort of claim I ended up bringing.

***

Euromoney’s lawyers were right about one thing: since I’d been working there for less than two years, under Hong Kong employment law, I could be fired for any reason or no reason at all.

 

What they apparently missed, though, was that there’s another raft of laws – the anti-discrimination ones – that protect employees regardless of how long they’ve been working. They make it illegal to fire anyone because of their race, their disability, and, yes, their gender.

 

Thus, I’m bringing an action against Euromoney under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, since it’s unlikely it would have fired a female employee if a male employee accused her of sexual harassment under the same circumstances, at least not without a proper investigation and due process. I’m asking for it to pay me my salary from the time I was fired until I found a new job, and to write me an apology for so badly mishandling the matter. I’m representing myself, and the case continues to this day. I also returned to the restaurant where we had that fateful lunch to secure the CCTV recording to shed light on what actually occurred.

 

Strange things happened after I told Euromoney I was suing it. Probably fearing that the CCTV recording would exonerate me, it decided to change its story. In a letter from its bumbling lawyer,[1] it claimed that I had not in fact been fired because of the sexual harassment claim, but “as a result of my conduct during and following the investigation of that claim.” Despite numerous requests to explain what that’s supposed to mean, it has so far refused to. Unfortunately for it, however, I secretly took a recording of my termination interview, which shows this to be a lie. A week ago, two years after it fired me, it decided to change its story yet again, now claiming that I was also fired because of what it calls “offensive behavior” including “frequently walking around the office.” All recordings, emails, and notes supporting my story have been filed with the court.

Strange things happened after I told Euromoney I was suing it.

Another strange thing was that shortly after, both Joey, the girl who accused me, and Ralph, the manager who fired me, abruptly left the company. A former colleague, who I met a few months later, told me it was speculated that they’d been fired. Sure enough, a Euromoney ad for Joey’s position soon appeared, as did a notice in an online journalists bulletin stating that Ralph had left Euromoney after 15 years there and was “open to opportunities across Asia.”

 

It’s difficult to know for sure what really happened, of course. But it seems virtually certain Joey and Ralph were fired or forced to resign because they were the two people most directly involved in my termination. Was it a belated realization that Joey’s story was unsubstantiated that seems to have made Euromoney fire them? A feeling that she and Ralph had misled it? More likely, it was a cathartic lashing-out – they’d gotten the company into this lawsuit, so their heads had to roll. Supporting them was the path of least resistance, until it wasn’t. Far from standing by its employees or so-called sexual harassment victims, ultimately, the company stood by the only thing that ever mattered to it – its own skin.

Euromoney documents

Euromoney’s conduct is symptomatic of corporate behavior in the Me Too age: characterized by stupidity, cowardice, faithlessness, a disinterest in the truth, and a willingness to sacrifice employees to save one’s own ass. Investigations are becoming witch-hunts, or exercises in ass-covering, and hearings (if they even take place) have all the fairness of the star chamber.

Euromoney’s conduct is symptomatic of corporate behavior in the Me Too age: characterized by stupidity, cowardice, faithlessness, a disinterest in the truth, and a willingness to sacrifice employees to save one’s own ass.

Thing is, no one benefits from this, save for the liars and extortionists who make false allegations. Not companies that damage their own morale and lose out on good employees because of spurious charges, not men who have to worry about losing their jobs over baseless accusations, not even women or the Me Too movement itself.

 

God knows there’s a long history of sexism and injustice towards women in the workplace, but how do we benefit from exchanging one brand of sexism and injustice for another? No one, male or female, should have to put up with sexual harassment, but spurious allegations make a mockery of everyone who’s ever had a real claim, and all those who’ve fought for those claims to be taken seriously. False or ridiculous claims give feminism a bad name and erode the movement’s credibility, and those who demand that we uncritically believe them would do well to recall what happened to the boy who cried “Wolf.”

Things didn’t turn out so well for him

“These are scary times, for women as well as men,” wrote Daphne Merkin in the New York Times. “There is an inquisitorial whiff in the air[…]Next we’ll be torching people for the content of their fantasies.” “You have chiseled away at a movement that I, along with all my sisters in the workplace, have been dreaming of for decades,” said former CNN anchor Ashleigh Banfield, speaking to comedian Aziz Ansari’s anonymous accuser, “a movement that has finally changed an oversexed professional environment that I, too, have struggled through at times over the last 30 years. All the gains that have been achieved on your behalf and mine are now being compromised by allegations that are reckless and hollow.”

Ashleigh Banfield

The tragedy is that there need not be a trade off between the rights of the accuser and the accused, between fighting sexual misconduct and respect for procedural fairness and proportionality. Companies should listen to allegations and take the most stringent measures to prevent suppression, and, that most despicable of things – retribution. The company should then evaluate the allegation. If it sounds serious, it should conduct a professional investigation, giving the accused the opportunity to hear and challenge evidence or testimony against him, and to produce his own witnesses in his defense. It should then weigh the claim as a whole before coming to a decision. It shouldn’t be afraid to take action where such action is appropriate, nor should it be afraid to dismiss a claim it finds has no merit. If it punishes someone, it should do so knowing it’s right, after having taken all reasonable steps to ascertain the truth, not out of fear or a desire to project an image of “zero tolerance.” The presumption of innocence and due process aren’t just legal concepts – they’re the foundation of any free and just society.

The presumption of innocence and due process aren’t just legal concepts – they’re the foundation of any free and just society.

Indeed, maintaining standards of proof makes for stronger cases and a stronger movement. “In this national ‘just believe’ the accuser moment, it’s important to remember that part of the power of the recent accusations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein and so many others is that they are backed up by meticulous reporting that has provided contemporaneous corroboration,” wrote Emily Yoffe in Politico.

 

The Me Too movement, on the whole, has probably still done more good than harm (though that gap is shrinking). To stay on the right side of that equation, it will have to check its own excesses. Successful revolutions are the ones that respect fundamental rights and bring people together to create lasting change, not those that devolve into reigns of terror. “If men and women of goodwill could work together, they can make historic progress in the fight against harassment and abuse,” said American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers in her vlog, the Factual Feminist. “But to succeed, the movement is going to have to channel its outrage and confront its own excesses.”

 

Earlier, I wrote that women are just as capable of succumbing to base motives as men. But they’re also at least as capable of strength, maturity, and wisdom – and from that comes true power. A powerful woman does not need or want to be believed or judged based on her gender, but on the content of her character, and the merits of her ideas and arguments. She does not fear sexuality. She calls mountains “mountains” and molehills “molehills.” She does not put up with harassment or abuse, but neither does she demand someone’s head over some trivial bullshit.

 

It is this ideal of feminism that must endure.

Ralph Cunningham has declined to comment.

Catherine Wong has declined to comment.

Euromoney has declined to comment.

 

[1] His bungling includes failing to properly read the statute his client is being sued under such that he claimed Section 5 of the Sex Discrimination Ordinance can’t be used by men, relying on nonsensical arguments like standard termination clauses allow employees to be terminated for illegal reasons, complaining to a judge that I’d failed to serve a document on him, before I pointed out that not only had he received it, he’d included it in his own bundle, and other hilarious exploits.