The Tor Project is a network designed to protect users from traffic analysis over the Internet, free to use and run by donations and volunteers. Jacob Appelbaum was a former developer at Tor when he stepped down on May 25, 2016 following “serious, public allegations of sexual mistreatment” according to Shari Steele, Tor’s executive director. Several of the alleged victims created a website sharing their stories of Appelbaum’s sexual harassment. In response on TwitLonger, Appelbaum wrote, “the accusations of criminal sexual misconduct against me are entirely false.” Needless to say, confusion and charged emotions has made this a difficult case and brings up the question of how organizations should deal with sexual harassment.
Within Tor there were rumors circulating that Appelbaum had been sexually harassing others, but nothing was done to address it until a public campaign emerged. In hindsight, it’s easy to say to the alleged victims, “Why don’t you contact the police instead of this publicized campaign,” or, “Why don’t you tell the higher-ups?” But as it turns out, it isn’t so easy after all.
In his book The Gift of Fear, expert of violent behavior Gavin de Becker emphasizes that many people do not act until it is too late because of denial, whether it is denying something as simple as unwanted stalking or a workplace shooting. When it comes to reports of sexual harassment or worse, there is an expectation that imperfection is intolerable: “In some companies, if a manager makes a prediction that an employee’s alarming or disturbing behavior might escalate, and he brings this to his seniors, he runs the risk of being perceived as wrong for overreacting and wrong for not being able to handle the matter himself.”
Here we see two expectations important in American society: being logical is paramount and independence is strength. Nobody wants to be seen as irrational or dependent and weak, however it is only a matter of perspective. In many cases of sexual harassment, there are warning signs, letters and documents highlighting people’s concerns about a coworker’s unruly conduct, or how a certain person scares them, but managers and executives don’t act on this evidence until it explodes. Thus it is actually quite rational to report unwarranted behavior when it continues chronically and multiple people feel the same way. In the same vein, there is also the life lesson that ignoring an issue rarely solves it.
Likewise, admitting that you don’t know how to handle a problem employee should be OK, because it’s not easy to decide whether to give a man or woman a chance, hope he or she changes, or fire him/her. Ironically, the reason that problem employees stay longer than they should is because managers don’t know what to do, and both managers and co-workers would rather walk on eggshells than deal with the issue directly. When people can talk about their concerns regarding dangerous co-worker or employee behavior without fear of judgement, there would be less suffering on the part of victims.
What can companies and organizations do to address sexual harassment and other destructive behaviors? While there’s a lot to consider, education on the warning signs that lead to dangerous behavior can help, along with education on when it is best to provide counseling or best to let go of troubled employees. If anyone is in an unfortunate situation of having to deal with harassment of any type in their workplace, it is important to accept that the small whispers and details matter, and to willingly consult several people or experts if a problem seems too large to handle alone. As they say, prevention is the best medicine.
Interestingly, the advantage of working in the tech industry, and particularly data traffic protection for the people at Tor, is that the anonymity of the Internet allows people to express their emotions and opinions without the same fear of retaliation that traditional workplaces may hold. How nice would it be if we could bring this kind of freedom to all workplaces both online and offline?