Three-term New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was set to end his term Monday night, two weeks after he said he would resign amid growing appetite for his ouster over a sexual harassment scandal. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who has distanced herself from the governor, will be sworn in early Tuesday as the state’s first woman governor.
The Democrat’s Aug. 10 resignation announcement came one week after a state attorney general report found he had harassed 11 women and run afoul of state and federal sexual-harassment laws.
Women recounted allegations of groping, unwanted kisses, comments about their appearances and inappropriate questions about sex, along with a work environment “rife with fear and intimidation,” according to the investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James.
Figures as prominent as President Joe Biden had called for Cuomo’s resignation, while state legislators pursued an impeachment inquiry and county prosecutors launched criminal investigations.
The governor, who has denied some of the harassment allegations while maintaining that some of his behavior was “misinterpreted,” said he would “step aside” to avoid protracted political and legal battles that would “consume government” and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
“I’m a New Yorker, born and bred. I am a fighter, and my instinct is to fight through this controversy, because I truly believe it is politically motivated; I believe it is unfair and it is untruthful,” Cuomo said. “If I could communicate the facts through the frenzy, New Yorkers would understand.”
But he also acknowledged he had at times been “too familiar with people” without realizing “the extent to which the line has been redrawn.” “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate, and I should have — no excuses,” he said.
As Cuomo leaves office, it’s worth knowing how to handle workplace sexual harassment if it happens to you. Experts spoke with MarketWatch about what to do if you find yourself fending off sexual harassment — physical or verbal — from a coworker or boss. Here’s what they said:
Think ahead about how you might handle it
“It’s very common that you just freeze” when you get sexually harassed, said employment lawyer Paula Brantner, the president and principal of the firm PB Work Solutions. “The best way to keep that from happening is to kind of walk through in advance what you would do if this happened.”
Sending a “loud and clear” message in the moment can both help establish that the overture was unwanted from a legal perspective, and potentially nip the problem in the bud, Brantner said.
Write down what was said, when it was said and who else might have heard “as quickly as you can after the fact,” Brantner said, “because it often becomes a he-said, she-said situation.” “Memories fade,” she added.
Document requests for sexual favors, retaliation that resulted from your not giving in, lost opportunities and any other offenses, and save emails that might help make a case, said employment lawyer Davida Perry, a partner at Schwartz, Perry & Heller.
Don’t record anything using work property, she said — keep a notebook of your own that’s easily accessible. And keep a confidante or spouse in the loop as the incidents occur.
Talk to supportive and trustworthy coworkers
“If it’s happened to you, it may have happened to other people,” said Brantner. “So you may wish to find out what you can about this person’s history and whether there have been any other situations.”
Report the behavior
“From my perspective, you need to talk about it; you need to report it. You need to speak to somebody who has the power and authority to take some action,” said Perry. Learn about your company’s policies and procedures for filing a sexual harassment complaint, Brantner added.
Remember that HR isn’t necessarily your friend
“Their role is to protect the company and their role is to conduct what they believe to be an impartial investigation,” Brantner said. “If you decide to go that route, you should be aware that even under policies where companies are supposed to do an investigation, they may not talk to everyone that you recommend, they may not be very thorough and they may not be very impartial.”
Document your conversation with HR: Either enter your meeting with HR armed with a written account of the harassment or write a summary of the meeting right after it’s over, Perry said. That way, “HR can’t come back and say, ‘We never talked about sexual harassment or discrimination,’” she said. “It happens often.”
Talk to an employment lawyer
“It’s always OK to check in with an attorney on any of this, even if it’s a one-time situation that never happens again,” Brantner said. Even if the attorney says, “This is gross, it shouldn’t have happened, but it’s not a lawsuit,” she added, “at least you’ll know what to look for in the future if something happens again.”
Sexual harassment, defined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” is a form of sex discrimination. It’s illegal “when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision,” the EEOC says.
Aside from pursuing a federal EEOC claim, look within your state and city laws for possible additional protections, Perry said.
Know that you’re not alone — and it’s not your fault
“This has happened to countless numbers of women,” Brantner said. “It’s not something you asked for. … The urge is to kind of reconsider everything you did or said that might’ve led somebody on, but it’s about power and exerting that power in the workplace.”
“We’ve got to speak out about it — there’s too much at stake,” Perry said. “(From) the strong and the financially sound to the single mom who’s making $10 an hour, it just breaks you. And you’ve gotta fight back with whatever you have.”
(This story was updated on Aug. 23 2021.)