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As published stories of alleged work-related harassment and assault shine a not-so-welcome light on the political campaign industry, practitioners are grappling with how to confront predatory behavior.
While some politicians have found themselves enmeshed in scandals related to the #metoo and Time’s Up movements, the consulting industry had, until recently, remained largely unscathed.
This anomaly of business-as-usual existed as outspoken activism from harassment and assault survivors dethroned sexual predators and bad actors from perches in Hollywood, media and corporations like Wynn Resorts, Bank of America, the Dallas Mavericks and Ford Motor Company.
But it wasn’t until news of Jim Walsh’s sudden departure from DSPolitical and Rising Tide Interactive, and Revolution Messaging’s handling of a former partner’s alleged assault, that this reckoning arrived in the consulting industry.
Now, practitioners from DC to California tell C&E they’re actively asking, who’s next? They’re also grappling with what individual firms, and the industry as a whole, can do to address the issue.
“I suspect there will be other shoes to drop,” said Chris Jones of PoliTemps, a political staffing agency.
He’s been advising current (and potential) clients over how to approach an environment in which behavior long tolerated in an insular industry is now starting to go public.
“A lot of firms have a blind spot,” he said. “It’s a tech bro atmosphere – a political tech bro atmosphere. They need to think long and hard about getting an HR process in place – not just a general counsel or outside lawyer.”
Many small to mid-size firms don’t have an HR department due to small and close-knit staffs. Practitioners often hire friends or professionals they’ve worked closely with on previous campaigns, particularly in firms with fewer than 10 staffers. It’s a culture that’s resulted in more of a closed-network industry, often dominated by white men at the partner level.
According to Bernard Coleman, who managed diversity and HR on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, it’s often a lack of diversity that can embolden bad actors by allowing inappropriate behavior to become the norm rather than the outlier.
“Having diversity in the room can help readily recognize behaviors that are inconsistent or inappropriate relative to general norms as well as company policy,” said Coleman. “Organizations are losing out on perspective and consequently opening themselves up to critical blind spots that could otherwise have been easily identified or avoided.”
Coleman, who now works for Uber as its global head of diversity and inclusion, said it’s not just that firms and campaigns need to put an HR process in place. They need to trust it.
“Don't deviate from internal hiring processes as that lets bias creep in as it relates to recruiting and hiring,” he said, adding that well-written job descriptions and a buddy system can also be helpful.
Robyn Swirling, a practitioner on the progressive side, was warning about the industry’s blind spot on sexual harassment before the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last October. In fact, she founded a firm, Works in Progress, specifically focused on addressing workplace harassment on the progressive side of the industry.
“All kinds of groups are coming and saying, ‘This is a problem that we recognize and are looking for solutions,’” she said.
Acknowledgement could be considered a step forward in an industry where drinking with colleagues after work, or even during work, is standard and office romances are prevalent.
To wit, Swirling said after all the years she’s worked in progressive politics, “I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a place that included sexual harassment training during onboarding.”
At the same time, she noted, the training that does take place is often insufficient: a one-hour video followed by a quiz – the standard out-of-the-box seminar.
“Avoid the temptation to say: this is the only thing we could get,” she said, noting that firms should invest time and resources into in-person trainings. “There’s a window of opportunity and we want to take advantage of it.”
What Campaigns And Firms Can Do Next
In addition to the in-person trainings, a policy overhaul by firms and campaigns is needed along with a transparent complaint reporting process.
It’s something experts note has been helpful in other industries. For instance, Ford recently fired the head of its North America division after a tip came in through an anonymous employee tip line the company set up.
On a campaign, the candidate is often entangled in these kinds of messy HR issues. But that’s a huge mistake, according to Swirling. She cited Clinton’s failure to fire her faith outreach advisor Burns Strider on her presidential campaign in 2008 as an example.
But there’s another reason: the candidate could be a victim, too.
“Candidates have been harassed by their own managers,” said Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, a non-partisan group that trains female candidates to run for down-ballot office.
Her advice to candidates in that predicament is blunt: “You need to fire folks on your campaign,” she said. “You have to address it right away.”
Here Revolution Messaging’s experience could be instructive.
After hearing of a partner’s alleged assault of a female employee at a company event in 2015, the progressive firm “stripped the partner of his role in the company within hours,” according to a recent Huffington Post story.
The Power and Limits of Word of Mouth
Today, candidates who attend VoteRunLead’s trainings are invited to a private Facebook group where they swap stories and share best practices. In some cases they share warnings about bad actors in the industry.
Vilardi’s group has also incorporated harassment into its trainings directly. She said many of the trainees aren’t surprised by the level of harassment in politics when they start running. But they are surprised when individuals they’ve worked with get named as bad actors.
“They thought someone was a good guy,” Vilardi said.
The online naming and shaming was rumored to be going to another level on the Democratic side recently. Following the example of the “Shitty Media Men” Google doc that circulated among female writers, which was created by Moira Donegan, a similar list of men working in Democratic politics was rumored to be circulating, according to Kelly Grace Gibson, a Democratic media consultant.
She noted that most women working campaigns have similar stories about the same bad actors. The problem is that many don’t feel comfortable speaking up for fear of what that could do to their careers.
“That’s probably what goes through a lot of women’s minds, and that is why they’re not just raising their hands and saying, ‘I have a story about this guy, too,’” she said on a recent episode of the “Dame It All to Hell” podcast, which she hosts alongside DonorBureau CEO Tracy Dietz. “There’s also some shame in it.”
(Full disclosure: C&E is a sponsor of the weekly podcast.)
Dietz said women in the campaign industry must confront the problem as it’s happening.
“The only way that we fix the problem is to start slapping people around and calling them out and telling them to stop it,” she said.
Still, many consultants are now holding two competing ideas in their heads when it comes to sexual harassment and reforming workplace behavior. One is that the Old Guard will never change and the inappropriate behavior will continue. The other is that the industry is diversifying slowly, but surely and that diversity will bring about a greater equity in the workplace.
“Our community is a total mess,” Dietz said on the pair’s Feb. 23 podcast. “We’ve all had the inappropriate touching in bars. I just wonder what’s going to happen when all of these stories start coming out, and there’s a spiral of more and more women.