The Fish Stinks From the Head

The Fish Stinks From the Head

A number of years ago, I attended the holiday party of the firm where I worked at the time. The firm’s management committee met in Los Angeles that week, so all of the members of the executive committee attended the holiday party. Talk about awkward.

It was Friday night and I was tired from a long week of working on various harassment and discrimination lawsuits. I decided to leave the party early and said goodbye to the friends and colleagues around me. In that group was a member of the executive committee, who was from another office and whom I had never met before. He asked for a ride back to his hotel. I said, “Sure”, because his hotel was on my way back to the freeway, and because it did not occur to me that he would do anything inappropriate. Our office did not have that kind of culture.

Apparently, his office did. Or at least he did. As I drove toward the hotel, I asked where the entrance was. He pointed to the parking lot and said, “Well, you can park there if you want to come up to my room.” I laughed. Was I nervous? Was I trying to play it off as a joke? I’m not sure. I know that I managed to convey that wasn’t going to happen. I dropped him at the entrance and got home without incident.

The next day, I went to talk to my best friend in the office. He had made partner earlier that year. I told him what happened and, without hesitation, he said, “You have to tell [the managing partner].” I told him I did not want to. He said that if I did not, he would.

So, later that day, I knocked on the door of the managing partner. “Can I talk to you?” I asked. I was incredibly nervous. I really did not want to tell him. But my sister once told me that, in difficult situations like this, you should just start talking and momentum will take over. She’s right.

I told the managing partner about the creepy member of the executive committee. His reaction surprised me, in the best possible way. The first word he said? “Shit.” And then he said, “The fish stinks from the head.” I knew what he meant: if there are bad actors at the top, it ruins the rest of the organization. He had worked so hard to make sure there was no such stink in our office. And he was dismayed that such a stink had affected one of his lawyers.

I don’t know what the firm did, but I know that I never had to interact with that executive committee member again. I also know that my complaint had no adverse impact on my career. I have every faith that the managing partner of our office put the fear of god into him and anyone else who might disrupt the harmony of our office.

Keeping a workplace free from harassment requires good policies, procedures, and training. But those things cannot alone create a safe and productive workplace. The leadership must be dedicated to creating, cultivating, and protecting a harassment-free workplace, and to taking prompt action when even the slightest hint of harassment occurs.