“I Didn’t Know” Is A Cop-Out That Can Do As Much Harm As A Sexual Harasser

CNN’s Jeff Zucker (Photo via CNN)

“I didn’t know.” We’ve heard that a lot lately from bosses and co-workers who say they failed to notice that their female colleagues were being harassed.

The latest person to use that excuse is Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, who was the long-time executive producer of The Today Show in the years when Matt Lauer was its co-star.

“No one ever brought to me, or to my knowledge, there was never, there was never a complaint about Matt,” Zucker told a Business Insider forum, according to the New York Times. “There was never a suggestion of that kind of deviant, predatory behavior. Not even a whisper of it, nothing like that.”

As of Sunday, three women have gone to NBC with formal complaints about Lauer’s behavior, while his reputation is now sullied by lurid stories about an automatic locking office door and a sexual assault in his NBC office.

“I didn’t know” just isn’t acceptable any more, now that we’re learning the broad reach of harassment, and how many women have be robbed of peace of mind in the workplace.

By using “I didn’t know” as a dodge, you may have done as much harm, or more, to your company and your colleagues, as the harasser himself.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what I’m hearing when you tell me, “I didn’t know.”

“I didn’t know” actually means is that your women co-workers didn’t trust you enough to confide their fears in you and ask for your help.

By saying, “I didn’t know,” you’re trying to get off the hook. You’re using the “innocent dope” excuse that Fanny Brice tried to give for Nicky Arnstein in Funny Girl. (He went to jail, by the way.)

“I didn’t know” equals “don’t look at me,” you’re telling us. I didn’t pay a lick of attention when women in my office started quitting, or found excuses not to serve on committees or take business trips with known lechers.

By saying, “I didn’t know,” you are basically admitting that you took a paycheck, in part, to be obtuse.

You couldn’t report the offenses that now may cost companies millions of dollars in settlements, on top of the $100 million plus that’s been collectively paid out by Harvey Weinstein and Fox News, because you didn’t know.

You couldn’t protect the women on your teams and staffs from being facing hassles in the work place that you, as a male, rarely had to face, because you didn’t know.

You couldn’t go up to your male colleagues and tell them that their behavior didn’t just affect the women in the office, it affected you, too, because you didn’t know.

Gentlemen, “I didn’t know,” doesn’t let you go home early. It doesn’t let you avoid the meetings when your women colleagues are likely to now tell you how unsafe they’ve felt in your department.

“I didn’t know” is going to be greeted with skepticism from your wife, if the subject comes up, from your daughter, if she’s old enough to be paying attention to this situation, and from the women with whom you come in contact, professionally and socially.

Even James Comey, the former FBI director who has many other things on his plate, understands this.

If you keep repeating, “I didn’t know,” be prepared for stink eye, eye rolls, and silence. You may lose some friends over it. You may see your name in a personnel report, or a media report, as someone who was there and didn’t take action.

Perhaps if you’re honest with yourself, you know that “I didn’t know” was only your first, knee-jerk reaction to hearing the news.

It’s certainly possible that even if you didn’t know it was sexual harassment, you did know something was wrong.

You start to remember that you saw women looking stricken and that they talked quietly to each other about something the harasser might have done.

You realize that you spotted one of your colleagues taking a minute to steel herself before she was in the same room with someone who now has been fingered as a harasser.

And, now you know why that woman that you spent so much time recruiting quietly decided to “pursue other options” within a few months or a year of joining your organization.

If you put it all together, you might now understand why women consistently don’t apply for positions in your company, and why your HR department has told you that you aren’t presenting diverse slates of candidates.

That’s because women talk to each other.

They share information about those who are difficult to work for, who gets grabby and other stories to warn each other off apply for, and accepting jobs. They also know who looks out for them, and who simply keeps their own counsel and doesn’t help out.

It’s all coming into focus, isn’t it.

“I didn’t know?” Yes, you probably did. Now wake up, and pay better attention. Your future depends on it, just as much as ours.

Follow Micheline Maynard on Twitter @mickimaynard

Journalist. Author. The Check blog on Forbes.com. NPR and NYT alum

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