You know what? Let's do have a trial by media. Definitely -- so we can watch in astonishment as the corporate defendant demonstrates its guilt by the very way in which it is defending itself. In its answer to sexual harassment charges, WPP is either employing cynical lawyering of the most loathsome kind or evincing cluelessness on a mythic scale.
By now you are most likely familiar with the sexual-harassment lawsuit by former JWT chief communications officer Erin Johnson against the company, its WPP parent and her former boss Gustavo Martinez. The essential allegation is that Martinez created a hostile workplace environment through inappropriate joking, inappropriate touching, racist and anti-Semitic comments and so on.
He seems particularly fond of rape jokes, and really, who can get enough of them?
At issue is not the words or deeds but the intent behind them. To his defenders, Martinez was making harmless quips, promoting a culture of informality and intimacy and generally just being his unstuffed-shirt charming self. A likable, approachable leader, in other words. And therefore, anybody who would seize on his spasms of political incorrectness was either wildly misconstruing him or a radical misfit looking for trouble, along David Mamet “Oleanna” lines.
Which is precisely the motivation imputed to Johnson by WPP’s legal team. This is from its latest filing for dismissal:
“…it is clear that every move on Plaintiff’s part, starting with the filing of a Complaint with allegations that are in part irrelevant to her, distorted and fabricated, was designed to make a splash with the media.”
My instinct tells me this is sleazy corporate lawyers doing what is in their nature, accusing a shooting victim of trespass for interfering with the innocent shooter’s bullet. Another possibility is that they are simply morons, too tragically thick to grasp the dynamics of power in the workplace. The most generous interpretation is of a defendant corporation utterly divorced from reality. If lack of self-awareness were a felony, these people would be behind bars.
More from the filing:
Just 10 days before JWT Chief Communications Officer Erin Johnson began her sex harassment and retaliation lawsuit against former agency CEO Gustavo Martinez in March, Johnson wrote a text message to Martinez to tell him that she had decided to reject a job offer from another company, “because I am loyal to you and what you are doing.” She added: “I felt like we had a good year together. So I hope I wasn’t wrong to stay. Lol.”
This oddly cheerful email is presented to impeach Johnson’s allegations from the lawsuits, as reported by MediaPost in early March:
She recounted one incident that occurred last May at the company’s New York offices where Martinez approached Johnson’s desk and told her “to come to him so he could ‘rape’ [her] in the bathroom,” that was nearby. “He then grabbed Johnson around the neck with an arm and began laughing.”
Later that day, the complaint alleges, “Martinez interrupted a meeting among multiple female employees, including Johnson. Martinez asked Johnson in front of the other women which female staff member he could rape.”
The emailed loyalty pledge is WPP’s smoking gun of a feminist shakedown -- again raising the question of whether they are just mounting a dishonest defense or are actually nincompoops. It’s as if we are reliving the Anita Hill debacle, when first Republican Sen. Arlen Specter and then Republican Senator Alan K. Simpson expressed incredulity that Hill would maintain any kind of relationship with Clarence Thomas after he serially harassed her.
“If what you say this man said to you occurred,” Simpson asked Hill, “why in God’s name, when he left his position of power or status or authority over you…why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?”
Because, duh, the victimization might well have continued and mutated to career destruction. She, and untold women like her, bit her lip so as not to jeopardize their livelihoods. You don’t need God to explain the fundamental fact that employees -- especially female employees of male bosses -- do not have the luxury of calling out individual transgressions, let alone accumulating ones, lest they put their jobs and future jobs at risk.
I don’t really know Erin Johnson. I have no idea why she turned down another job offer to stay at JWT, or what episode may have triggered her lawsuit so soon after that decision. What’s striking is that WPP makes the same incendiary and illogical allegation as the attackers of Anita Hill: that after years of suffering in silence (and quietly building the global reputation of JWT) she decided to expose herself to humiliation and personal vilification just to get her name in the paper.
Come to think of it, nobody’s that stupid. There can be only one verdict: these people are repulsive.