If you didn’t already know, a scandal has exploded yet again throwing CFI in a bad light (you can catch up on events here and you should definitely read the original piece starting it all here). And once again they are making things worse with a disastrous pattern of communication. Things are still happening behind the scenes, so I am awaiting events to unfold further before I make a decision, but CFI is not handling this well, and this could spell the end of them for me.
Apart from the obvious (the horrible treatment Stollznow has endured and the awful human being Ben Radford is…and I do not have to trust all of Stollnow’s report to reach that conclusion about him, although I have [as of writing] seen no reason to doubt anything she’s said; and that’s well apart from the fact that Radford already has a record of being an unskeptical anti-feminist worthy of eye-rolling), I have two major problems with what is going on so far, one has to do with the legal and corporate culture at CFI (which I will blog about later, either tomorrow or next week), the other has to do with CFI’s public communications in this matter.
It seems evident, regardless of which details are disputed, that Ben Radford engaged in a sustained campaign of sexual harassment against Dr. Karen Stollznow (both employees of CFI for many years). And he received no visible punishment. He continues to be employed at CFI. I’m told he was punished somehow but no one can talk about how (this is a serious problem I will be taking on in my next post about this matter). But frankly, if even a fraction of what Stollznow says is true, any other business would have fired him in a heartbeat, and I am struggling to understand why I should support any nonprofit that would keep him (or why I should subscribe to a magazine he edits). As for Stollznow, seeing her harasser largely unaffected and receiving no significant support from CFI, she essentially just had to leave.
More about all this may come out, more developments may ensue (I am aware of things happening I can’t discuss). But right now, this is how it looks. And that does not make CFI look good. At all.
But making all this far worse (again) was CFI’s public statement on the matter. Which is a disaster. The same thing happened last time, when CFI’s “statement” about the Lindsay affair was exactly the wrong thing to say, the very worst possible public communication on the matter. It failed to acknowledge any wrongdoing or even what the problem was, it passive-aggressively complained about being criticized, and said nothing that showed any understanding of what it was being criticized for, and nothing as to what it was going to do about it. Indeed, the statement as a whole was essentially an exercise in contempt…even if that wasn’t its intention, but intention isn’t magic–and that’s what a communications director is supposed to be for: to ensure that this sort of thing doesn’t happen, that communications with the public don’t look contemptuous or useless or clueless. Yet in that case CFI didn’t even avail itself of its own communications director. Even now I don’t think its board of directors understands how contemptuous, useless, and clueless that statement made them appear.
This new statement is the same kind of travesty. Other organizations have leadership that actually understands how to do this right (examples here, here, here, and here, and still especially relevant, here). CFI is alone in doing it disastrously. That is essentially the definition of relative incompetence.
I thought CFI’s communications director was Paul Fidalgo–who I know wouldn’t be this awful at the job. If he wrote this new one, he should resign and instruct CFI to hire someone who knows what they’re doing. But I doubt he wrote it, because he didn’t write the last one (that was written by CFI’s warring board of directors who couldn’t agree on anything). And if that’s the case, CFI board of directors, you need to stop doing that. Seriously. Stop doing that. You are consistently making things worse and making CFI look incompetent and insensitive. You do not know what you are doing. Use your communications director. That is what you pay him for.
To help you see what I mean, CFI, let’s break down your public statement on the Radford-Stollznow matter (and we know who the parties are, even if your lawyers keep telling you you can’t admit it).
Regarding the August 7 Communication from CFI
Regardless of what you intended (and again: intentions aren’t magic, you need a comms director to make sure your true intentions are communicated effectively, so regardless of your intentions, the fault here remains yours) what you released on August 7 looks like nothing other than a “Cover Your Ass” statement in insensitive legalese that is cold, self-contradictory, passive-aggressive, and accusatory. Almost every single thing in it was the wrong to say, indeed almost exactly the opposite of what it should have said.
There was no “we are sorry for what happened to Dr. Stollznow, and we want to make every effort to ensure that never happens again, and that we will not support such behavior in any way at all.” No. No sympathy was expressed for the victim. Not even any validation of what happened to her. Instead, it looks like this statement basically calls her a liar and tells CFI constituents to shut up and fuck off and that CFI refuses to do anything further about this. If that is not what it was supposed to say, whoever wrote it needs to step down and never write this stuff again, and a more experienced person needs to be tasked with writing these things from now on.
It’s worse because the statement accomplishes exactly the opposite of what its own stated goal was: ‘to encourage future complainants to feel comfortable submitting complaints’. Indeed, your statement looks almost tailor made to discourage and scare off future complainants. And to accomplish exactly the opposite of your stated goal is a communications failure of epic proportions.
August 7, 2013
There have been blog posts recently that have commented on public allegations made by Karen Stollznow regarding harassment she suffered and what she considered a less than adequate response by the organization employing the harasser. These posts have named CFI as the organization in question and one of CFI’s employees as the accused harasser.
Nothing wrong so far. That’s a straightforward (and for you, safe) summary of the facts to date. But then it goes off the rails…
As a general rule, CFI does not discuss personnel matters in public. We refrain from discussing these matters in public not only out of consideration for our staff, but also because experience has shown that this is the best way to encourage people to come forward with complaints. If individuals who need to alert us about harassment could not be assured that CFI will endeavor to protect their confidentiality, then management might never be informed of the problem, and that’s not what we want. We want to encourage people to come forward with their complaints so we can give them the serious attention they warrant. This general rule about not discussing personnel matters in public is followed by the vast majority of employers.
This is almost a hundred words devoted to expressing a primary goal: “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” This will come back to bite you in coming paragraphs. So I just wanted to point it out while we’re here.
But what’s wrong with this paragraph (and why it shouldn’t even be here, or should have been worded radically differently) is that it looks dishonest and manipulative. The accuser has already publicly come forward. You cannot therefore cite “her confidentiality” as a reason to not speak about the case. To hide behind her this way is contemptuous. We know this can’t be a valid reason for you to say nothing now. So why insult our intelligence by pretending we don’t know that? Why resort to this excuse? Your silence is not protecting her. Nor will your speaking out now discourage future complainants from coming forward. To the contrary (as I’ll soon make clear), your silence is discouraging future complainants from coming forward.
If, for example, CFI has evidence Dr. Stollznow lied about something, then this cannot be a reason to not say so, since CFI can’t mean it wants to encourage lying. To the contrary, outing a liar would discourage lying in a complaint, which should be the desired outcome, not the outcome CFI is trying to avoid. We have no reason to believe Dr. Stollznow has actually lied about anything (one might find in any witness testimony small exaggerations, and errors in minor details perhaps, but that’s not the same thing, so let’s not pretend we need to assume 100% accuracy to trust an account). Whereas if CFI has evidence that corroborates anything in Dr. Stollznow’s account, then it would actually encourage future complainants to see that you are willing to back them when they come forward.
See the problem? You should be backing her, or else saying you have no evidence backing her. You cannot use “protecting her confidentiality” as an excuse to do neither. Even if, for example, you can’t release specific evidence, you can release redacted evidence or give general descriptions of evidence. You can at the very least confirm there is evidence supporting at least some elements of her story. You have no valid excuse not to. (For an example of doing that sort of thing, see here.)
What you should have said is that you will respect the confidentiality of complainants generally and thus normally wouldn’t discuss a case like this, but only because this complainant has come forward you will speak to the case as much as you are able. For example, to corroborate or contradict anything she has alleged, so far as you can; or to say you can’t corroborate or contradict anything she has alleged and (more or less) why; or that you are being prevented from speaking about the case at all because her harasser is forcing you to be silent in the matter by invoking his own privacy; or whatever…something, anything but what you instead wrote, which is illogical and disingenuous.
This is already bad communication. But it gets worse.
For now, we see no reason to deviate from this general rule.
We do. Stollznow has come forward. Your “general rule” is therefore compromised under the weight of an enormous and obvious exception. If you can’t see plain facts that we can see, this does not make you look competent or trustworthy. You need better reasoning than this. General rules no longer apply when exceptions arise.
The question you need to ask yourself is: Do future complainants see from this that you will have their back? To the contrary, they see that you will not, that you will only defend yourself from criticism, and not even acknowledge that they were victimized. How does that “encourage people to come forward with complaints”?
However, we would like to make it clear that any suggestion that CFI has been less than diligent in addressing harassment complaints is mistaken. During the administration of current president and CEO, Ronald A. Lindsay, that is since July 2008, CFI has investigated all complaints that have been made to management, and, where necessary, has taken appropriate corrective action.
Action that is completely invisible to us. It does not matter why you can’t remedy that invisibility, it remains a fact: no evident consequences occurred. Now think about a future complainant reading this. They have no reason to believe their complaint will get any results at all, because they cannot see any results in this case. A persistent harasser simply keeps his job. His victim has to leave. That’s what all future complainants see. This does not serve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Indeed, what evidence is there that can assure any future complainant that anything will even happen?
That is a huge communications problem. It does not matter what your legal situation is (which I’ll talk about in a future post). If you want to achieve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints,” you need to find a way to communicate to future complainants that complaints actually get results. Simply hiding behind “trust us” will not work when you have already made it hard for your constituents to trust you (as a result of your previous communications disaster in the Lindsay affair).
The extent of the investigation’s nature varies from case-to-case, depending on the allegations that are made. Claims requiring extensive investigation may be handled by an impartial outside law firm and/or consultant. Although use of outside impartial investigators can be very expensive, CFI is committed to carrying out as thorough an investigation as necessary.
This is probably the very worst thing you could have said. Look at this last sentence from the perspective of any future employee, contractor, or complainant: “requiring” a “very expensive” investigation makes it look like CFI only cares about money, and that it is annoyed it had to investigate this matter, and is whining about how expensive it was. Talk about passive aggressively discouraging future complaints! That’s exactly the opposite of what this very statement had claimed was a major CFI objective.
Why on earth is this statement in here? Why mention money at all? This sounds like a dirty corporation effecting a coverup, delivering a wink-wink nod to its investors (i.e. donors) explaining why they spent so much money on this ridiculous waste of time, and that anyone who files complaints in the future should feel guilty for costing them so much money.
It does not matter what you thought you were saying. This is what you have communicated. And that is a communications disaster. You just contradicted and undermined a major goal affirmed in this very same statement. Again.
Sure, perhaps you intended this to be evidence of how seriously you take claims like this. But you should stop, step back, and think about whether it might have a completely different meaning and effect given the way you worded it and the context you put it in. Because it does.
Neither allegations nor denials determine the actions CFI takes. The results of the investigation determine the actions taken by CFI. If CFI has employed an outside investigator, we go with the investigator’s findings; we do not substitute our suspicions. If the investigator found, for example, that a sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding; likewise, if the investigator found that no sexual assault occurred, we would accept that finding.
Not only does this communicate nothing, it abrogates all responsibility for the outcome. It is simply irresponsible to let third parties dictate who you will hire or fire, or any decisions affecting the company. Deciding who to believe is not the job of a third party (who I am sure was not asked to decide that anyway, but to only report what it could and could not independently confirm, which is not a decision, but data…data that one must then use in addition to other data to assist in making a decision).
This statement is also illogical. Because it requires violating the law of excluded middle. It says you had to conclude that either a sexual assault occurred or didn’t, when in fact there are many middle conclusions possible other than those: “it probably occurred,” “it might have occurred,” “we have reason to believe it occurred even though we only have the victim’s testimony and we trust her,” etc.
And not only is this illogical, it basically communicates that CFI takes no responsibility for anything and makes no decisions and has no moral opinions about what happened. It also communicates that CFI never decides to trust a woman unless she is independently corroborated (thus, being an eye-witness to a crime doesn’t count as evidence for you; even though the whole American legal system would collapse if we followed such a rule), but that CFI implicitly trusts a man without any such requirement of requiring corroborating evidence. It also communicates that CFI exercises no professional judgment and makes no effort to determine who is trustworthy in general (as juries are instructed to do when accused persons gainsay witnesses, as they almost always do).
In short, this is the worst way you could have worded that paragraph. And once again, you show no sympathy for the victim, validate her in no way at all, and essentially “hint” that your “third party” found Radford innocent. We know that is not the case, yet you can’t even bring yourself to admit a single fact. You speak in useless generalities that communicate nothing to the public, other than that CFI takes no responsibility for anything and lets third parties make its decisions (and then doesn’t even tell its own supporters what decisions were made).
That does not make you look good. It makes you look a bit like weasels. And again, what you intended here is not relevant. What matters is what you communicated.
(Of course, I must also note that sexual harassment and sexual assault are not the same thing, and the sexual assault allegations are only a small part of the whole pattern of harassing behavior alleged in this case, but I’ll be charitable and assume you were serious when you said “for example,” and weren’t implying that this whole case rested on whether you could find a third party who witnessed the sexual assaults…even though one normally doesn’t need such a thing in the real world to trust a victim, as a victim’s relative trustworthiness can be ascertained by other means.)
One thing we will never do is have our decisions dictated by rumor, gossip, or innuendo, whether it’s directed at the accuser or the accused. Such an approach would be improper and unjust for any organization. For an organization dedicated to promoting critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning, it would be a violation of our guiding principles.
This essentially says Stollznow is a liar. You just declared that what she has written is just “rumor, gossip, and innuendo” and that you don’t believe any of it. For no stated reason. Once again, what you intended here is not relevant. What matters is what you communicated. (Since Stollznow is the only person up to the moment you posted this communication who made any relevant claims that would relate to your “decisions” in this matter.)
Now look at this again from the point of view of a future complainant reading this. They can now expect to be called a liar in official communications. They can expect CFI will do and say nothing to support them. They can expect CFI will make no decisions of its own. And they can expect CFI won’t believe anything they say.
That is what this statement has communicated to all future complainants.
Think about that. And now revisit your stated goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Can you not see that you shot that goal square in the face? And then smashed it with a sledge hammer for good measure?
Getting the Point
CFI, get the point. Please.
A future complainant so far sees from you no reason to believe their complaint will get any results at all, because they cannot see any results in this case. A persistent harasser simply keeps his job. His victim has to leave. That’s what all future complainants see. This does not serve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Indeed, what evidence is there that can assure any future complainant that anything will even happen?
A future complainant so far sees from you no reason to believe you will support them. At all. They see a company that will turn their back on them, even call them a liar. This does not serve your goal “to encourage people to come forward with complaints.” Indeed, what evidence is there that can assure any future complainant that they will not be treated in this same deplorable way?
How can we trust you, when you don’t communicate anything to us, show no compassion or sympathy for victims in your own company, show no support for them whatever, and appear to protect the career of a victimizer?
I must make clear that if this case had occurred under any other national atheist or skeptic organization (with the exception of JREF, but that’s another story), I would be more charitable. But CFI already has an established record of not being trustworthy in these matters, of being tone deaf to women and women’s issues, and of failing to treat them competently. That makes this incident significantly worse. You already have a huge trust problem with us, CFI, and you are not moving to correct that. You are acting in ways that are leading us to trust you even less. What you intend is irrelevant. This is what you are doing.
Just a month ago I recommended we give CFI another chance, but with caution, given that CFI had so badly botched its treatment of women just this very year (in CFI and WiS 3). There I wrote:
Although I have lost a lot of confidence in Ron Lindsay’s leadership (and would still prefer someone better), he at least is now handling the situation correctly. He isn’t treating us with contempt. And CFI has voiced a commitment to doing better. After a few epic failures, they are now demonstrating responsiveness to discontent in their actual and future membership. We might still consider them on probation (Rebecca Watson’s take on this is apt) but I’m hopeful, and they need to see that we will support them if they continue in this direction. So I think it’s time to start working toward that.
So far, you are not continuing in this direction. You are pedaling backwards. Rapidly.
If you don’t correct your course, clearly and soon, I’m going to have to cut you loose, and declare you a wholly untrustworthy organization who does not respect women or know how to communicate with its own constituents.
If you don’t want that to be the story of you, then what are you going to do to change the story?