NEW YORK — Life was going well for Christopher Partee when the woman approached him in tears.
The forklift operator had recently been made a permanent employee at a Memphis warehouse newly opened by a supply-chain logistics company. His new supervisor was friendly to him, giving him special assignments and sometimes grabbing lunch with him. Partee thought perhaps he himself could eventually become a supervisor.
But he was about to make a decision that would upend his life. The woman, Tiffany Pete, asked Partee if he would serve as corroborating witness in a sexual harassment complaint against their supervisor. Partee was apprehensive but says he had seen his supervisor make lewd comments to women at the warehouse nearly every day, telling them what to wear and propositioning sex. He agreed to help and to speak directly to the supervisor.
Within days, Partee was fired, along with Pete and two other women who had complained about being harassed.
“I was thinking about not getting involved because I had a feeling that something like this would happen, and it did,” said Partee, who eventually won a lawsuit against the company filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “But if a woman is crying, I’m not just going to sit there and do nothing. I’m not going to walk away and not do something about it. I’m just not that type of person.”
Caught in the middle of workplace sexual harassment are often people like Partee: witnesses who struggle with how to respond. The scandals sending shockwaves through Hollywood, and the media and political worlds have left in their wake people who have expressed remorse for failing to do more to stop the inappropriate behavior of powerful men.
Among them are Charlie Rose’s executive producer, Louis C.K.’s longtime manager, and Billy Bush, who has apologized for laughing along when President Donald Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals on the “Access Hollywood” tape. NBC is conducting an internal investigation into why anchor Matt Lauer’s alleged misconduct wasn’t stopped earlier. The director Quentin Tarantino has said he knew enough about Harvey Weinstein’s behavior to have done more.
Lost in the conversation are the stories of people in more ordinary work places who do speak up — and what happens next.
Often, according to lawyers who litigate sexual harassment cases, they end up facing the same repercussions as the victims they were trying to protect. Some are labeled disloyal and denied career advancement. Others are fired. While the law prohibits retaliation against witnesses who oppose sexual harassment, it can be difficult to prove their case in court. Lawsuits typically take years to resolve.
The dynamic ensures that many people stay quiet, particularly among working-class people who can least afford to lose their jobs, said Faye Williams, the regional attorney for the EEOC who oversaw the lawsuit on behalf of Partee and the three women against the company, New Breed Logistics.
“We find in our work here at EEOC, including our sexual harassment cases, many employees in the workplace often look the other way or choose not to get involved,” Williams said. “One can understand why. They are generally low wage workers, earning minimum wage, single parents, and desperately need to work to survive.”
Still, Partee is far from the only witness that EEOC has represented in recent sexual harassment cases.
In a case settled in 2015, four men lost their jobs at a dried fruit processing plant in California for helping their female co-workers file a complaint about supervisors who were making lewd comments and rubbing up against them. Two of the men had organized a meeting with management to allow the women to voice their complaints.
In Mississippi, a janitor was fired after she corroborated a co-worker’s sexual harassment complaint during an internal company investigation. In Texas, a recruiter for a physician services provider was let go after he accompanied a woman who filed a complaint about their division CEO.
It took years for those lawsuits to result in verdicts or settlements mandating compensation for the plaintiffs. In the meantime, some of the workers struggled financially.
Two of the dried-fruit plant workers said in court statements that it took them three years to find permanent work. One of them said he frequently argued with his wife about why he stood up for his co-workers instead of staying silent. The other got divorced.
Partee’s case took seven years to make its way through the courts. During much of that time, he relied on odd jobs and food stamps. He was forced to move out of his apartment and into his mother’s house. He fell back on his child support payments.
As often occurs in sexual harassment cases, the EEOC had to prove that Partee engaged in “protected activity” under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that deals with sexual harassment. Specifically, the company argued that Partee did not, in fact, oppose sexual harassment because he had not formally agreed to participate in an internal company investigation before he was fired. Partee had also warned his supervisor to stop his behavior but the company argued that simply asking a harasser to knock it off did not constitute protected activity.
New Breed claimed that Partee was suspended for clocking in overtime hours without authorization. It tried to argue that the human resources official who suspended him did not know he had agreed to back up Pete’s complaint. In the end, EEOC provided evidence the official knew Pete had named Partee as a witness.
In 2015, the Sixth Circuit Court of appeals in Ohio upheld a $1.5 million verdict against New Breed which has been bought by another company.
Partee received $315,000, enough for to buy a modest house and pay back child support and other debt. The father of five children, now grown, has yet to find permanent work as forklift operator, relying on temporary jobs. He does not mention the New Breed case when interviewing for jobs, fearing that it will backfire and he will be labeled a troublemaker.
“It would scare them off, like I’m a risk. So I keep my mouth shut,” he said. “A lot of people, they like to call you a snitch. They want to put that around you.”
Employment law attorneys say they don’t often come across people like Partee. On the contrary, a major challenge in sexual harassment cases is finding witnesses to back up the plaintiff, said Debra Katz, a partner with the Washington-based firm Katz, Marshall & Banks.
“When someone calls me, my first inquiry is, ‘Who are the witnesses who can confirm this individual harassed you?’” said Katz, who has litigated discrimination and whistle-blower protection cases for 30 years. “Retaliation is a real fear. Often what we hear is “Don’t use my name in your letter but when an investigation comes up, I will come forward and say what I know.”’
Some advocates are hoping the #MeToo movement will embolden witnesses to speak up. One group of actors, including Anthony Edwards, Tate Donovan and Daniel Dae Kim, have joined the #IWillSpeakUp campaign that calls out men for staying silent about sexual misconduct.
“We know that the majority of men are not abusive,” said Tony Porter, CEO of A Call To Men, which launched the campaign along with Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation. “The problem is that the majority of men are silent about that abuse.”
But often, people who learn of sexual harassment are uncertain about what to do. Even Jane Fonda, herself a victim of sexual abuse, has said she regrets not speaking out when another actress told her about a troublesome encounter with Weinstein. She has said that at the time, she felt it was not her place to publicize someone else’s experience.
That’s a common dilemma for employees in everyday workplaces, said Lynn Bowes-Sperry, a professor of management at Western New England University who researches on the difficulties faced by observers of sexual harassment. She said it points to the need for more rigorous bystander training for employees “that provides them with the skills to take action rather than just basic knowledge regarding legal liability.”
Far removed from the #MeToo movement, Partee said he has no regrets.
The women “actually thanked me a lot for being there for them,” he said. “Now when I think about it, it sends chills through me because you know when you did something right.”