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STREET TALK: WHEN HONESTY ISN’T THE BEST POLICY By SCOTT HUM

Steven Webster says he’s a victim of sexual harassment.

No one ever touched him inappropriately, or made suggestive comments or requests. Nothing of that sort happened to him.
But people he worked with at Ogilvy & Mather Public Relations (now Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart) said it was happening to them, and Webster reported it to his bosses.
That, he says, has cost him his career, his income and his savings, and nearly cost his marriage. In the three-and-a-half years since doing what he believed right, and what the O&M personnel handbook told him was right, he has learned, he says, that ‘honesty’s the best policy only if you can afford poverty.’
On June 30 it will have been two years since Webster filed a complaint of retaliatory dismissal against O&M PR with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. The case still hasn’t been heard, teaching Webster the additional lesson that justice isn’t swift.
O&M contends that Webster ultimately was let go as part of the workforce trimming that has put so many other marketing professionals on the street, that his termination was unrelated to his having made serious allegations against a superior. Maybe that’s so, and a judge will decide . . . some day . . . if it is, but the case of Illinois Human Rights Commission Charge No. 1991 CF 3813 raises questions. One is whether, as Webster says he now believes, all the talk about eliminating sexual harassment in the advertising workplace that followed Anita Hill’s Senate testimony was more than just talk.
Webster says he wasn’t a crusader, just an account group director, overseeing the massive Sears, Roebuck & Co. pr account, in December 1989 when several male members of his staff told him some female employees were being subjected to what they said was harassing conduct by Robert Wheatley, head of O&M PR’s Chicago office. He and three female account supervisors conducted an investigation over the next two days, which he said yielded corroboration from women on the staff.
O&M’s employee handbook advises that sexual harassment be reported to the personnel manager or director of operations and promises that O&M ‘will take appropriate action once it is informed of the complaint.’
Webster spoke with Bruce Jasurda, O&M senior vp, about what female staffers in his group had told him, and on Dec. 18, 1989, followed Jasurda’s advice and put the concerns he had voiced into writing. He did, but believes it quickly reached the wrong hands.
On Dec. 24, Webster was notified by telegram from Wheatley that he had been ‘placed on suspension’ and was told to remain out of the office due to ‘serious allegations . . . regarding disruptive activities in the office and insubordination.’ Wheatley, meanwhile, also was advised by O&M legal counsel to remain out of the office while an investigation was conducted. In legal documents, O&M says Wheatley was put on probation for three months.
Webster returned to O&M Jan. 31, 1990, but not to his previous job or title. In fact, nothing ever again was the same. Bruce Beach, then managing director of O&M Advertising, called Webster in and offered him a post on that side of the agency. O&M contends Webster ‘readily and voluntarily accepted the offer.’ Webster says he agreed because ‘it was clear that if I refused, my career there was over.’
It was a post without duties, designed only to keep him out of O&M/PR, he says. During the next year, Webster claims he was never given a title, a job description, assignments, clients, staff or performance or salary reviews.
Wheatley resigned in March 1990 to open his own agency.
Beach resigned in February 1991, and later sued over bonus money he felt he was owed.
In March 1991, Webster was terminated. He claims it was a result of his having rocked the boat in December 1989. O&M responds in legal documents that he simply was one of six let go in ‘an economic reduction-in-force.’
In June he filed suit with the Human Rights Commission, seeking reinstatement, with seniority and benefits, damages of $436,000 and costs. Now 38, he operates a one-man pr shop from his home. No one has hired him.
He wrote a letter to David Ogilvy complaining of his treatment, and later one to Charlotte Beers when she took over O&M, without receiving answers.
But he’s pressing on with the case. Last week he finished responding to the latest interrogatories from O&M, and the case finally may be heard next February.
Webster says if he had it to do over, he still would report what he says his staff told him. But he’d get everything in writing next time, he says. Everything. That’s what it takes when you get involved in a lawsuit that drags on for years.
He just didn’t realize in December 1989 that that’s what would come of following the rules.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)