K Street Insiders

Women speak of pervasive harassment in DC lobbying culture

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She wanted a job, but it seemed the hiring partner wanted more.

Olivia, a young consultant, was searching for a job in Washington when a firm expressed interest.

But she remembers that the man interviewing her for the job, a senior partner, quickly veered into different territory. He insisted on taking her out for meals, with dinners accompanied by several bottles of wine.

{mosads}“Every time I wanted to talk about work, or the position, or the job, he’d grab my hand and tell me, ‘I just want to tell you how beautiful you are,’ ” she said.

“I was contemplating it as an opportunity, as a viable opportunity. It’s ridiculous that I would consider something that would subject me to sexual harassment for higher title and higher pay,” she said.

On K Street — the term for Washington’s cadre of lobbyists, political operatives and people working in public relations — deals are often done over dinner or drinks, on business travel or retreats.

Much like Capitol Hill, the influence industry remains dominated by men, creating an environment where women say they are often subject to harassment and worse. Unlike in other industries, however, few women have been willing to come forward to talk about it.

The Hill began reaching out to women on K Street last year, asking whether they had similar stories to those surfacing as part of the “Me Too” movement.

More than a dozen women spoke about instances of sexual harassment or assault they say they have faced while working in the influence industry.

  Everyone interviewed by The Hill asked to talk anonymously in order to speak freely about their experiences, fearing they will be blacklisted in Washington. Their names have been changed to protect them.

The employers are not named, nor are the men who they allege acted inappropriately.

In addition to being apprehensive of hurting their future career prospects, some of the women are also worried about retaliation from the men themselves.

“Everything in this town is predicated on relationships,” said one woman who works in public relations (PR). “Why make waves? That could be the next person to hire you.”

Several of the women said working on K Street requires them to routinely deal with unwanted touching, inappropriate comments or text messages, and suggestive remarks about their bodies and appearances.

All of them said they hoped sharing their experiences, however, would start a much-needed discussion about behavior by men in the influence industry and hopefully begin, as one woman described it, “a course correction.”

A lobbyist’s job routinely involves travel around the country for fundraisers, advocacy and events. Women recounted experiences where, on occasion, alcohol-fueled socializing led to unwanted advances from colleagues, bosses and public officials.

“When they are away from their district or on the road, they think it’s a free-for-all, and their manners or morality is gone. It’s out the window,” said Allison, a lobbyist in her early 30s who said she has been harassed or assaulted by almost a dozen men, including other lobbyists and public officials, mostly when outside of Washington.

During one trip to a political conference, Allison recalled how she and about 10 others decided to hang out poolside after a dinner and people went up to their hotel rooms to change.

As she was getting ready with a friend, there was a knock at the door; it was another lobbyist attending the trip. Thinking he was there to walk down to the pool as a group, she opened the door to find him wearing an open robe with nothing underneath.

“Let’s go skinny dipping,” Allison recounts him saying.

When she recoiled, saying “What the f—?,” the lobbyist laughed and said the whole thing was a joke.

“Harassment is sometimes about power,” said Lisa Banks, a partner at Katz, Marshall & Banks who specializes in workplace harassment. “There’s a power differential in Washington, and most of those people are men. It’s certainly an environment that’s ripe for this, but it’s also a horrible scenario.”

Banks says her firm has recently seen an influx of complaints from women about experiences of harassment, but about half of the accusations have gone beyond the statute of limitations. Some women, she says, call to report things that happened decades ago.

(Disclosure: Katz, Marshall & Banks recently represented a woman who accused D.C. celebrity chef Mike Isabella and other higher-ups in the restaurant group of harassment. This writer formerly worked at Kapnos, an Isabella-owned restaurant, but left before the suit began and was not involved.) 

Whether working in Washington or elsewhere, all the women who spoke with The Hill say that it is common for their colleagues to laugh off bad behavior, blaming it on alcohol or a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Though some of the unsavory conduct described to The Hill occurred when alcohol was involved, other incidents did not.

One month into a new trade association job, a board member invited Olivia to his hometown, a cross-country trip that was purportedly for work, where they were supposed to be setting the association’s goals and strategizing for the next year. He asked her to pick out some things to do and shows to see while she was there.

Once she arrived, the two began working in the hotel suite, and when it came time to go out for the evening, he asked to change in the bathroom.

The executive, who was married, emerged from the bathroom shortly after that with his pants undone, according to Olivia.

“He didn’t solicit anything, but the innuendo was there,” she added.

While she managed to fend off his advances, she said his inappropriate behavior continued even after she returned home. He eventually “got the hint,” she says, though the two still had to work together.

“It was one of the more horrifying experiences, because you just don’t know how to rectify it,” she said. “I did tell colleagues and my immediate boss about it, and they laughed it off and said, ‘That’s how he is.’ ”

“I feel fortunate that I had the confidence and the voice” to push back, Olivia added. “Not everyone has that luxury.”

When women are harassed by board members or elected officials — those not employed by their own organization — coming forward about abuse can be complicated.

After two receptions one night, a trade association lobbyist named Leslie recalled heading to another event in a group. A board member sat next to her and, despite being surrounded by others, tried to get her to kiss him.

“He kept saying things like ‘Why won’t you just kiss me?’ and ‘Seriously, just kiss me right now,’ ” she said. “I climbed literally all the way over to the other side of the Uber. I was screaming ‘I have a boyfriend! I have a boyfriend!’ ”

“Not that [having a boyfriend] means anything,” Leslie added.

Employers are legally obligated to protect employees from abuse, regardless of whether the harasser is part of an organization, said Debra Katz, of Katz Marshall & Banks.

“If they become aware that a board member, an elected official or even a [client] has acted inappropriately or sexually harassed an employee, the employer has the obligation to take corrective measures,” Katz said. The employee must also agree on whatever actions are taken by the employer.

In the corporate world, employers are seeking out answers on how to deal with harassment and make sure policies around it are “state of the art,” said Jason Schwartz, a lawyer specializing in employment law at Gibson Dunn.

“A lot of lobbying and PR shops may not have a sophisticated, built-out [human resources] HR operation. A lot of this is unfamiliar territory to them,” he said. “People are struggling to figure out how to respond.”

Rather than relying on a HR or legal department, Schwartz said some employers have opted to have an anonymous reporting system or designate a rotating employee as a safe person to confide in. Punishments are also important, he says.

Some of Schwartz’s clients have implemented a clause that employees’ bonuses could be taken away should a negative report be made against them.

“These kinds of concerns are being taken far more seriously now than they ever were,” Schwartz said.

But punishments become all the more complicated when it’s the men in senior roles who are accused of misconduct, which makes reporting their behavior difficult.

Some K Street offices, women say, have a hypermasculine culture that makes it hard to come forward.

Human resources is there “to protect management, they’re not here to protect the people who report to them,” said Liz, who worked for a trade association at the time. Her sentiment was echoed by nearly every woman who spoke to The Hill. 

“Anything you said to HR went immediately back to the manager, and you’d get called into the manager’s office and get screamed at for going to HR.”

Several women told The Hill that they’ve worked at firms where the men leading it talk repeatedly and openly about the women in the office, commenting on their bodies and their clothing in ways that go beyond innocent compliments.

During presentations led by a woman at a large trade group, the men in the room would allegedly send each other explicit and vulgar text messages, according to a woman shown those messages by one of the men.

Male members of the association allegedly passed a list ranking how much they wanted to sleep with women from the Washington office. It was called the “f—ability factor” list.

They would “love to come up and tell you if you’ve dropped off the list” or if you’ve been relegated to a lower ranking by, for example, getting married, Liz recalled.

Three other women told The Hill that men, including high-ranking government officials and executives, would send them explicit text messages — occasionally with graphic photos — talking about their bodies and what it would be like to have sex with them.

In a trade association’s Washington office, a man would habitually engage in phone sex during work hours, according to another man in the office who witnessed it.

“Every afternoon, like clockwork, I would hear panting, heavy breathing,” said Brandon, whose desk was near the executive’s office. “There were these conversations that registered above a whisper. … When I listened closer, they were phone sex conversations.”

A second person who worked in that office at the time described to The Hill similar conduct by this person. Allegedly, once a complaint had been filed, the man was made to reimburse the group for the cost of the calls.

Margaret, a woman who then worked at a consulting firm, recalled that high-ranking executives would come to her office and talk about sexual conquests and whom they found attractive, sometimes giving unsolicited shoulder rubs.

She called it “harassment creep,” where actions start small and escalate into increasingly inappropriate behavior.

One “would put his leg up on my desk and ‘it’ would be directly eye level with me,” Margaret said. “They want to see your reaction, to see how far they can take it with you.”

Two women described a tactic utilized during greetings or staged photo ops with clients and association members — each pointing to elected officials as the worst offenders.

“Rather than putting a hand here [while posing for a photo],” said Margaret, grabbing her waist, “it’ll be up here.” She put her hand much higher, discreetly cupping the side of her breast.

Another woman said one particular K Street executive would hug her in a similar way.

“I call it the side-boob hug,” she said. “It is a pro trick. … I think they teach this when they get inaugurated. It has happened a bunch with elected officials. Or they find a way to grab your ass. It’s amazing how often it happens.”

One of the biggest issues surrounding the debate over sexual harassment in every industry is that women have different interpretations of what crosses the line.

In an occupation where the job description involves being nice in order to push a cause or raise money, one lobbyist named Jennifer said that men often get the wrong impression. She said that other lobbyists she knows have propositioned her for sex.

“I think it’s terrible, but I feel less harassed and more like they are testing the waters because it must have worked for them before. As soon as I’m like, ‘Uh, no,’ they apologize,” Jennifer said, adding, “That’s happened quite often, actually.”

Legally, in most cases, unwanted comments or inappropriate touching must be continuous for an individual to file a lawsuit. The accusers must also show that the harmful environment was “severe and pervasive,” Katz said.

One woman who worked at trade associations before joining a large K Street firm says she faced retaliation after coming forward about being harassed by a fellow lobbyist.

An outside lobbyist hired by the organization where she worked pushed her against the wall of an elevator and tried to kiss her. Although he pulled back when she told him to stop, he began to send her a stream of text messages talking about how he wanted to be with her and how he was unhappy in his marriage.

The lobbyist was close with other men in her office, and after she complained, her boss began to schedule lobbying outings involving things she hated and wouldn’t do: golf and cigar smoking.

“You don’t have to terminate someone, but you can make their workplace a living hell,” she said.

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