We’re witnessing history today, and it’s painful.
Christine Blasey Ford, the university professor who accused US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her in 1982, is testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Until this morning, it may not have been clear to every employer how significant today’s hearing would be and what not only Americans, but any person watching around the world, could learn from it.
The proceedings are no doubt cutting into the usual productivity of people who’ve made sure to put themselves within earshot of a television, radio, or livestream today. But any employer claiming to value empathy in the workplace would have to recognize that watching the hearing is productive in another way. Through Ford’s testimony, men and women, from average citizens to veteran senators, are learning, or being reminded, about the prevalence of these attacks and what studies have shown (and what Blasey Ford, a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, explained to the committee herself) about how trauma affects the psyche and memory.
As senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told Blasey Ford, she is enlightening people today. She has “inspired and enlightened men in America, to listen respectfully to women survivors and men who have survived sexual attacks, and that is a profound public service, regardless of what happens with this nomination,” he said.
Asked to recount what remains most powerful in her memory of the day in question, she responded, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter—the uproarious laughter between the two and their having fun at my expense,” she said, tearfully. The two, she claims, were Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, who pushed her into an upstairs bedroom at a teenage house party. Kavanaugh, she alleges, had her pinned to the bed and covered her mouth to prevent her from screaming while he attempted to remove her clothes. Judge, she says, watched, sometimes egging on his friend and at other times advising him to let up. Ford said she looked to Judge, hoping he would help her escape, but he didn’t.
Those who have never been sexually assaulted or couldn’t imagine what that might be like are now hearing in painstaking detail what it is like to experience it and to live with its consequences. Ford told the senators about the panic attacks, anxiety, and claustrophobia that caused her to seek therapy, years before Kavanaugh would be named as US president Donald Trump’s pick for the highest court in the land.
Managers everywhere should be cognizant that the content of the hearing will be triggering to some employees, particularly those who have survived sexual assault, but also those who are thinking of a friend or family member as they listen to a story that may sound familiar. It would be a good day to remind staff about any resources available to them for mental health assistance and their options for taking time off.
But workplace leaders should also be aware that unlike the Olympics, or the World Cup, or other events that tend to steal employees’ attention, this hearing is a rare opportunity for one woman’s important story to be heard, and her voice represents many. Regardless of how the confirmation proceedings turn out for Kavanaugh, everyone’s ability to empathize with their fellow human beings should be enriched by this experience, and empathy is a critical skill for all members of a workforce—and for leaders who want to act with emotional intelligence, it’s essential.