Calling out harassment: Bracken reveals a not-so-funny incident during Walk to Washington

The first call to the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce’s Walk to Washington safety hotline was laughable. A person who had missed the train for the Feb. 27 networking trip wanted the train to come back to the station and pick them up.

The second call — later that night — was an ill-advised, outdated attempt at humor. One that showed how far we still need to go when it comes to taking the issue of harassment in the workplace seriously.

So said Tom Bracken, the CEO of the state chamber, when he spoke at an open forum with the working group set up by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) to discuss the issue around the state Monday night in Glassboro.

“We had a late-night, alcohol-fueled call to the hotline,” he said he told the group. “It was a friend and close colleague of ours in the business community who did it just to yank our chain — and we didn’t appreciate it, because it is exactly what we didn’t want to happen, is to have that whole process minimized. And we felt it was.”

Bracken was not happy. The chamber has been out in front of the issue since the explosive December story by New Jersey Advance Media on how harassment and groping are part of large networking events rocked his organization and others.

File photo
Tom Bracken of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber instituted numerous safety changes and a code of conduct for the Walk to Washington. This call violated that code. And Bracken made sure the person — an unnamed, but supposedly high-level person — knew about it.

“I called the person (on Monday following the trip) and expressed my extreme disappointment,” he said. “There was a very sincere apology, but, according to our code of ethics, which we said we would have to comply with, I told the person that, if they did it again, they would be banned from any future activities that we held.

“He was very apologetic. Apologetic, using the terms alcohol and sophomoric. The person realized it should not have happened, but it did.”

Sabeen Masih, a vice president of government affairs at Capital Impact Group and a member of the working group, applauded Bracken for coming forward about the incident. She said it had a huge impact and made a big impression.

“Bringing up that specific incident, talking about how high level that person was, and the time that call was made, and the manner of that call, was a combination for being explosive,” she said.

Some said it was a two-steps-forward, one-step-back scenario. Masih said anything that can bring examples such as these into the public forum is a good thing.

“This is exactly what we’re trying to address,” she said. “This is a serious issue. When occurrences happen like this, it not only diminishes the work that we’re doing, but the remarkable work that organizations such as the chamber are doing. The chamber redid its entire training and security system, and, for someone to poke fun at that, it’s a good example of why something like this needs to have light shined on it.”

Bracken, who was asked to come to the meeting, said he was glad he did. He said he feels the chamber needs to be transparent about all it’s doing to be a leader on the issue.

“By letting people know that we fully complied with our code of ethics and did exactly what we said we do is important,” he said. “We said if anyone would be involved in any incident — whether it was a direct harassment incident or this, a prank call — we would treat everybody the same, regardless of who it was. The key thing here is that we did that.

“It was not a call that was reporting a harassment incident or anything of that nature. But it did demean our intent here, and we followed our code of ethics, and I think that’s the most important message.”

Bracken said the chamber will continue to reinforce the message. He’s eager for the forums the chamber is doing with Patricia Teffenhart, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Bracken feels the private sector should lead the way on this.

“We are going to continue to refine our train trip and make it even safer going forward,” he said. “I talked about our road shows, where we are going to work with Patricia Teffenhart to provide sexual harassment training to the business owners and CEOs of the various regional chambers of commerce.

“(The working group forum) was a great opportunity for us to talk about how we reacted to the December Star-Ledger article, why we did what we did, what our intention was and the fact that we are actually doing it.”

The late-night call showed just how necessary this work is.

Sadly, Masih said those in the Trenton bubble were not necessarily surprised that it happened.

“For this incident, I’m getting a lot of people from people in Trenton saying, ‘Wow, I can’t believe something like happened,’ but then quickly following up with, ‘But I can,’” she said.

“It is still shocking that people take such a serious issue as harassment and public safety lightly, but, at the same time, there’s great value in the fact Tom did bring this up so people can see this is exactly what we’re talking about it. “