Two days after BuzzFeed News unveiled allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation at one of the nation’s top liberal think tanks, the Center for American Progress's president, Neera Tanden, met with staff to restore confidence in the organization’s ability to handle the issue and ensure that employees feel safe.
But during the meeting Wednesday afternoon, Tanden named the anonymous victim at the center that story — a revelation that a CAP spokesperson said was unintentional — and what began as a tense meeting became what three staffers in the room described as a textbook example of the organization’s failures to appropriately handle sexual harassment cases.
"There is literally one thing you cannot do in this meeting and that is out the victim and Neera did it multiple times...It also destroys whatever small level of confidence in the system remained," one CAP employee who was in the room said in a text to BuzzFeed News. “As a manager I don't know how I can tell staff to trust the system when the head of the organization just outed the victim in front of the entire organization. It is impossible to trust her.”
“Neera lost the organization today,” another CAP employee who was in the meeting said. “There was so much angst in that room. She outed the victim, and the subtext of every question was a lack of confidence in her leadership and ability to create trust within the organization.”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a CAP spokesperson said that Tanden "unintentionally said the complainant’s first name in the meeting today, and immediately and profusely apologized for it."
“She feels awful that it happened and that the victim’s negative experience was compounded; she also expressed that the victim’s actions in coming forward were courageous. Neera’s horror was very evident in the meeting,” the spokesperson said.
Wednesday’s meeting comes after BuzzFeed News released a story on Monday night outlining allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation against those who reported it at CAP in 2016, as well as concerns raised by employees and the employee union at the time that the situation was mishandled by top CAP officials. CAP's spokesperson said the meeting was "just the beginning of conversations we are going to have internally to address questions and answer concerns."
At the center of that story is a woman, whom BuzzFeed News identified only as Mary (part of her formal name) in order to protect her privacy, who reported to CAP in 2016 that she had received several unwanted sexual text messages from Benton Strong, then a manager on her team.
Mary told BuzzFeed News that she was not asked for her permission to have her name used in the meeting on Wednesday. Mary added that she had not been contacted by Tanden or other managers at CAP about her report since BuzzFeed News began talking with CAP about the story on April 5. However, after BuzzFeed News tweeted this detail, Tanden emailed Mary to apologize Wednesday evening.
In an email announcing the all-staff meeting on Tuesday evening, Tanden apologized, saying that she was “deeply sorry” that any staffer had “felt unsupported” when bringing allegations of harassment to officials at the organization and that Wednesday’s meeting would be an opportunity to have an “open and frank” conversation about those issues. “At the end of the day the most important thing is that our staff feel safe, supported, and listened to. That that didn’t happen is something that is on me to rectify for the future,” she wrote.
According to a recording of the meeting obtained by BuzzFeed News, Tanden opened the meeting with a similar message, telling staff she felt “terribly” that some former employees had felt unheard and retaliated against when they reported issues of sexual harassment at CAP. She also announced that individual teams would be having similar conversations about harassment and other issues at CAP in the near future.
When asked by an employee in the meeting about Mary’s report that she had faced retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, however, Tanden used Mary’s first name twice in quick succession and then paused. While the moments that follow are difficult to hear on the recording, two sources in the room said that several people gasped after Tanden used the woman’s name and then apologized.
“Lots of awkward silence after that, lots of gasps as it happened. Neera genuinely seemed shaken and kept apologizing,” one staffer who was in the room told BuzzFeed News.
CAP repeatedly referenced Mary’s privacy when asked about their decision to suspend Strong with pay for three days through his predetermined end date at the organization, citing a need to “respect the complainant’s request that we respect her privacy and not let details of the complaint get out.” They also declined to use her real name in statements to BuzzFeed News “per our commitment to protect the privacy of complainants.”
The all-staff meeting Wednesday included employees of CAP, as well as staff from CAP Action (its election-focused sister organization) and ThinkProgress, an independent news organization under the CAP Action umbrella. In all, CAP employs more than 330 staffers.
“I sincerely hope it was an accident. People audibly gasped when she did that,” another staffer who was in the meeting told BuzzFeed News via text. “Honestly it ruined the rest of the meeting like... how can we trust any of this now that you cant even get that right? Can we even trust the apology? We certainly weren’t given any reason to.”
Mary was one of two women who formally reported Strong to CAP’s HR. The other reported that he asked several women on the team whether they had ever been flashed or masturbated in front of by a stranger and then mocked a woman who said she had cried when that happened to her. Both women reported that they felt they had faced retaliation from managers for reporting Strong.
“On several occasions, myself and others on the team felt as if reporting had been a mistake and that the retaliation, worsening of already tenuous team dynamics, and treatment by supervisors outweighed the seemingly positive act of reporting sexual harassment in the workplace,” Mary wrote in an exit memo when she left CAP in October 2016.
CAP denied wrongdoing in statements to BuzzFeed News before that story was published late Monday night, saying that they removed Strong from the building the day Mary reported him and that they could not do a full investigation of her allegations because of a commitment to maintain her confidentiality. “Due to the repeated expressed wishes of the complainant to not have people know what happened or have her name leaked, we took the strongest actions available to us to protect the victim and protect our staff.”
CAP also said that they investigated both reports of retaliation but could not corroborate them.
In Wednesday’s meeting, Tanden emphasized that she had not seen Mary’s exit memo until last summer but added that that was “a problem” and that it should have been sent to her. “We investigated these claims but the end of the day people feel like something happened and we should have done more,” she added.
Tanden also noted in her email to staff on Tuesday and again on Wednesday that CAP is currently working with the employee union to set up a sexual harassment training for staff — something that the organization has not had since Strong left CAP in July 2016.
One staffer who was in the room Wednesday told BuzzFeed News that, overall, the meeting was “obviously tense.”
Another staffer in the room said in a text to BuzzFeed News, “I think there was overall a lot of disappointment in the room because a lot of people — staff of all levels, some who obviously were taking a big risk by being confrontational — brought up super specific concerns, and got vague stuff in response.”
“It’s just like, how do you hold a meeting telling people you support those who report, you want to create a safe environment to report, and then immediately... out someone who reported,” the staffer added. “Who is gonna come forward knowing that risk???”