‘Trust is hard to get back’: Progressive think tank leader outed sexual harassment survivor

Staff says the organization is mishandling sexual harassment allegations.

Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress,  speaks onstage during the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference in this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo.  CREDIT: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times
Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, speaks onstage during the New York Times Schools for Tomorrow conference in this Sept. 17, 2015, file photo. CREDIT: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times

Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, accidentally named a survivor of sexual harassment twice at an all-staff meeting on Wednesday, according to four sources who were present. Buzzfeed first reported the incident.

Tanden used the name twice, back-to-back, during her response to one of the first questions at the packed town hall-style meeting, according to one source who was present. The mood in the room immediately dropped, sources told ThinkProgress, and staffers turned to each other in disbelief.

Tanden realized her mistake almost immediately and apologized several times, the sources said. But rather than calming fears, the meeting left many employees feeling disappointment.

“I think with the admission of that name, trust started disappearing immediately,” one source told ThinkProgress. “And trust is hard to get back.”

A CAP spokeswoman said Tanden “deeply regrets” using the woman’s name on accident.

“Neera unintentionally said the complainant’s first name in the meeting today, and immediately and profusely apologized for it,” the spokeswoman told ThinkProgress in a statement.


ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news outlet housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Reporters and an editor who worked on this story declined to attend the Wednesday meeting, which was off-the-record. ThinkProgress staff who attended did not work on or act as sources for this story.

CAP’s management called the meeting to address allegations, detailed in a BuzzFeed story published Monday night, that the progressive think tank mishandled reports of sexual harassment against two female staff by former senior staffer Benton Strong.

Many employees were unhappy with Tanden’s initial response to the BuzzFeed report, which came in the form of an all-staff email sent at 1:23 a.m. Tuesday morning. In the email, which sources showed to ThinkProgress, Tanden said BuzzFeed’s report “contains several inaccuracies” and insisted CAP’s lack of transparency when handling the sexual harassment claims was due to “confidentiality policies” and direct requests from the two women.

But Tanden’s use of a survivor’s name during an all-staff meeting makes that excuse harder to believe, according to a former staffer with direct knowledge of the sexual harassment reported by BuzzFeed.

“[T]he CAP excuse that they couldn’t do anything to help us because of confidentiality concerns was clearly a made- up excuse … if Neera is going to out the victim twice in the all-staff meeting in which they are supposed to be showing how they are supportive of victims,” the former staffer told ThinkProgress.


In the meeting, Tanden appeared to be unfamiliar with the details of the investigation into Strong’s conduct and with CAP’s new “Respectful Workplace Conduct Policy,” according to a source who was present. She also seemed unable — or unwilling — to address one of the women’s allegations that she faced retaliation after reporting sexual harassment by Benton.

“[T]he fact that she made that mistake at all shows that she hasn’t put enough thought into the entire response and into the potential implications of exposing someone,” a different former staffer with direct knowledge of the alleged sexual harassment told ThinkProgress.

Current and former CAP staff members who spoke with ThinkProgress asked to remain anonymous out of fear of professional reprisal.

The night before the all-staff meeting, Tanden sent a second, more conciliatory, email to staff. In it, she empathised with concerns raised by the BuzzFeed piece and vowed to strengthen CAP’s sexual harassment policies — including sexual harassment training.

CAP required employees to read and sign a new “Respectful Workplace Conduct Policy” earlier this year that covered sexual harassment, but it does not offer formal training.

“At the end of the day, the most important thing is that our staff feel safe, supported and listened to,” Tanden said in the second email. “That that didn’t happen is something that is on me to rectify for the future.”


But one current staffer said she doesn’t feel confident in CAP’s ability to handle sexual harassment allegations moving forward.

“I didn’t feel reassured,” the staffer told ThinkProgress. “I didn’t feel that if this were to happen tomorrow, that there were policies in place to handle it.”