DISCLAIMER: As always, this take is long so if you aren't much of a reader you can skip right down to the pointers if you just need advice, they are clearly labeled so you should have no issue finding them. Some information such as company names, employee names, and situations are withheld for the sake of protecting aninimity and for the sake of professionalism. With this said, please enjoy the take.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a serious take, so today I want to focus on a subject that is touchy for some and mock-worthy to others: harassment in the workplace. Most people would be quick to pipe up that with feminism and the quickness to sue in this day in age that workplace harassment is a thing of the past, and once upon a time I might have believed that. It really wasn’t until I experienced it that I realized how real it was and why it often goes unreported.
Men and women can be the victims of workplace harassment (though few men are harassed by beautiful Horrible Boss actress Jennifer Aniston) and both can equally be harassers, it isn’t as predominantly masculine in nature the way it used to be. Now, everyone is at risk, and few people know how to go about dealing with it.
I can almost guarantee that a minimum of 90% of the people reading this will say that the only proper way of dealing with it is to report it to the labor board or somebody in a higher position in the company, while the other 10% will blame the victim and simply suggest they make themselves sexually unappealing, be that by covering every inch of skin to avoiding being so much as friendly.
I may be chastised for this, but I didn’t take either of these routes.
I work for a very small company that has about 13-15 employees total and only four of those employees work in the office. I myself am a receptionist/maintenance worker, so I work within close proximity with pretty much everyone in the office. Up until recently, I never experienced too much in regards to harassment: just the occasional comment from a few of the welders and the odd uncomfortable hug and flirtation from an older, regular customer of ours. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle and it was honestly very tame; it typically just stuck within the realms of remarking on my appearance, so I could barely even classify it as harassment, really. It was more of an awkward annoyance.
But then we got a new general manager. I was familiar with him somewhat because he worked for another company that we did work for prior to coming here, so I knew from the beginning that he was very “friendly.” He didn’t at all seem like the pervy type at all; as a matter of fact, he was a meek, timid, kindly family man who spent his days working hard and his breaks talking to his young daughter on the phone. I never would have thought that I would have an issue with somebody so nice and, well, blatantly wimpy. Then again, a lot of us assume harassment is strictly crude and sexual, but I am here to tell you today that it isn’t true.
The way I was harassed was not at all traditional: it started out with harmless flirting, comments on my appearance, asking about who I was dating – if I was dating, and lovey-dovey pet names. I took it as this guy was just awkwardly affectionate – he was the classic nice guy after all so I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until he began trying to hug me, touch my hands and stare me down whenever I was in the room that I realized something just wasn’t right. On one occasion, I went to his desk to take a stale coffee he had left out all morning, and I guess he must have really appreciated the gesture because he suddenly grabbed me, pulled me onto his lap and hugged me. I turned into a classic victim: do nothing and question what happened. It wasn’t until I brought it up to my room mate that she assured me that he had crossed the line, and that I wasn’t overreacting that I realized I had to do something. And knowing that my boss is a colossal, sexist asshole who doesn’t bother to punish his employees, I knew I’d have to handle things myself.
That image of him being a kindly family man was his “saving grace” sort of speak because I wasn’t aggressive about it in the beginning. I simply backed off when he was around and cut our conversations short. If he ever tried to touch me I’d just pull away or walk away like I hadn’t noticed. It worked for a while, but really all I was doing was avoiding the issue instead of dealing with it. It came to a head when the comments began to change: he began making subtle sexual suggestions, which is passed off as “jokes” and began making more romantic comments too. If we ever made eye contact, he would give me this weird, affectionate look that would be better suited for his wife, not a woman nearly 30 years younger than him.
It was as though he used his nice guy persona as a way to manipulate me and everyone around him to simply pass his inappropriateness as socially awkward behavior.
I couldn’t take it anymore at one point, and I snapped. I looked him dead in the eye after he made a passive comment on how hot I was and he wished he “knew me in another life” so we could “be together” and I boldly said:
You’re a creepy fuck, you know that?
I know, I know, this probably isn’t how I should have worded it, but I had been letting this shit go for so long because of his nice family man persona that I had built up a lot of resentment towards this guy. At that moment, I just didn’t care. I didn’t care if he told my boss, I didn’t care if his feelings were hurt, I just wanted him to realize how inappropriate he was being and I wanted it to sting and sting bad. Apparently it did, because he looked like he was going to start crying. Weeks after, he backed off, but he always passive aggressively brought up how he wanted to be nice to me but he couldn’t because it would make him “Old and creepy” in my eyes. For a while, I actually felt bad and decided to talk it out with him. I softened my demeanor and told him I “Knew he didn’t mean anything by it” and that I was “Simply not affectionate.” After that, we acted friendly towards each other again, and I thought things were going well.
I was wrong.
He took my relenting on the sass and being professionally friendly with him as a ticket to start up again. He began trying to hug me, rub my back, touch my hands; the comments started up again, the staring started up again – it all happened all over again. This time around I wasn’t playing games though: I would call him creepy, tell him to blatantly fuck off and avoid him when the behavior started up again. It would work for a while, he’d be kind and respectful and I would ease up. The second I did, it started again. I would talk it out with him and we would be friends again. I would once again become convinced that he was just a kind, awkward guy with no concept of boundaries. This went on for a long, long time, until recently when I finally put a stop to it.
The guy was crying the other day, for reasons I won’t disclose, but I felt truly horrible for him. My maternal instinct kicked in and I hugged the guy. It was a stupid mistake but believe me when I tell you the situation was heartbreaking, so I was willing to be a bit of a sacrificial lamb if I had to be. The minute I did this, he latched onto me like a leech and just stayed there until I pulled myself away. After that he spent all day talking to me romantically, telling me how wonderful I was, that I was his sunshine, and how he was jealous of the UPS dude hitting on me. It was puke worthy. Thoroughly fed up, I decided to have an end-all-be-all talk with him.
I told him that this shit had to stop, that he had a wife and kids and his behavior was causing me to have severe anxiety. I told him that if things didn’t stop, that I wouldn’t so much as speak to him anymore. I didn’t directly threaten to tell my boss, but I subtly made the suggestion, and he went pale. He did what he usually did: defended his actions by saying he was simply very affectionate and meant no harm by it, it was all a big joke. Of course I followed with the ol’: It’s not much of a joke if no one’s laughing spiel. We hashed it out and at last, he’s finally seemed to stop. He hasn’t bothered me since and he even apologized to me and agreed that he wasn’t being appropriate, but still sticks to his guns when he claims he meant nothing by it.
Whether or not he did is irrelevant: it wasn’t appropriate, and it was harassment. I’m not saying this guy is all bad to his core but he’s old enough to know that boundaries were crossed. Nice family man or not, that shit isn’t acceptable.
So, for those of you who are or who have been the victims of harassment, this is a list of things I feel are the most effective when dealing with harassment in the workplace:
# 1 Don’t accept it
Seasoned pervs and harassers bank on you not saying or doing anything, so in my experience, the best thing to do is surprise them by nipping it in the butt from the very beginning. You don’t have to be rude or crass like I was, you just need to forwardly say that you don’t like what they’re doing or simply tell them not to do that. Psychologists everywhere will tell you that predators, such as child molesters, will test the waters to see what they can get away with and will target you based on how passively you accept their actions. If you just let them say things to you or touch you, you’re unknowingly giving them the green light to make you into a victim. The few times I’ve been harassed on the streets or in public, I’ve told the person to back off and have been amazed that most of them are cowards who don’t like attention drawn to what they’re doing, and they’ve left me alone.
#2 Be very, very clear
Don’t belittle your feelings the way I initially did by throwing in a softening “I know you mean nothing by it” or “I know you’re just really flirty/affection but….” Because somebody who wants to harass you will see that as weakness; it says that you doubt yourself, that you’re unsure of your situation and where the lines are, which suggests that they can confuse you by arguing your point and blurring the lines further. Be clear about how you feel: say what you mean and stand by it, even if you’re not sure. You don’t have to outright say that its harassment if confronting someone with that kind of accusation scares you, you can simply confront them with the fact that the behavior bothers you and has to stop before you have to do something about it.
#3 Don’t be their friend
I made the mistake of getting friendly with the guy who harassed me because I truly did believe (and still believe) that he is a genuinely nice person. He is well liked in the company, and I let that cloud my judgment. But let’s be real here: your coworkers are often best left just being your coworkers. Sure some coworkers can be friends, but you can’t be friendly with someone who is interested in pushing your boundaries, because it’s nothing more than another way to extort you. You don’t have to be rude to them or ignore them completely, but keep conversations short and/or work related and definitely have zero contact with them outside of work. Don’t leave doors open for them to slip through.
#4 If all else fails, tell someone
I work for a smaller company, so there wasn’t too much option to me to get into contact with anybody who would actually do something. Perhaps I could have gone to the labor board, but that put others in the company at risk, for reasons I once again won’t disclose. I will say however that if it came down to it, I would have told my boss. I sincerely doubt much would have been done, but the mere threat of it was enough to send this guy into a pale-faced-panic, so it would have done the trick, even if he only got a talking to. So if you’re in a situation where you are being harassed and you don’t know how else to stop it, tell somebody and get it dealt with before it gets worse.
I know this is another long one but I hope you all enjoyed it and read through it all because I feel very strongly about the subject and about spreading awareness to men and women alike who are dealing with similar issues. I hope you all have a safe and amazing weekend and I look forward to reading what you have to say in the threads below.