Tuesday, January 15, 2008

When it comes to sexual harassment, it's the little things that bleed you to death

When it comes to sexual harassment, everybody---especially lawyers and juries and panels and so forth---wants to hear about the big egregious examples.

However, those big things are usually so obviously and clearly wrong that even a person in the middle of the situation knows it is wrong, not okay. That's not usually the part that hurts the most, although it's the part that gets the most attention. The problem with the big things, when you are in the situation, is figuring out how to handle it.

We're all cautioned to be nice, but women especially are taught and reinforced to be kind and thoughtful, sometimes to their own detriment. I don't want to go off on a tangent and talk too much about what modern American and similar cultures tell women about who they are supposed to be and how that---as well-meaning as it usually is---can often be the very tool that abusers and harassers use. But I will say that we---culture, society and parent---can unintentionally teach our daughters to place themselves second, without even trying. And this thing, the thing we think will make them Nice, makes them vulnerable, too.

This is why I am so vigilant about not forcing my daughters to accept physical affection if they are uncomfortable, taught them from day one that they have ultimate say over their bodies, validate their point of view (even if it doesn't get to be the final word), and teach them as best I can to not fall under any buses, literal or figurative.

It is not my daughters' job---nor is it any person's job---to make the people around them happy, especially at cost to themselves. It is their job to be respectful, courteous, and so forth. How other people feel is beyond any of our control. All we can do is our best to be kind and thoughtful.

I say all of this because in the end, it's not necessarily the big things that harm you the most. It's often the little things that end up causing you to slowly bleed to death.

That's why I'm not going to tell you the story about the time my boss told me to take off my skirt and run and hurl my body at a child's inflatable pool he'd attached to the wall, or how when I refused, he threatened to fire me and told me lacking a sense of humor and fun was a detriment in our work, or how I felt when I saw a normally reserved female coworker doing it...as I left more than half believing myself fired. I won't focus on the times he asked me to detail my sexual relationship with my husband to him. I won't go into the multiple female stripper incidents. I'll you about things other than the betting pool he had about the female employees---who could "take" who on in a mud wrestling match. I won't detail how it felt when he said our new office would include a shower: one in a locker room for men, and a plexiglass one in the center for women, and no bonuses to women who didn't shower there and double bonuses to women who showered there and lathered each other up. Or any of the other large, egregious incidents like this.

Instead I'm going to tell you about one of the little things, and how it affected not just my work and ability to succeed in my work, but also how it made me feel.

The emailed jokes incident
It might not surprise you to learn that this office was more like a fraternity house (and no offense intended to all fraternity houses). In fact, that's how the original band of engineers met one another: in a fraternity.

It definitely won't surprise you to learn that as a female, I was a definite minority in my career at an engineering company, so there were few women working there. Those few of us did bond, primarily over our femaleness.

As our work rapidly expanded, I got the go-ahead to hire three more employees for my staff. I intended to be fair in my own hiring practices, but kept a very open mind about giving more women a bigger chance to enter the field. However, the most qualified applicants who I thought would do the best job and be the best fit happened to be male. So I ended up with an all male staff. Initially this was good.

But the overall atmosphere at that company---which was disrespectful, inappropriate, and unprofessional to say the least---infected even my employees. From my office, I'd hear them laughing in the cube farm, but I didn't worry about it. I didn't even worry about the calls to, "Come see this, dude, oh my gosh it's hysterical!" I was a cool boss. I didn't micromanage. I trusted my employees. We had a good working relationship. A little fun in the day was to be expected. They did good work, and didn't miss deadlines.

Then one day they slipped up. They'd nearly gotten caught a few times, when I happened by a desk and a window would quickly flip closed, or conversation would halt abruptly. But on that day, the day they slipped up, it was a classic email error.

One of my employees was forwarding a joke to the rest of my employees via email. They tended to use the group distribution list for ease and simply remove my name. But for some reason? This time the sender forgot to remove my name.

That's how I got a horribly disgusting graphic and denigrating joke about women.

I was appalled. I knew my boss was like this, but my employees?

I called them into my office for an immediate discussion. I had my anger under control but not my disappointment.

I reminded them about the company policy and read several sections from the employee handbook, proving how many points the email violated. I expressed my disappointment, and told them this would end, now.

They stared sullenly at me. One--the sender---told me my boss had forwarded it to him. They all asserted my boss and other managers sent these things around all the time so it must be fine. It was all just funny. I should lighten up.

I felt my stomach clench in fear and fury. I had lost all vestige of authority with my employees. My boss had cut me off at the knees. Now I knew it for sure. My boss had been taking my team out to Boys Only lunches for months, and their attitudes had been getting progressively more rebellious, for lack of a better word. Any time they disagreed and I insisted, they went right over my head to my boss. Who always backed them up, no matter what.

I was sure, however, that I was right in this case.

I reiterated the company policy, suggested they read the handbook themselves, and reminded them how offensive jokes like that are and should be.

One employee became not just belligerent, but furious at me. With a voice shaking in anger, he stood in my doorway and promised me I hadn't heard the last of this.

I felt my stomach clench again, but decided my boss had no leg to stand on in this case. I printed out the email and added it to my harassment file, with notes about the events.

By the time I had finished, my angry employee walked past my door again and smirked in at me, then resumed his seat. Not a minute later my phone beeped. It was my boss.

"I understand you are trying to limit your employees' right to free speech," he said.

"They are sending inappropriate emails in violation of company policy," I told him.

Long story and aggravating conversation short, my boss told me it wasn't cool to stop the fun, and he was rescinding my order that the rude jokes stop.

"I've already told your employees, and I also told them if you give them any more crap to come straight to me. You ought to know I've been checking in with them and will keep doing so," he said.

In that moment, I knew it was lost. But I am not a quitter, and I stuck around, trying to resolve and fix and improve.

One part of me wondered if I was being over the top about the emails. Perhaps I did come down too hard, I thought, probably because of all the rest of it. But when I thought about the email, and knew it was actually one of many, I thought how could there be, why should there be, any tolerance for this? Even if it was an isolated incident (which it wasn't). I worried about what I had done to earn the disrespect and enmity of these men. Had I done it? Or had it been done to me? I had thought of us as friendly coworkers, and I tried to be fair, not lord my position or be bossy. I respected their input and endeavored to empower them. Perhaps the very fairness and empowerment I offered, in this toxic environment, became the very cudgels with which to beat me. Perhaps I had made mistakes, or had room for improvement.

But bottom line, to this day I believe I was right about those nasty jokes and my email rule. And now, these days---although I have trouble telling these stories, the ones in which I am vulnerable and may show my own errors, and feel shame about being a part of this---I know that no matter what, my boss was wrong, my employees were inappropriate, and nobody deserves to be treated the way I was.

The entire story would take weeks to tell, and to provide context would take many posts. I'm not sure how much sense it all makes, or how to really create the feeling and atmosphere in a blog post (even a long one). I think it is probably best to let these issues become sleeping dogs. But I'm not sure if I'm finished with it yet. I'd like to definitely let women out there in the workplace know that it's wrong to ask us to accept any of this. Just pure wrong. I'm not sure how to do that yet, beyond this.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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Sunshine said...

There is a line between having a sense of humor and sexual harassment. Kudos to you for having the spine to fight against the tide and point out the difference. Eventually, the Good Ol Boys club will hear it enough times it might actually start to sink in, but teaching our daughters to have a strong voice is a great first step. I have the same fears with my 2 daughters, that they grow up confident and self-assured, never allowing a man to demean or ridicule them for their sex. Someday, I hope things will be easier for them but I'm arming them with the tools to be prepared if there are still sexist pigs out there.

thordora said...

I was molested as a child, and I am militant about not forcing my daughters into physical situations they are NOT comfortable with. They need to power, and the voice to say no.

And man...our HR is crazy nutty strict to the point of insanity, but at least I don't have to deal with that kind of thing.

melissa said...

That is some messed up stuff there...

But big kudos to you for teaching your girls confidence and strength. I'm trying to make sure my boys learn respect and thoughtfulness.

And you were so cut off at the knees. I had that done to me, in much the same way (without the sexual harassment angle).

But what would be good karmic revenge? I could think of a couple, but they're kind of rude and not PC, so I'll just keep them to myself...:)

oh, I might have another "mwah mwah" post today...but it's technical stuff about the cello. Don't say you weren't warned...

Yolanda said...

In a post-google world, many of us go online searching for common ground. We're looking for similar stories and to glean advice from someone else's experience. Some woman out there has kept quiet after receiving that errant sexual email, that link to a dirty youtube video, or an IM'd dirty joke. She's going to wonder if she should shrug it off, excuse it.

Then she will stumble on this story and realize the answer is no. Because, as you've stated so eloquently, it's the small incidents that eat away at your reserve, that help create a culture of permissible harassment, and clear the path for more offensive and greater misconduct.

Magpie said...

Damn, that sucks. Good on you for standing your ground, though I'm sorry you were put in that position.

Jeff said...

Even knowing these boys' clubs existed I would never have imagined that they do the things you described so overtly, and with the big boss's support. I'm guessing the majority of us haven't experienced work environments like this so that's why it's good that you are able to share this.

dharmamama said...

You *did* create the feeling and atmosphere in one blog post. As well as the confusion, and frustration, and anger.

Thank you for writing. Keep using your words.

I so agree with what Yolanda wrote.

Sober Briquette said...

For most of the years I worked, I worked in female dominated workplaces. The year and a half I worked for a male-dominated employer ended in a nervous breakdown and me walking off the job. Because I had gotten sucked into the "what happens in Vegas" attitude pervading not only our frequent business trips but the office as well. Even though I then worked another couple of years in a normal environment before having children, the memory and fear of that place is one of my worries about returning to work.

liv said...

And truthfully, it's for things like these that I don't believe I can ever "get on the treadmill" again. My reproductive rights were questioned, my work ethic was under fire, my job was in jeopardy if I didn't write in my daytimer "properly." Salaried employees forced to come in on Christmas and donate their own blood just so we could "make goal" during the holiday season. Awful.

So, yeah, I don't make a lot of money in yoga. I don't know what I'll do next, but it will have to be on my own terms.

annenahm said...

I think part of the healing (sorry for such an emo word, but can't think of something that sounds cooler this early in the day) on this issue is that it is OK to talk about it. You were not wrong - so why should you hold the burden of keeping it secret? They wanted to keep it secret because they knew they were wrong.

Bad secrets have a way of forcing themselves into the light. I think that is why that person 'forgot' to take you off the mass email. The truth comes out. It is just then a question as to whether people can look at it.

Good job.

flutter said...

I couldn't have said it any better than liv.

SciFi Dad said...

As a Canadian engineer, I find these kind of stories really hard to relate to. I've worked at a bunch of different offices, and the only time I've encountered this type of stuff has been when I'm working in the US. I don't know what the difference in culture is that makes the environment more conducive down there (handguns? the unyielding belief that everything can be battered and deep fried?) but there's something that Canada seems to lack.

I'm impressed at your restraint. I'm also impressed at the restraint your husband showed. If I were involved, things would have been a lot uglier, I'm a little ashamed to say.

Suz said...

Your own self-doubt especially rang true for me. I think that what's so damaging in this case was that the harrassment was systemic and environmental. It was everywhere you looked, so of course you would doubt yourself. I'm so glad that the doubt and erosion of self that this type of criminal behavior uses to feed iteslf with didn't stop you from getting out.

Gwen said...

That's one of the insidious things about sexually hostile environments--they make you question yourself all the time.

Thinking about your story: ugh. Just .... ugh.

Jenny said...

I feel like I have been completely naive about realities in the business world. As awful as this is, I'm glad to have read it because, as a mother of daughters, I need to be aware. Thank you for this eloquent post.

mommybytes.com said...

These stories are important ones to tell, especially in this day and age. I happen to work in a great environment now as an engineering manager with male reports beneath me and male bosses above me. Everyone is well behaved in that respect. But there are issues that I still face and it is hard to network and find people who can understand where I am coming from. I hate to be all professional all the time and yet I can't really befriend any of these guys. I find it difficult to tell an older male report if they did something wrong. But thankfully, I have your posts which bring the female voice to the workplace. Thanks, Julie. And thank goodness you've gotten out of there without being thrown off the train!

bubandpie said...

My reaction to this story is to see, immediately, why a person would stay so long in this kind of environment. In your last post, it seemed so obvious - of COURSE you should leave a toxic working environment, of course you'd be happier out of that situation. But then I read this post, and I'm hungry for the ending where you WIN: where everyone is punished appropriately and made to apologize and admit that they were wrong. I can see the temptation to stay in and somehow defeat the system, no matter how impossible and even pointless that would be.

Michele said...

I know it's not surprise but I've also worked in an office environment similar to the one you described. It was a small software company ... mostly men and a few women who were OK with the men behaving like sexual idiots. It was such an uncomfortable environment and there was nothing I could do to change it. Good for you for not giving up.

Family Adventure said...

When your boss undermines your authority so severely there's really nothing more for you to do. I wouldn't have thought any less of you if you'd turned around and walked out the door at that moment. The fact that you *didn't*, however, shows your true strength of character.

He and that employee deserve each other.

I know your girls will grow up to be strong and proud. Which is exactly what the world needs. Thanks, Julie.


wheelsonthebus said...

You would think people would just play it safe and not send around stupid email jokes of any kind at work...

My stomach is clenching now, too.

Lawyer Mama said...

Oh, that makes me SO angry! What a toxic work environment. And a lawsuit waiting to happen.

I must admit there are men I work with who, if they made jokes about their sex lives, etc..., I wouldn't think twice about it, in the same way I might not think twice about some female co-worker saying the same thing. Because we're friends in addition to being co-workers. But Sonia is right, there is a fine line between having a sense of humor and sexual harassment.

Usually people aren't quite so overt about the hostility towards women. It's usually the verbal jokes and the comments to lighten up and then the office party that gets out of control and we're supposed to laugh it all off. That's worrisome as well because where exactly do we draw the line? And it's a slippery slope....

Mad Hatter said...

When I played women's hockey out here there was a woman on my team, a lesbian and a high-school drop-out who had worked the last 20 years in the mill (forestry is big here). Even at that she was only in her mid-thirties. When she would tell of the harassment she endured in her work place, I felt like vomiting. For her, there were no other options. No education. No skills. Living in nowhere-ville. When I read your story I feel anger for what you endured and I am grateful that you could eventually leave--scarred but not broken. When I think of blue collar women in this situation I feel nothing but sickness and dread for this world.

Mad Hatter said...

Uh, Julie. Just reading over my comment and I want to add that I in no way whatsoever want to make light of what you went through. That crap is evil and must change and is not changing fast enough.

It's just that when I read your post I thought of this other woman and my stomach knotted up for her as well.

thailandchani said...

I believe you were right also.. and hell simply isn't hot enough.... you know?

Lori at Spinning Yellow said...

Now I get your e-mail - I hadn't read this post yet! My situation was different but I was also accused of being "not fun" and "lacking a sense of humor" which always puts me on guard. As if I am at fault if I don't think your poor judgment is funny. And in the end, I was fired for not discussing my workout routine with my sort-of boss.

I am glad that you stood your ground, I know how difficult that must have been. I do wish I had been better about doing that myself. I've thought before, what if I had a script, what I should have said, instead of just getting angry and embarrassed, and then I am even more pissed that I should have needed such "lines",

I hope by sharing your story you can help others to see how right they are and to have the strength to stand up for themselves.

Oh and I can't stand when people say to my kids, "I need a kiss or a hug", when my kids don't want to. I've made it clear to them that they NEVER have to do those things if they don't want to, even if it is a relative. This is one case where having a child with issues comes in handy, as in, "he doesn't like the way that feels and will have a meltdown, so leave him alone."

anne said...

I'm sorry you had to go through that. What an ...

Ok, I won't even go there.

But good for you for standing your ground.

the end of motherhood said...

Mike Huckabee - who actually has a shot at the Republican nomination for President - said in a public debate yesterday that he believes wives should "be submissive" to their husbands. This has all got to stop.

Cathy said...

Oh, Julie. What a wretched environment that must have been.

Good for you for calling them on it. And good for you for teaching your children about boundaries.

anastasia said...

Hate it when our attempts to de-sexualize the workplace are met with derision and contempt. It took centuries for this attitude to become woven into the fabric of the workplace. We're newcomers. I sympathize and can only offer that we are trying to raise our sons to be respectful human beings. Uphill battle, that.

Andrea said...

Oh gods.

This makes my stomach hurt, and I wasn't even there. So glad you got out.

painted maypole said...

what a nightmare, julie.

Mama Drama Jenny, the Bloggess said...

Holy hell, Julie! I'm shaking as I write this. Not just as and HR professional but as a woman and, hell, just as a human being.

I'd like to think stuff like this doesn't happen anymore...but I'm sure it does.

ewe are here said...

The whole scenario makes me incredibly, sick and angry. You were 110% in the right; your boss and your subordinates were 110% in the wrong. But oh how I wish you and the other women in your company had been able to sue them for sexual harassment publically... ruin their reputations in the harsh light of the outside world. (That's the lawyer in me speaking; the woman says I understand just wanting to make it end and get out.)

Your daughters are lucky to have you raising them.

Blogversary said...

Very sad. And, I agree with most of the comments about how horrible of a situation that was and sadly it happens more than we want.

Kyla said...

This made me so angry. SO ANGRY. I can't think of anything more to say about it, I just hate that you had to work in that environment.

jeanie said...

Oh Julie - just back from being away and reading this post makes me go "yay" for you being such a great mum to your girls and showing them the way.

I worked in advertising and was once told that if I didn't learn to drink with the boys I wouldn't go very far.

There were some who did more than drinking.

I went far enough to realise I hated so much about the industry, especially the boys clubs to which I would never (even had I wished to) belong.

I am sorry that it caused you so much pain - and who will be playing you in the movie?

Anonymous said...

I truly believe that Julie is giving a voice to many, many women out there. Many of us have suffered in silence way too long. I applaud your strength, and hope you find a way to tell the whole story one day, even going so far as being able to identify the company. Exposure like that is sometimes what it takes to make crap like that stop.

Wayfarer Scientista said...

Julie, thank you for posting this and for being strong. The strange things about these situations too is they do make us feel like somehow we're the ones who are in the wrong for not stepping ahead sooner or fast enough but the truth is it isn't our fault, it's their fault. You were strong and I'm glad you aren't there anymore.

alejna said...

This is so appalling, I can't even figure out what to say. What horrifies me most is that sexual harrassment is so common, to the varying degrees. I'm so glad that you are writing about this.