She was young, pretty and employed at a growing company dominated by male leadership. Her slight foreign accent gave her an exotic appeal, and her supervisor found the combination too alluring to resist.
“What are you wearing under that dress?” he inquired. It only got worse from there. He asked the young woman questions about whether she had had sex with her boyfriend that morning. This type of harassment went on for weeks, and months.
Finally she confessed some of these things to her friends while driving back from lunch one day. I happened to be in the front seat as the conversation unfurled. Her friends were aghast, but not entirely surprised. They had all been harassed at the same place of employment as well.
As a male employee at that company, I’d heard plenty of comments from other men about the women who worked there. They’d stop by my office and ask things like, “Did you see what (name) is wearing today? You can see her panties through the material.”
Some form of that commentary happened almost every day. Meanwhile the men at the company began engaging in a childish game of pretending to grab the crotch of other men passing by in the hallway. My immediate supervisor would sometimes approach from behind my office chair and put his hand down the front of my shirt to grope my chest in a “kidding” fashion. And so on. And so forth.
So I asked the driver of the car to pull over that day when our associate confessed the degree of sexual harassment she was facing. I turned around to face her and said, “You know, you don’t have to put up with this.”
“What do you mean?” she responded.
“I have a friend who’s a lawyer. He probably knows someone who can represent you and get this to stop.”
And from there, I placed the call to set the wheels in motion. My friend indeed knew a lawyer who specialized in harassment cases. I spoke with her on the phone and described what I’d heard. She told me that she’d obviously need to speak with the woman in question. So I gave my associate that lawyer’s information and an official complaint was filed. The harassment was stopped. Our associate was transferred to another position away from her assailant and received a monetary settlement as well.
Call to Action
The call to action in that case was to help that associate get assistance. Although there might have been internal mechanisms to confront the harasser in other ways, the culture of that company might not have delivered equitable results. But it finally did change thanks to multiple harassment cases brought through both internal and external means. The call to action was effective, and harassers either changed their ways or cost the company money in terms of settlements or lost productivity. Hit them where it hurts, and change does come along.
So an atmosphere in which harassment is tolerated is not, in the long term, a financially viable alternative for any organization. If the costs aren’t immediately financial, the exhaustion imposed on associates affects productivity, or relationships fracture, teams break down or absolute criminal activity takes place. The definition of harassment is “aggressive pressure or intimidation” and that crushes the spirit.
The Weinstein Company just found that out. Yet so has the President of the United States, whose often proud declarations of sexual harassment now dog his reputation and impugn his character. It is true that harassers and bullies often get their way for quite a while. But sooner or later they cross the wrong person and/or the true nature of their actions is exposed. Just ask former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, whose sexual abuse of boys was hidden by hush money for decades. But it caught up with him. Now he’s facing his accusers for the real crimes he perpetrated on them fifty years ago.
Harassment is not confined to man against woman. People can be harassed over their sexual orientation or made to feel inadequate by constant criticism or bullying statements of many stripes.
Harassers will often claim persecution of their own. “Stop being so politically correct!” they may whine, or “I can say what I want! This is America!”
But those statements are pathetic excuses for the lazy minds and ugly nature of those whose character is stunted by immaturity or ignorance.
The call to action on #metoo for all… is to stand up to harassment, bullying and ignorance on all fronts. But let us also consider that it is no small irony in the fact that First Lady Melania Trump has made bullying her cause. Sometimes the truth is hidden in plain sight. Her cause may in fact be a personal cry for help. When her husband leaves her behind in public ceremonies, pushes her hand aside if he’s impatient or focused on his own ego, and clearly considers her an accessory to his success, and not a real part of his foundation, the darker secrets behind that relationship may be important to consider.
The truth may be known someday, but the evidence is there in the manner in which she is treated by her husband in public. No one is immune to harassment. Not even the wife of the most powerful man in the world. And isn’t that a shame?
#metoo is a just cause.