My first job out of college, which was a coveted position in the movie industry, basically ended after I got an executive fired for harassment. Here's how it went down, plus tips for dealing with this tricky—and awful—situation should you find yourself unlucky enough to experience it.
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I almost never think about this traumatic experience from my past, maybe because it's a shameful memory (more on that later). But lately it's become increasingly difficult to repress as male-to-female sexual harassment makes its way back into the national conversation, thanks to Bill O'Reilly and Fox News, in a way it hasn't since Anita Hill took Clarence Thomas to task back in the 1990s. My situation wasn't sexual harassment so much as it was just plain harassment, but because I worked at a company with a boys'-club culture, a lot of the details of what I went through bear a striking resemblance to those in more straightforward sex-based cases.
The long and short of it is that I became quietly involved with one of the executives I worked for. I was 25-year-old assistant at the time, which was fine (meaning there wasn't a company policy against it), but when I broke off the relationship, things took a nightmarish turn.
"When I broke off the relationship, things took a nightmarish turn."
I didn't know what to do. Post-breakup, I was getting e-mails to my work account that contained threats and other inappropriate content from the executive-in-question's work e-mail account. I took him seriously and believed he would ruin both my career and my life, as promised. (Remember, I was 25, and this was my first job.) Deep down, I knew that if I went to my boss, the situation would end badly for me: He was friendly with the man harassing me and, as I mentioned, the office atmosphere generally was pretty frat-like in nature.
So, during one particular bad day, I went to the parking lot and called my mom, sobbing. She’d worked in HR for 30 years and told me the best thing I could do was go to my Human Resources department and tell them everything, immediately. As I walked back to the office from my car, the person harassing me squealed past me in his car, yelled out to me that I was a slut and peeled out of the parking lot. Technically, this person was my work superior. This action sealed his fate.
"The person harassing me yelled out to me that I was a slut as he peeled out of the office parking lot."
I did what my mom advised and went directly to HR. They had me forward all the e-mails he had sent me, and eventually I had to write a lengthy, humiliating, detailed account of everything that had gone down, including my sexual history with the executive in question. This document now exists somewhere in the files of this company, and it will forever.
When he found out what had happened, my boss chided me for reporting the harasser and told me that I should have come to him first. I don't believe this is a suggestion he made with my best interests in mind, and I know the outcome would have been very different had I done so. Instead, because I went through the proper corporate channels, the executive who harassed me was quietly fired. You can't send death threats to someone you work with, or call them a slut in broad daylight in front of their place of business, and expect to remain employed. Though I don't believe this person was a bad person by any stretch of the imagination—rather, just that he was a person with hurt feelings who didn't deal with them properly—I do think it was right that he was let go from the company. I felt infinitely safer afterward.
"I had to write a lengthy, humiliating, detailed account of everything that had gone down, including my sexual history."
Though most harassment cases involve unwanted advances or inappropriate, sexual-based comments from coworkers or supervisors, not every situation is the same. If you find yourself feeling unsafe or uncomfortable at work, for any reason, it is not okay. Looking back, I see now how young 25 is, and how little I knew of the politics of a workplace at that age. I deserved to be protected, whether I had willingly been intimate with the person in question or not. My company did the right thing, but not all do, as we know. I can't imagine what it must feel like for the myriad women who endure various forms of harassment at work and are made to stay quiet or told to brush it off. Navigating a career is tough no matter who you are, but it's undoubtedly tougher if you're female, and there’s a reason I now seek to work with women.
A few months later, I left the company. My boss took me to lunch, and I told him I was ashamed of what had happened. Though he assured me the shame in the situation was not mine, I still feel it to this day. Imagine being at the start of your career and having to report the intricacies of your dating life to a bunch of people decades older than you. It's humiliating. One of my big takeaways from this experience is that no woman would willingly subject herself to the kind of scrutiny that comes with reporting abuse unless her allegations were true and she genuinely felt threatened by them. Another is that it is always the right thing to do, no matter what the repercussions are, to stick up for yourself. Generally speaking, your human resources department is trained to deal with these types of situations, and should be a safe place to turn should you need to seek shelter. For a more detailed description of the steps you should take in cases of sexual or other types of workplace harassment, read more here.