This will make sense as you read on… (hint: I just love Sherlock) – gif via
On Wednesday, I revealed that the sexual harassment that I was experiencing had FINALLY come to an end! And I shared rather vaguely what it felt like. I didn’t want to be dishonest or hide things. In fact, the opposite is true. I think that sometimes the best way to heal is to put things out into the open… for the twin reasons of admitting to yourself what happened and learning from how you handled things. Oh shoot, I should make those twins triplets, as connecting with others is the third reason to put things out into the open and move on.
However, I didn’t want my harasser to take over that particular post. And so I decided to share my full experience in a separate post. Again, for a lighter reading check out this post, and save this heavier one for a sunny day!
Before I ever experienced harassment and inappropriate attention, I always thought it could never happen to me. I dress very modestly. I never wear tight or revealing clothing. I don’t flirt with men. In fact, while I’m generally friendly with everyone, I try not to call attention to myself in any way. I do a good job, I try hard, but I keep my head down.
So that is why I was caught off guard when I experienced sexual harassment. And I know I can learn a great deal about how to handle it in the future, should it ever occur.
It all started when I was hired along with ten other people for a new project. I knew a handful of them tangentially, but for the most part everyone was a stranger to me. As usual, there were only two women and the rest were men. And so I was cautious yet polite with everyone. I didn’t ask for attention, or do anything that screamed for people to chat with me. As I usually am on a new project, I was terrified about getting let go for being too slow, missing important details or making a mistake. So I was focused on my work, and not on my surroundings.
And then the harasser approached me. I got a weird vibe right away because he was just too friendly, too assertive. I had never met him or spoken to him, and yet he overheard me telling a former colleague about my last project experience, which was pretty unique.
And so the harasser pounced. He had his “in” to talk to me.
He told me he overheard me saying something and started bombarding me with questions about it. At first, I thought he was just being friendly. I also thought maybe he was gay, as he complimented my shoes out of the blue. I was wrong.
In my experience, harassers come in all shapes and sizes. This particular man, if you can call him that, was at least fifty (so twice my age, definitely older than my parents). I knew I was not interested in attention from a fifty-year old, as I generally feel towards too much attention from all men in the work setting. I prefer to chat with women to avoid any confusion. I don’t flirt at work. I don’t date coworkers. Personally, I think it’s a terrible idea. And so I like to make that clear in the work setting. I’m the youngest in any work setting I’ve ever worked in, so I already feel the need to prove that I am professional, and don’t want to jeopardize my reputation in any way. So I was not seeking it out.
The harasser started approaching me more every day. At first it was just to ask me something like, what time is it? I was polite, but uninterested. I’d answer in one-word answers and put my headphones back in the minute I answered his question. I made a point of never speaking to him of my own volition.
And yet he persisted. And not only that, his advances started getting more unwelcome. He started asking me about happy hours. He would listen to any word I said to anyone, and would come up to me later telling me he overheard me saying something, and asking me about it. I continued being polite, but realized that I had to stop talking when he was in the room. I figured, he’ll get the message. He’ll move on. And besides, what could I even report about this? He’s just asking me something I said in the room while he was there. Maybe he’s just being friendly, you know?
So then I stopped talking when he was in the room. But I ended up becoming friends with a few guys that sat next to him. So when I happened to be there with just them, we’d have a normal conversation about something or other. And then I’d stop talking when the harasser returned (side note: the only good thing about him being the biggest liar ever was that he took WAY more breaks than he ever was allowed to – but that worked in my benefit because that meant that for every hour he said he was working, he was probably only ever in the room about 30-40 minutes. So I got lots of breaks from him).
But then I noticed that somehow my harasser would still find out about things I was certain I had only said when he was not there. And then I realized he was asking others about me. And of course, they didn’t know that he was making me uncomfortable because I put on the front that nothing was wrong. And so they answered his questions. At first I thought this sounded too improbable, but then I heard him asking people about me! WTF, right?
And yet, I still thought, maybe he’s just like that. Just naturally curious about other people, but not in any harmful way. I didn’t really know how to tell my guy friends about not sharing anything about me, so then I stopped sharing much at all with them. Unfortunately for me, this meant that I distanced myself from the people I liked and yet this did not distance me from my harasser.
He persisted. Armed with more information about me, which in the hands of any normal person was completely innocent knowledge, he started going to further extremes to have “an excuse” to talk to me. He started to pretend he was learning a new language, one that I am familiar with given my background. It’s an unusual language and so I guess he thought I’d have to talk to him if he was learning it. I mean, because what women doesn’t love it when an old man brings in a secondhand book to work that he bought at some bookstore and asks her how to pronounce some random work in his book? I mean, because the Internet doesn’t exist. And podcasts about learning new languages don’t exist either. No, I was his only resource. (Again, it was just funny to see someone old in my book thinking he was really hip and young, even though he owned a flip phone and didn’t even know that there’s a much simpler way to learn information these days… it’s called the Internet!)
So then he started asking me questions every chance he could. I finally just started giving him attitude. I never said leave me alone because I didn’t want people to hear that and think I was rude, but I also didn’t want him to seriously think that I was enjoying him interrupting me every hour about some made up question. It was completely unreal that a grown adult can pester someone all day, with a superficial (and very creepy) smile and a “Sorry to bother you” repeated every time he came up to you to ask you some other made up question.
Finally, I stopped being polite at all. I just didn’t say hi to him anymore as I did with everyone else. I blocked him completely. I didn’t even pretend to be polite. But I still felt like I didn’t have cause to complain about him. Sure, he was disruptive at this point because he was interrupting me almost every hour. And I was noticing that he started staring at me a lot. But none of this seemed concrete enough to complain about. I still felt like it would just be my word against his, and because I’m young the firm would just think I was hypersensitive since they’d never had complaints about him before… as far as I knew.
Around that time the firm hired a few other women, so I hoped he’d focus his attention elsewhere. Unfortunately, creeps seem to have infinite amounts of energy. They can hit on you (which he finally started doing openly, trying to get my number, then my email, then when I refused, giving me his card – which in a very badass moment I returned! Go Mira, I told myself – only because I had really sucked at being that obvious until then). But these creeps can simultaneously start laying the same groundwork with other women.
Regrettably, since this man was very old (in my book!), and he used the same exact moves on everyone. (Again, I’ve only seen old men repeat the same line with women, whether at bars or elsewhere – I assume probably mean-spiritedly that this is because their memories are going – something I certainly noticed with this parasite). More recently, I had joked with a friend that my harasser had only five phrases he used (apart from starting and ending every request with a superficial “Sorry to bother you.”) So I started seeing him using the same “move” (if you can call them that) with other women. He even lay the groundwork in the same way, asking other people about women before he even met them (does she have a boyfriend?). Bleh! But seeing as the new women didn’t seem bothered by him yet, I didn’t want to badmouth him (yeah, I know! I would have only told them the truth if I’d opened my mouth, that’s not bad-mouthing!). So I kept my mouth shut, and hoped that he’d leave me alone, and that he didn’t actually plan on harassing them too.
Nope, that wouldn’t work. He tried flirting with them in front of me (I’m guessing in his delusional mind thinking that I’d somehow be jealous? Gross!). That didn’t work since I generally just pretended he didn’t exist.
Instead, he started watching for when I would take my headphones off to chat with my new friend. The minute we started talking, suddenly he mysteriously needed to get up and just so happened to walk by the very spot we were chatting. He’d stand behind one of us, awkwardly, listening to our conversation. One of us would look up finally uncomfortably, realizing he was too socially incompetent to realize that listening in on others’ conversations is not only creepy, but also rude.
(Lol, this dude had many “didn’t your mother teach you that?” moments – from looking over your computer screen and asking you about whatever he had seen to coming up to where you were sitting, crouching by your chair so that he was at your eye level and getting into your face so he could make sure you would see him). Blergh! Just writing this gives me the creepy crawlies!
So we’d ask if we could help him, and he’d throw in another “Sorry to bother you” just for kicks, and make up some other question about the location of some obscure grocery store he thought we might know (again, ever heard of Google?), or he’d try to join in on the conversation. At that point I always retreated with headphones back on, and hope my friend didn’t think I was rude.
Again, this behavior should have been a warning to me that this delusional perv (too strong? haha) had absolutely nothing to lose. I mean, he was quickly being rejected and avoided by all the women he fancied (although, he was very picky about only hitting on women under forty. He happened to be very rude to women his own age, in fact). Yes, charming! What women doesn’t notice someone only being friendly to relatively attractive younger women (single, married, engaged, what have you), but noticeably unfriendly to older women?
So first sign of caution, when someone is being repeatedly rejected and hopefully mocked for being a creep, that’s a sign they have nothing to lose, and that they won’t “read between the lines.” Unless you tell them (or HR to tell them) to stop, they will persist.
As luck would have it (for the harasser), the firm’s HR people loved him because he was an old-timer. Every time they’d come in to chat with us or bring an update, they’d tell us that he’s a great guy, or be all buddy-buddy with him. This was the main reason I hesitated about complaining. It would be my word against his, and he could easily say that he was just being friendly. But, the truth of the matter is that he was making me feel very uncomfortable.
Things got worse, for me, for other coworkers. He started saying more inappropriate things about thinking about a woman while he was toweling off, or that a woman should hook up with him so she could ride in on his bike with him, etc. Three other women didn’t complain about his harassment and were all let go before they could say anything… ironically because he was affecting their work and productivity (yeah, constant interruptions really affect most people).
While this creep discriminated based on age and looks, he certainly didn’t discriminate against women that were married or in relationships. Two of the women he really went for were married, talked about their husbands and kids openly and very clearly tried to get rid of this perv. I think the problem for all of us is that we don’t want to look bad by being outwardly rude, so we all just smiled through it and tried to get rid of him by talking about significant others, or hoping he’d realize there was no chance in hell for him if we just never initiated conversation with him. But being polite lets a harasser know that you won’t call him out on it in front of people, and let’s him know he can get away with more and more.
As I previously said, he had absolutely nothing to lose. He didn’t give a shit about the job, and he certainly didn’t give a shit about his reputation. He could charm his way into the hearts of the HR people and the bosses, and got away with a lot of very unethical work-related misconduct in addition to the harassment (like lying about his time, working on his other cases at work on his work computer, and randomly clicking through documents to artificially inflate his numbers and hide the fact that he was never there) so he was sure to get away with things that didn’t directly affect his employers.
Somehow, unlike the three women that got let go because of his disruptions, I feel that I was a mutant in some way and actually got better at my job despite the harassment and disruptions. Honestly, it was because I’m very stubborn and I defy others to try to make me do poorly. I was not going to let him get me fired, and I doubled my resolve to not get fired by working harder. I didn’t let people know that there was something wrong and just became a worker robot so that I could work as efficiently as I would have without the constant disruptions.
How I Could Have Handled Things Better
Obviously, distancing yourself from all your coworkers and becoming a zombie are not healthy, and while they are effective coping mechanisms are not the best practice!
I have a lot of regrets about how I handled the situation. I should have talked to HR right away, even if it got me let go if they didn’t believe me. The constant fear of being let go because of his disruptions, and the fact that his behavior just kept getting worse for me was definitely not worth me keeping my mouth shut. And also, me not speaking up meant that he continued harassing other women, which got them laid off. I really felt guilty about that last one.
Some words of wisdom from someone who admittedly was unwise. In other words, I wish someone had told me this when I entered into this rollercoaster ride.
1) If you think you’re being sexually harassed, share your experience with someone. Chances are that if that person is harassing you and you feel like nobody knows, they’re probably doing it to someone else that you might not know about. I’m not saying gossip about it or tell everyone, but read the people around you and find someone you trust. Don’t tell them, “I’m being sexually harassed!” if you’re not comfortable with that. Gently share your suspicions and you’ll be surprised that they might say, “He made me feel uncomfortable too! I thought it was just me.” This happened to me with every woman I shared my experience with. And often they shared their opinion before I even had a chance to tell them what I was experiencing. It was very empowering to know that not only did someone there know about it, but they also felt the same way. I regret not sharing my suspicions sooner with someone I trusted. I was convinced it was just me, and that nobody else noticed. To the contrary, almost every person in that office was really uncomfortable around my harasser (male or female, ironically, although the men all said that he never said anything inappropriate to them). I can’t emphasize how incredibly empowering it feels to know that somebody at least knows and might watch your back. You know what they say, power in numbers!
2) If it’s bad, share with HR right away. Don’t worry about how you’ll be perceived, or whether they will believe you. If it happened, tell your supervisor or Human Resources person immediately. Don’t wait, because the longer you wait, the less fresh the really bad actions will be. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that it will get better. Even if the harasser stops, you will still have to interact with them. And it’s better to have your superiors knowing about the situation before things get dangerous or unhealthy for you. I never reported it because at first I thought it was just me, or that nobody would believe me since it was just my word against his. But I’ve come to realize that if it came to that, I had plenty of people who would have backed me up. Even if they didn’t say anything to me, they saw what was happening. And honestly, no job, for no amount of money is worth living in pure anxiety, excruciating unhappiness, and sitting on edge. What’s the worst that will happen? You’ll get let go? That’s not the kind of workplace you want to be in anyways. It’s scary, it’s not easy, but it must be done. Just think about your bravery paying it forward to protect the next victim. Because harassers don’t stop willingly. They only stop if someone tells them that it is not ok. Might as well be YOU!
I know I’m no expert, and with time my outlook on the situation will be clearer than it is now. For now, I can only share what happened and what I think I should have done knowing what I know now.
What would you have done? What do you think would have been an ideal response? Do you think HR would have taken me seriously if I had just said that he was being disruptive and his attention was unwelcome? Please share your stories here too. Respectfully, Mirabelle.
Please comment, share your thoughts and let me know what you think. Please help me keep this a positive forum, though. I am so excited for some debate, but let’s respect each other please. I reserve the right to monitor and delete inappropriate posts. Thanks in advance!