What I Did When My Boss Sexually Harassed Me—And What You Should Do Differently

Harassment on the job is an issue that women are unfortunately all too familiar with.
In fact, this survey estimates that roughly one in three women experience sexual harassment at work. Though laws are put in place to protect us, they often fall short and prove difficult to, well, prove…not to mention the fear of retaliation and the emotional toll that the process takes on the victim (should they even choose to report it).

It’s a heavy, uncomfortable topic, one that is always closer to us than we’d like to admit. I doubt the term is new to you, but if you Google it to see what the standard definition is, it’s pretty telling:

Sexual harassmentNoun. Harassment (typically of a woman) in a workplace, or other professional or social situation, involving the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks.

“TYPICALLY OF A WOMAN”

So just add this to the list of other issues you’re already battling from the wage gap to job/gender equality. But like it or not, we all know it’s happening daily.

Think of former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson who made headlines when she publicly accused former CEO Roger Ailes of sexual harassment (which resulted in a settlement for Carlson and Ailes’ eventual resignation). And then there’s Taylor Swift, who recently won a harassment lawsuit against a radio DJ who touched her inappropriately at a meet and greet.

Hearing that it happens to celebrities is shocking, but then again, it’s not really. It happens everywhere, in offices you’d never expect. I know because I am one of the statistics.

HOW I JOINED THE STATISTIC

I was in college and had landed a great part-time gig with a local ad agency. The pay was great and the hours were convenient with my class schedule—I really thought I’d hit the jackpot. The management team consisted of a husband and wife and their very close friend Ben*, all of whom were a good 25+ years older than me.

When Ben took me under his wing, I was thrilled. He had a wealth of knowledge, and I thought I could really learn something from him. He began taking me on “field trips,” which included meeting clients and doing research on the products we were working on.

On one such trip, we went shopping to piece together a concept for a new project, and we stopped for lunch. At one point, I thought I saw my boyfriend drive by the restaurant, and he asked, “What would your boyfriend do if he knew we were here together?” I felt uncomfortable but laughed it off, telling myself I was just being sensitive and making a big deal out of nothing.

But Ben’s behavior began to increase (and worsen) soon after that.

He began to comment on my appearance frequently, often riding the fine line of what was actually appropriate. Then, he began asking me on dates. At first, I still questioned if I was being crazy—besides the considerable age difference, he knew I was in a relationship.  I just continued to blow it all off, either laughing or politely declining each time he asked me out.

The final straw was when we were once again outside of the office, shopping for a client. While passing a store that sold lingerie, he commented on how much he would love to see me in one of the items on display.

My stomach sank, and I had to face what I had been unsuccessfully avoiding—I was definitely being sexually harassed. The violation of my trust and my person was sickening, and I didn’t know what to do. I realized that Ben likely hadn’t cared about any of my professional ambitions or intelligence, and simply took me on because he hoped it would benefit him in the end.

HOW I HANDLED IT

I’d love to tell you that I reported Ben’s behavior and that he was called out and reprimanded for such vile comments towards someone that could have been his daughter. I’d love to tell you that, but I can’t. I was unsure and afraid of him.

Not only was he well-respected and close friends with the owners, he had worked at this company for more than 20 years. Ben was always careful to only make such comments when we were alone, so I was afraid people would accuse me of lying. Despite how wrong he was, I couldn’t imagine that anyone would believe me over him—I was just a lowly young college student, and I had only been there for four months. I played out the situation in my head, and every possibility still ended with me being uncomfortable (even if I managed to somehow keep my job).

As any broke college student can attest, I badly needed that job, but I decided my well-being came first. Because I opted not to report Ben, I quit my job soon thereafter. I had to end up taking a job that paid less and didn’t work as well with my schedule, but I did leave with my peace of mind.

WHAT YOU SHOULD DO DIFFERENTLY

What should you do if you are experiencing sexual harassment? Based on my own experience (and years working and growing in new companies), here’s what I’d say:
  • Document it. If not at first just for your own records, then especially for your Human Resources representative. Include dates, times, other present parties, and every little detail that you possibly can. This includes (but isn’t limited to) comments, threats, and different treatment than before
  • Gather as much evidence as you can
  • Report the harassment to your HR department
  • If your complaint is not resolved by your HR team, file a complaint with the EEOC
  • Consult with an attorney that specializes in sexual harassment
  • Ultimately, be prepared to leave your job if you are not protected by taking the actions above
Your health and well-being should always come first, and no job is worth that sacrifice. Accusing someone of sexual harassment is certainly not easy, but you do have rights that you should vehemently enforce, not only for yourself but potential future victims. By joining together, we can help to make these stories less common (and to drop the alarming statistics of women affected).

Have you been sexually harassed? How did you handle it?

This article was originally published on Career Contessa
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