Have you ever had a manager or a co-worker cross the Employee/Employer line with sexually inappropriate touching?
I have. It was traumatic.
A number of years ago, I worked in a small family run business and I was put into a position where the Manager not only made me feel uncomfortable, but also took me out into the warehouse alone and proceeded to tell me that 'nothing was going to happen,' which, of course freaked me out!
I remember panicking. My breathing became very shallow and I was frantically looking for an escape route.
That day, I was hysterical and could hardly talk, as the Manger not only took me by the hand and led me into the back of the warehouse to 'go through some filing' but he also put his arm around my waist and pulled me close to him when I was helping him in his office.
Quite frankly, I was terrified that day. I needed my job because I had rent to pay and bills but that day was pivotal for me as I knew I could no longer work in that particular culture. That day, I remember running into the tea room crying hysterically and my old Supervisor came in to see what had happened. When I told him that I had been touched by the Manager (who was related to him through family), he said, "oh come on Selina, he was just being friendly."
I was struck dumb at the time. I couldn't believe that this person did not believe me. It was horrible.
I remember sitting at my desk and calling my partner at the time, sobbing to him that I had been touched when I did not invite such intimacy. He told me he was coming to get me. After we hung up, I called my counsellor who very calmly told me that I needed to leave the office immediately and come straight to her office. I was in such a state.
I did as she said and my partner took me to her office where she helped me to calm down and provided me with the support and strategies I needed to make a very big change in my life.
She told me, "Selina, what your Manager has done has crossed the Employee/Employer boundaries and it is totally inappropriate. You must face him and tell him this."
I was terrified. I didn't want to go back, but I knew I would have to return for a couple of weeks to hand in my notice and prepare to be unemployed.
The next day, I did not return to the office - I was still far to distressed about facing him. My Manager rang me at home to say that he "was just being friendly and comforting me because he knew that my father had passed away recently." This was one of the most difficult telephone calls I have ever had to be a party to.
I took a deep steadying breath and told him, "You have crossed the Employer/Employee boundaries and destroyed any trust that I had in our working relationship. I can no longer work for your organisation and will be handing in my resignation when I return."
He was in shock that what he did was taken so seriously by me and he spent a great deal of time, once I had returned to the organisation for my last weeks, trying to justify his actions.
I remember telling him that he should never touch someone like that because, although he thought he was being friendly and comforting, he does not know what I have been through in my past or how I would react to such an intimate touch. We had to agree to disagree that his touching me was totally and utterly inappropriate. He never once took responsibility for his actions I am sad to say.
At that time in my career, I was shocked and desperate to get out of there. I was that frightened. The business was toxic to me and a number of the men who worked in this environment would stand very close to me, lean over me and look down my top - a lot. As time passed, I went from wearing short skirts and tops with a V-neck to jeans, joggers and cover up tops so that they could not see down my shirt. The culture was sick because it continued to allow this kind of behaviour and I saw management actively look the other way on numerous occasions. It was such bad practice.
In those days I did not have access to an onsite Health and Safety Officer or an Equity/Sexual Harassment organisation. Even if I had access, I was too frightened to approach them regarding what had happened. I endured in silence and even though my counsellor encouraged me to report the incident, I could not bring myself to do so. It was that traumatic for me.
I often wonder how many people in the workforce have undergone sexual harassment and been in a similar situation where they have not been able to get the help they needed for the fear of losing their livelihood? I know that was certainly the case for me.
Leaving that job was the best decision I made, even though I was unemployed and emotionally scared, I was safe. It took at least three months before I was emotionally ready to enter another work environment. I had to heal emotionally and find my professional feet again. I joined a regular Wing Chun Kung Fu club and learned some self-defence. That action did wonders for my self-esteem and I highly recommend martial arts for any woman who wants to feel secure and able to handle herself in these life situations. Just knowing that you can defend yourself is enough to stop a would-be sexual harassment opportunist from making a silly error in touching you. I don't advocate that you take them down, but I do encourage you to be self-protective and self-confident so that they know they have no power over you.
I eventually found myself another role, part-time, in a new office environment. It was a fantastic job!
They had a fabulous culture and I was truly cared for by the people in that environment. I was respected and treated like an integral part of their team. It was a 180 degree shift from what I had been through in the previous role and I will be forever grateful to them for the way they treated me, as they never knew what an awful work environment I had come from.
I have never publicly shared this experience until now, however, I wanted to share what happened to encourage anyone who has been put into a similar traumatic situation to stand tall and to know that this is not your fault. You are awesome and they made an error in personal and professional judgement by crossing a line. So stand up and feel empowered as you have been forged by the fires into steel and you are magnificent.
Never forget how amazing you are!
We all need to be mindful of our interactions in the workplace to ensure that we are safe and continue to have a positive work environment.