I’ve been at my job for two and a half years but I’m about to leave to move out of state. A few weeks ago, I found out from a female coworker that a male coworker of ours, Sam, has been sexually harassing almost all the women in my office for at least a year. It’s so bad, women have quit over it. I experienced some relatively mild harassment from the same person last year, but it was a small problem for me for a short time, but never to the extent it seems the other women I work with have experienced.
Our boss, a woman, knows all of this. People, including men who’ve observed it and including supervisors, have complained to her multiple times about Sam’s behavior, and apparently have been written off. No one has gone to HR because Sam is friends with one of the HR reps. I asked a supervisor why, if our boss knows about what’s going on, she hasn’t done anything and his theory is simply that “she hates other women, and she loves Sam.”
I’m conflicted about what to do, if anything. It infuriates me that this guy still has a job. It infuriates me that our boss doesn’t do anything about it and that the supervisors who’ve seen it happen haven’t done anything substantial on their underlings’ behalf. I want to do something rather than let this continue for my female coworkers, but I’m leaving soon. Not only that, I haven’t witnessed it firsthand. But I don’t want to be someone who just takes off while my coworkers and friends are harassed and intimidated even if my superiors will.
(sorry, clever pen-names aren’t my strong suit)
Dear Strong Suit,
Your letter filled me with rage the moment I read it, and I had to sit on it for a while before organizing my thoughts. This recent Captain Awkward column re-energized it for me, as I was reminded yet again of the ways that women end up tolerating utter bullshit because they’re concerned about the repercussions of exposing it. I’m still angry, but I’ll try to tamp that down for the moment while I speak to your specific issue.
Harassment is maddening for many reasons, and one of the biggest is that the consequences of speaking up are often very real. I want to be clear that it’s dangerous to suggest that disclosure is the only legitimate response in all circumstances. We’re talking about your situation here, though, and you’re in a perfect position to make waves without worrying about how it might affect your job or your relationship with your coworkers. Harassment only goes away if it’s dealt with head-on, and that begins with brave people speaking up to shed light on it.
The one complication here is that you’re not able to make a firsthand report, so I’d start by reaching out to the other women you know have been victimized. I think there’s an opportunity for strength in numbers here: Sheila or Lucy or Andrea might not be interested in picking this battle individually, but if they may be willing to sign on as part of Team Done-Being-Harassed-by-Sam, with you leading the charge. Explain that you’re planning on reporting Sam on your way out the door and ask if they’re willing to go on the record about their experiences—or at least write up short accounts of what he’s done that you could aggregate and provide anonymously to HR. Again, I want to stress that participation should be at their discretion, and you should listen attentively to see how comfortable they feel about this whole ordeal. If they bow out entirely, that’s their call, and they have the right to weigh in on how their names and stories are invoked.
If at all possible, though, I’d try to come up with a list of occurrences that demonstrates how much of a pervasive problem this is. (If the victims request anonymity, you can redact identifying details, e.g., “gave a colleague a sexualized nickname” vs. “called Sheila ‘bootylicious.’”) Even if Sam is buddies with someone in HR, it’s in your company’s best interest to take this seriously and respond decisively. That means, at minimum, Sam gets a talking-to in which it’s explained that his behavior is Not Okay, and that his job will be in jeopardy if it persists.
In a perfect world, your entire org chart will join forces around this problem and Sam will knock it off. In an imperfect world, the person most directly responsible for enforcing an ultimatum—his manager—may roll her eyes at the whole thing and turn a blind eye even if it continues. Ideally, though, HR will impress upon her that her negligence is putting your company in legal jeopardy, enlisting her supervisor’s support in the process, and that will raise the stakes enough for her to actually address this.
I don’t know why she would tolerate Sam’s harassment for so long as it is, but I do want to take a moment to address your colleague’s theory that she “hates other women,” because for some reason that’s where I keep lingering. True, that character—the “member of group X” who’s complicit in the perpetuation of “thing that negatively impacts group X”—has a long history in popular culture, and certainly real-life examples are abundant as well. I can’t pretend that there’s not something especially sickening about witnessing this phenomenon in action, mainly because it’s often used to justify or downplay real problems (“how can I be sexist if so-and-so, a woman, thinks everything’s fine?”).
But at the same time, I’m not sure I want to say that your manager’s willingness to protect Sam is more toxic than it would be if she were a man, because I get uncomfortable with anything that suggests people should behave a certain way due to their gender. Yes, women overwhelmingly have to deal with this stuff more than men do (and people who are outside the traditional gender binary have to weather harassment on an even greater scale). And yes, our society is set up to facilitate “boys will be boys” arguments that make it especially difficult to hold male harassers accountable. Still, despite my awareness of sexism’s long legacy and the prevalence of its modern-day practitioners, I feel like this line of thinking can be dangerous. It comes perilously close to suggesting that victims are solely responsible for policing the forces that victimize them, and that people who aren’t targets can dismiss harassment and its ilk as “their problem, not mine.”
On that note, I feel a little bit weird discussing sexism and harassment as though they’re the only awfulness people have to deal with (even though obviously that’s what your letter is actually about). I don’t know why I’m compelled to make this an episode of Businesslady Discusses All Social Issues, but I feel like it’s relevant and related to remind other white people that we ought to take the lead on calling out and addressing racism when we see it—that it’s unfair for people of color to have to constantly shoulder that burden. It’s easier to ignore things that don’t affect you directly, I get that, and I also get that it’s never easy to be the one to Say Something. But in general, we should all be good stewards of our fellow humans regardless of whether or not we happen to share the same particular struggles. The level of privilege you have in a given situation directly correlates with your capacity to productively intervene. Just as we need to respect people’s right to stay silent out of self-preservation, I think we all have an ethical obligation to fight this stuff if we’re in a position to do so.
I’ll step off my soapbox now, and close with this: Your manager and HR should’ve dealt with Sam long ago, regardless of their personal friendship with him, because it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t speak very well of them that they haven’t, but who knows why that is—maybe they recognize he’s a bully and are relieved that they’re not targets themselves, or maybe they like him too much to believe the truth despite being presented with clear evidence. The point is, healthy workplaces do not allow harassment to continue. And the people with the power to stop it should exercise that authority—regardless of their gender, the victims’ gender, or the perpetrator’s gender (or whatever particular us vs. them mentality is driving the misbehavior).
…and now I’m all depressed about the shitstorm of injustice that is the human condition, so let’s shift to something a little less heavy for the next letter, shall we?
How does one stop workplace parenting? I am a woman in my early 20s and for over a year, I’ve successfully worked in an administrative job that requires me to be self-motivated, organized, have good judgement, etc., etc. I share an office with another woman who is 30 years older than me, my senior in the office but newer in the position. She is a kind person but lately I have been running out of patience for her momaging. Combining the worst of micromanaging and motherly attention, this woman asks me what I am doing and if I have remembered to do tasks relating to my job but not to hers. This usually takes place as I am in the process of doing them or well before the tasks are due—I have never had a problem completing my work and I do not answer to her, I just share an office space. The reminders are not always related to work either, often I am asked if I have remembered to schedule a dentist appointment, find a doctor, look into my online course schedule—things that I do not need a reminder about from anyone who is not involved in the task or, if it is personal, anyone at all. What would you suggest, Businesslady? How do I deal with my office mom?
Dear Office Daughter,
Bless you for having a question that can lighten the mood after my inadvertent manifesto on the kyriarchy. And as an added bonus, you’ve offered an object lesson on how a mandate to “take good care of your coworkers” can sometimes get misapplied. I’m sure your office-mate means well (or at least, let’s hope she does) but she’s clearly not actually helping.
Fortunately, since she isn’t actually your manager, you’re under no obligation to actually listen to her advice. And since she’s the one in the wrong here, you have my permission to be as dismissive as possible without making things awkward or actively being rude. Through it all, be as friendly as you’ve always been when she’s not trying to momage you; what follows is for the specific instances when she’s overstepping.
The work-related stuff is technically a bit more within her purview (although still out of line), so I’d cut that slightly more slack. You don’t want to give her the impression that you need or want her reminders—“that’s not due until Friday and I’m tackling it soon” is too much information and it invites a Thursday check-in from someone so deeply invested in another person’s to-do list. Instead, develop a stockpile of vague phrases that connote competence: “I’ve got it under control,” “on it,” “I’ve talked to [manager] about that and we’re well ahead of schedule,” or (when applicable) “already done!” Don’t give any additional detail, and if she starts asking follow-up questions, play dumb/concerned: “I’m not sure why you’re asking about this—are you worried about it/does it affect your job in some way/has [manager] told you something they haven’t told me?”
The personal stuff is just…wow. I mean, I feel a little awkward and over-steppy reminding my friends about things they’ve actively discussed with me. Asking another adult—one who’s not my spouse or, like, my ward—“have you made a dentist appointment yet” is something I truly cannot imagine doing. But life is a rich tapestry and you have to share an office with this lady, so here goes.
If you think there’s a reasonable person lurking beneath the mother-hovering, I’d respond to her next attempted life intervention with “hey, listen, I know you’re trying to help, but it actually really bugs me when you ask stuff like that.” The follow-up from there is your call, but you could pivot to any or all of the following as a rationale: it distracts you from your work, it makes you feel like she doesn’t see you as a professional peer, it’s a weird pet peeve of yours (a white lie for “it’s something almost anyone in the universe would find annoying.”) Keep your tone light and apologetic, in the vein of “you probably didn’t even realize you were clicking your pen, but it’s bothering me.” If your relationship is friendly/jokey enough, you might even outright say “it makes me feel like I’m talking to my mom” and then respond to any further inquiries with a teenagery “Mo-om” rejoinder that actually does end the conversation. If you’re lucky, she’ll break herself of the habit and you can go back to being typical coworkers.
But if she doesn’t respond to a direct request to knock it off—or if her personality is such that you know a conversation like that wouldn’t work—I’d try to just start ignoring her when she asks this stuff. Start wearing headphones (even if they’re plugged into nothing) and conveniently fail to hear any of her life-coach questions on the first or second repetition; if headphones are a no-go, just chalk it up to intense concentration on all your various workly obligations. And if these queries come out in the course of an otherwise appropriate conversation (which might make the pretense of not hearing them a bit difficult to pull off), just say something vague—to the point of nonsensicality, even—and then either change the subject or suddenly remember a very important task you need to attend to. Getting up and leaving is also an option if she’s really unrelenting; presumably she’s not going to follow you into the bathroom to ask if you remembered to register for your spring courses (and if she does, then god help us all).
On both fronts, these techniques are a kind of negative-reinforcement training: she doesn’t get what she wants from these interactions (a sense of importance, validation that she’s being helpful, information about your life, or whatever it is that’s driving her), which theoretically should discourage her meddling over time. And even if that doesn’t work, you’ll be devoting less mental energy to fielding her relentless questions, which hopefully should make your life easier.
For those of you keeping score at home: DO fight systemic inequalities to the best of your particular ability; DON’T get all up in your coworkers’ business via reminders that imply they’re unable to do their jobs or practice adequate self-care. And if you’re in an office that’s free of chronic harassment and nosiness, DO be grateful and DON’T take it for granted.
Businesslady is in her early 30s and somehow managed to find a rewarding career despite her allegedly useless degree in the humanities. Her job history includes everything from food service to retail to corporate nonsense, but she currently does writing and editing for a nonprofit, and devotes the rest of her life to playing video games, patronizing bars, and spending way too much time on the internet.