For the past year, I have been working in an environment where I loved my job, working with my coworkers and the paycheck every week. With all these great things going on at my job, I had met a coworker to whom I connected with personally. Eventually, I began an intimate relationship with him, and it was great while it lasted. However, it ended horribly, but because I would be gone for a couple months due to coming home at the end of the spring semester, I felt things would be okay. Fast forward to the beginning of this semester, things between me and him were okay. We had once more become intimate for a short time. It didn’t affect working together on shifts. This would soon change.
On Oct. 17, I received a message from a female coworker telling me that this same male coworker had begun telling people about my body in intimate detail. I was shocked and completely embarrassed that I was involved with him. I started blaming myself for this, instead of blaming him. Naturally, I had reached out to him with the information given to me. He admitted to talking about my body to the other male employees. At this point, I was so upset, I was finding myself on Googling, “sexual harassment at work” or “women’s rights in the workplace.” It was scary that I was looking up these things, but I did not know what else to do. I considered just quitting and not even telling anyone for fear nothing would be done. But with the support of my friends and family, I reached out to a manager at my job to explain the situation.
After a week of tossing and turning in bed, not knowing what to say, I went to work early and asked to speak to a manager. I sat in the lobby, anxiously waiting for my manager to come talk to me. My manager then approached me and sat across from me. First he asked to see the messages between me and the male coworker. After a couple of minutes, he handed my phone back to me and simply started with saying that the relationship has to end and I agreed. He then proceeded to tell me how he has to treat everyone fairly including this coworker.
At this point, I felt a heaviness in my chest and frankly wanted to cry. He continued with this defensive response by bringing up my actions and how they needed to be correct and right before I go and report something someone else does. Then ended with telling me that I can’t play both sides. I said okay, because at that point I had no idea what to say. He nodded his head and ended the conversation with saying he would call our boss and talk to him. He went back to work and I sat in the same position not sure what to do.
It was a horrible experience, because I was supposed to work with this male coworker that night and was not given the option whether I wanted to or any sort of temporary resolution to this. I was going to quit, because I felt completely shamed and blamed for something my male co-worker had done.
A couple of days passed and I went up to my boss and asked to speak to him quickly. I walked into his office and said that I needed to change my shifts because the male coworker made me uncomfortable. The response I received from my boss surprised me. He told me he would not change my shifts because he would instead be changing my male coworker’s shift, and that he would have that conversation with me the next time I come into work. I left his office feeling empowered and validated.
A week passed until my next shift. The day started normally and I was nervously awaiting my conversation with my boss. After an hour or two, he called me into his office. He started with affirming my feelings and concerns by telling me I did not have anything to worry about. He then told me he was going to speak with the male coworker, he was writing him up and if he does it again, he will be terminated. After hearing those words from my male boss, I felt safe again. I voiced my feelings of worry and he listened. I was being heard and not blamed. It was an amazing experience to have with my boss. Although I was happy I was being heard and validated from my boss, I just wish that I had the same reaction from my manager, who did the complete opposite. It made me sit back and wonder: Did my manager care at all or was he trying to push it under the rug? I also thought about the many stories women share of when they were sexually harassed at work and how the response they were given was the one my manager gave me. I think I am truly lucky to have a boss who cares about me as a person and as a coworker, and did the right thing, not only for his company, but for me as a woman. I hope that more women are taken seriously and validated when they report sexual harassment instead of being met with hostility and defensiveness.
Surrounding this whole situation was the newly shared #MeToo campaign, which is one of the reasons I am now choosing to share my story. Sexual harassment in the workplace is wrong. A female employee should never have to feel unsafe around male coworkers. I know what it is like to feel safe at my job and then to have that safety taken away from me. Recognizing that I am not alone in what I experienced makes me feel safe yet disheartened. I will never truly understand why more employers do not take action. Although I’d like to think that I work in a place where I am respected, I deep down know that if my boss did not take action to protect me, I would be in a position where I could possibly file a lawsuit against the company as so many other women have. This makes me feel that the business itself is much more important than a report of sexual harassment. However, I choose not to take a pessimistic approach towards my boss’s decision, but rather an optimistic one because now it is on that male coworkers’ file and if he ever does get reported again, he will be terminated. Knowing that one fact does make the situation less heavy. Although I do plan on putting my two weeks in before this semester ends, I will know that I took steps to protect myself and do what I needed to do to stop the sexual harassment at work. I hope my story inspires other women and men to step forward and report their experiences.
Lisa Russo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org