Monday, November 7, 2011

Sexual harassment - another go-round

In 1975 I moved to New York City and got a job working in the office of a high-end rug importer. If you're my age, you might remember the full page ads on the back of certain magazines like The New Yorker and House & Garden showing a gorgeous Oriental rug. I worked in the office of that company and the two salesmen handed me order forms to type out on a big IBM electric typewriter.

It was my first taste of the business world. One day, an out of town buyer asked me out to dinner. He was youngish and handsome, so I accepted. After dinner he tried to kiss me in a cab, surprising me. When I refused, he complained that one of the salesmen had promised I'd put out for him, because I lived in the Village, and was that kind of girl.

I didn't do anything about it. In fact, I had a crush on a salesmen - not him; the other one. I thrilled each time he took any interest in me, whether it was to praise my typing skills or teach me the difference between a Kirman and an Isfahan. The girl I was then would have welcomed a workplace advance from him.

Our bookkeeper, Ruthie, was friends with a guy named Harry who worked for a drapery wholesaler down the hall in our building on Fifth Avenue in the Thirties. I went with her to a Christmas party there, where Harry, wearing a Santa hat and sloshing scotch from a tumbler, leaned in and slobbered on my neck with his red wet lips.

Throughout my years in the theatre - touring and working long hours as a stagehand - it wasn't unusual for co-workers to hook up - whether seriously or casually. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it went horribly wrong.

As a member of Local #15 IATSE, the Seattle chapter of the  stagehand's union, I was in a minority as a woman. There were perhaps a half-dozen of us. We put up with a lot of crude talk and jokes, and in the mid '80s a woman newcomer complained about the guys' behavior, accusing them of harassment. I was sympathetic - until she asserted that the only reason the women who went before her were members - me and my friends - was because we slept our way in.

Although that accusation was actually somewhat TRUE (in my case, I slept with a guy no one liked!) she lost the support of her female colleagues.

In the '90s, as a member of the Executive Board of my union, I had to rule on a complaint by a woman that her male co-worker made her uncomfortable with his behavior. I learned about the concept of a hostile work environment. A few years later, our board had to intercede on a case of domestic violence between two co-workers who were in a relationship.

Sexual harassment is intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature. It can also be the inappropriate promise of reward for sexual favors. The key component of sexual harassment is that it is unwelcome.  Both victims and harassers may be of any gender. A victim can be the direct target of harassment, and can also be someone who is affected by the behavior second hand. It is illegal for people to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace - and in the workplace, it is the employer's responsibility to protect workers from harassment.

It is not easy to speak up at work. It is not easy to defend a co-worker against harassment. It is not easy as a supervisor to challenge harassing behavior.

In my lifetime, the topics of sexual harassment and sex in the workplace has dominated the news cycle twice - first in 1991, then again in 1998. Now, it looks like we're in for another go-round.

What's your experience with sexual harassment? Both at work, and in other situations? Have you experienced it first-hand? How about as a supervisor? What about unfair accusations? Let's talk.


Anonymous said...

When I worked as a Sales Support coordinator for 40 outside salesmen in the 90's I experienced harassment, both sexual and other types. I could usually handle it myself with education and communication.
However, there was a salesman who thought I had played fast and loose with his commission (of course I hadn't). He began leaving obscene and threatening messages on my answering machine each morning. We both answered directly to the sales manager. I went to my supervisor and complained, he did nothing, I went to my supervisor's boss and he did nothing. I went to HR and they said they would talk to the guy. They did, it did no good. The calls contiinued.
I went back to H.R. They said it was a difficult situation because the guy was an outside contractor. (who worked for the company exclusively for 25 years). They told me I could file a lawsuit but I would probably loose. I felt betrayed (to say the least). Anyway the A-hole got tired of his game after about eight months and finally left me alone. However, I lost respect for my boss and my loyalty to the company was gone. My work suffered and I was no longer happy there. I often wish I had filed that lawsuit. I also wonder who else this guy had harassed in his life.
Harassment of any kind is not a little thing, as I was told and it changes you. I never looked at any male coworker the same again. I was always a bit cold to them after the experience . Albug

Rachel said...

Although I also work in a blue collar job, I have been very, very lucky to find a working environment where it's simply not tolerated and have only had one problem - I calmly told the guy that if my supervisor didn't take care of it, I would and that really, he'd much prefer the former. He backed off.

One of my good friends, however, had a guy from work stalk her, follow her home, sit outside her house, etc.

She ended up having to change jobs, move, and got a restraining order. I was horrified at the hell she went through and wouldn't wish anything like that on my worst enemy.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Talk about the bad old days, Aunt Snow!

When I was working at a Fortune 100 insurance company, a co-worker of mine accused a manager of sexual harassment. In this case, the manager was a socially awkward, divorced father of two young boys, and the accuser was a younger woman who tended to be very manipulative. While nobody doubted that the manager may have said something stupid (he once wistfully asked another girl if she'd consider marrying him), the accuser was disliked by many co-workers and distrusted by just about everyone. The accuser was leaving the company anyway, and the manager stayed on with the company, and I don't know if there was a settlement, but it was a bad business all around.

Personally, I've always avoided workplace romances (twice, at the insurance company, I had the office "mom" approach me to tell me that a co-worker had told her she was interested in me, both times I declined, and told the office mom that I didn't even want to know who was interested, because I didn't want my co-worker to feel rejected). Yeah, never thought workplace romances were prudent.

Anonymous said...

I spent a semester or two as a stage hand in high school, and I can relate on the guy talk that goes on in that world. It didn't really bother me. But in the dorms in college, there was definitely some harassment happening. I've been very lucky that I never had to experience it myself in the workplace.

Sheila said...

If it hadn't been for what can now be called sexual harrassment,which apparently can be just about anything these days, the job I had for many years wouldn't have been nearly as much fun.

Glennis said...

Sheila, it isn't harassment unless it's unwelcome. Sounds like you were cool with it.