Disclaimer: This is not my story. And it’s not even the story of the person who told it to me. It’s a hypothetical, an if. Because we cannot tell our stories unless we hide who we are. This goes out to everyone who was told to shut up, to speak up, to fix it, to lean in, to not worry, or to let it go.
About a year ago something happened. There was no confusion, misinterpretation or gray area. It was overt sexual harassment. Not the kind where you’re not sure if something is wrong or if you misunderstood someone, or you are being “overly sensitive” and can’t take a joke. A man that I work with who was very senior to me got drunk and said repulsive sexual things to me and made sexual gestures.
In the moment I thought
Wait is this really happening right now? What do I do? What should I say? Did my other coworkers hear it? Oh no. No. This is wrong. Do I laugh it off? Do I act like I think it’s funny? Do I get serious? What if that ruins the night for everyone. Everyone else is having fun and if I say the wrong thing right now, it’ll make things sour. What if this is the moment when my career is over. What’s going to happen tomorrow? Am I going to have to talk to HR?
I told him to stop, but he didn’t. I said “no!” then I forcibly changed the subject. I was with four other men that night. I thought I was breaking a barrier somehow by hanging out with them after our team dinner. I was dumb and naive to think that. I was so confused.
The next day
I waited. I felt like I was holding my breath the whole day. I thought for sure that at some point my manager and good friend, who was there and seemed to have heard, would pull me aside and say “look, we need to talk about what happened last night, what he said to you.” So I braced myself all day for the conversation, to have to decide what to do. To be put to the real test. The managing within the law test. The female lead who stands up for what is right test. But it never happened. All day I wrestled with what to do and what was going to happen next but in the end the wrestling match only went on in my own head. I began to wonder if any of the other guys who were at the table had heard or remembered. I waited to see what they would do. Most of all I dreaded seeing him. The one who said what he said and did what he did. But I didn’t see him all day. And then the day ended.
The next week
I felt like there was some kind of loud music playing all around me that I didn’t know if only I could hear, because no one else was saying anything about it. I needed to talk to this guy about something related to a presentation we were preparing. So I sent him a message. A normal message. A totally normal message like nothing had ever happened. And he replied. Like nothing had ever happened. I felt so relieved. Like I guess this whole thing was just going to go away. No one seemed to remember. Because if they remembered, they would say something right? For sure my friend, my manager, would have said something. He’s such an honest and upstanding guy. He’s protective and kind and caring. He knew his responsibilities. So if he didn’t say anything, that meant he didn’t remember. But what about the others? There were others, but they were all drinking too. No one except me must have remembered. I couldn’t ask them because asking would be telling. And they were all managers too so they would have to report it. So it was up to me what to do next. It was totally up to me. I could just pretend that nothing happened. I thought, maybe this would make the guy trust me more if he knew I was not going to tell on him. Maybe that would help me form a stronger partnership with him. I mean what other choice did I have? If I told anyone about it, then there would be no hope for trust. There would be no hope for partnership.
My career on this team, maybe at this company would be over. I’d have options but a lot of what I’d worked hard and spent years building would just be reset.
The next few months
The music got quieter but it kept playing. The more time passed, the more confused I felt. Was I doing the right thing by not saying anything? What was the right thing? What were my options? I felt like to tell anyone, anyone at all would be detrimental. I knew if I told my manager, who I trust with just about anything, he would have to tell HR. And then there would be an investigation, and then I could only imagine what awful and embarrassing things would happen after that. I would be excluded from everything. No one would trust me. No one would feel like they could even tell a joke around me. And I love jokes. I love being funny. I love off-color humor. I don’t want to be that person that everyone feels like they have to be careful what they say around.
I couldn’t even imagine telling anyone without tearing up. The closest I ever got to saying something, many months later, I stopped just short because I felt the lump rising in my throat. If I had to talk to HR, to a lawyer, to anyone — it would be too much. I couldn’t tell anyone. So I didn’t tell anyone. Not my mom, not my husband, not my pets. No one.
This was eating me from the inside. It was eroding my confidence. And for what? A couple of inappropriate comments and gestures? He didn’t even touch me. It was only words and gestures. It could have been worse. So many people have experienced far worse and this pales in comparison. So what in the world did I have to complain about? I had a great life.
I didn’t want to ruin his life either. What if me telling someone ruined his life and his family. His family didn’t deserve that. What if it ruined our organization? What if it cost us productivity? What if it meant one of us had to leave? It would be me for sure, since he’s so senior. And that would be disruptive. It would hurt productivity. It would hurt team morale. I really liked my team. I was a good manager.
And I don’t want the attention. I don’t want any attention at all. Not for something like this. I don’t want to be known for this. I don’t want anyone to know. I don’t want to be a victim. I don’t want anyone to think that I am blaming my ineffectiveness at working with him on this thing that happened. I have to prove that I can be effective first and foremost. The most important thing is to be good at my job, and to be good at working with this guy, and prove that I can do it. If anyone knows about this, then it’ll color everything. I don’t want that. I want them to see me for the work that I do. For the impact I have on our team, our products and our org. I want them to see me for what a great leader I am. I don’t want them to look at me and see someone who was a victim of anything.
There’s no proof either. No one else remembers. They were all drunk. He could make up a counter story to try to ruin my reputation and discredit me. The only thing worse than being labeled a victim would be to be labeled a liar.
Every time I entered a meeting room with him, the music got louder. And I always wondered if he remembered. I felt sure he didn’t. But what if he did? What if he remembered saying what he said to me? What if I was wrong in thinking that he would start trusting me because I ignored it? What if it actually meant that he didn’t respect me? What if he saw me as even weaker? He certainly acted like I was weak. He acted like I was nothing. He made me feel so small, so ineffective and excluded.
At the same time I told my manager how much progress I was making in working with this guy. I didn’t want to be a complainer. I wanted my manager to believe in me and in my collaboration and partnership skills. I wanted to believe in me too. I wanted so much to prove that this wasn’t a thing. I just wanted to do my job and be damn good at it.
But none of this was working. I came close to telling my husband once or twice. But I just thought, what good would this do? How would it change things? What could he do to help? Nothing. No one can help me.
I felt guilty. By protecting myself from unwanted attention and repercussions, was I also protecting him? Was I part of the problem? I didn’t say “metoo” on facebook. I didn’t join the voices of brave women who spoke out against men who abuse their positions of power. I just stayed quiet. To protect myself. I felt incredibly selfish and weak.
Six months later
I dreaded being in meetings with him. He criticized everything I did, every meeting I did or didn’t attend. Every decision I made seemed to be the wrong one. I couldn’t get him to trust me, or to respect me. I declined to go on a strategic trip with the rest of the leadership team because I was scared of being in a situation that would give him another opportunity to drink a lot and say gross things. I labored over the decision but the risk of being around him was worse than the risk of missing out on key strategic planning.
I read books, took on a mentor, met with people who knew him well, and tried every strategy I knew to work better with him, but nothing I did seemed to make any positive lasting change. I seemed to be doing well in every other aspect of my job but this one. As our performance review cycle approached, my manager made it clear to me that although I was a consistent strong performer, without this guy’s explicit support, I could not get promoted. He seemed to be holding all of the cards for my career. I was frustrated. I got angry. I broke down and told someone I trust very much what the guy had said and done and how it was impacting me. Coming from a place of caring, he asked my permission to tell my manager so they could talk about a way to help. I agreed.
I regretted it immediately. I didn’t feel better, I felt so much worse. I felt like now my fate was sealed. That something was going to happen and I didn’t know what, but everything was out of my control now. Was it ever in my control? Maybe it wasn’t. But now it was for sure not. Now it was in someone else’s hands. It was not my secret to control anymore.
I cried. I felt stupid and weak. I felt like I wasn’t a strong female leader anymore. I was just a dumb girl who let a powerful man make me feel small with his words.
Then I got tactical. Whatever it took, I wanted to avoid talking to HR. I wanted nothing to do with an investigation, as I have seen first hand how that can make things so much worse. I didn’t want to be forced to leave my team. I didn’t want anyone else to know either. My manager said he would have to report it, and I begged him not to do that. We talked through my options and I convinced him that I could talk to the guy, tell him what he did and how it made me feel and give him a chance to apologize and move forward. The thought of confronting him terrified me, but I saw it as the only way to keep things from getting worse. My manager agreed to let me try it.
I took a month to prepare. I read two books on having hard conversations. I wrote out what I would say and rehearsed it over and over. And then I went into his office and sat down and faced him. My heart was beating so hard and I struggled to breathe. My only goal was to get through it without getting emotional, while explaining what happened and allowing him to react, just like I had rehearsed. He listened and he apologized. I left feeling so relieved. I felt like things were really going to get better, that I would start to feel like he respected me.
But it didn’t work. Soon after our talk, I felt even more marginalized, criticized and excluded from conversations that were critical to my job. I started to feel like the projects and the team that I cared about so much would be better off without me. They would be more likely to succeed under someone else’s leadership because he was so dismissive of everything I was involved in. He told my manager that I wasn’t good at my job, that I didn’t care about the right things, that the work I was invested in wasn’t important. I got so much positive feedback from my peers and from leadership about the same work, but it didn’t matter because his opinion was the one that counted most on paper and he knew that. I felt like I had no place to go anymore, no more options to try.
One year later
Despite another strong performance review, I did not try to get promoted. I left the team and I started over. I left so many people I care about and projects I was passionate about, and I couldn’t even explain why. I told them I was looking for a new challenge. I lied to protect myself and to protect them. I couldn’t explain how I was running away from him, because we’re not supposed to run away from our problems — we’re supposed to stay and fix them.
In many ways I feel that he won. I let him get away with it without any consequences because I just wanted to get away from him and never see or talk to him again. I still don’t know if I did the right thing, or if there even is a right thing to do, but I feel so much happier now. I can go for days or even weeks without thinking about him. I feel free. There are no more meetings to dread. I don’t feel a tightness in my chest anymore when I check my email and see his name. But once in a while the music gets loud again, like when we have a group manager session on respect and we talk about how important it is to report misconduct to HR. I look around the room and wonder if there is anyone else here who is keeping a secret.