Discussing Workplace Harassment

Feb 1, 2019

Like nearly every women I know, I have been a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.

As an intern, I was groped by an elected official at an after hours event and warned off of reporting the incident for fear of greater victimization.

I’ve heard countless conversations about sexual topics in the workplace, including a female co-worker who walked through the bullpen shouting about a graphic sex act.

I have been invited to lunch with my boss so he could offer me advice about settling down with the right kind of man.

A former colleague started a rumor that I was gay in retaliation for a heated workplace disagreement.

I have shuttled female interns out of inappropriate conversations only to be told that I needed to calm down.  Because it’s totally normal to ask your 21-year-old intern if she “experimented” in college.

We were supposed to be the generation that broke the cycle.  We have HR departments, workplace training, and complaint forms.  And, yet, we’ve failed miserably.

Early in my career, I let most of the “locker room talk” go in order to be part of the team.  Men were often intentionally provocative in my presence as a sort of test — was I cool, could I be trusted to “get it”?  And I sometimes played along despite my reservations or just ignored the behavior, either for acceptance or expediency.

But I’m just too tired to put up with this shit anymore.


Enter this week’s lesson on how harassment persists even in allegedly enlightened workplaces.

In 2015, Kevin O’Brien was fired from the Democratic Governor’s Association for a substantiated allegation of sexual harassment.  His then boss, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, was told about the reason for the firing.  But when O’Brien was shepherded into a job in the New York City Mayor’s office by a Bullock adviser, no one bothered to tell the Mayor about O’Brien’s documented history of sexual harassment.

During his time in New York, O’Brien harassed several women before being fired in 2018.  Only to be hired by the same Bullock adviser to work at a firm that managed the Governor’s PAC.

When asked why he didn’t warn Mayor deBlasio about his “confidant and close [friend’s]” past harassment, the Governor told reporters that he thought O’Brien would stop.

Unsurprisingly, his official statement does not apologize to the women victimized by the harasser he protected.  Nor does he personally accept any blame.

“It’s clear that was not enough to protect these women from what has proven to be an unacceptable pattern of behavior on his part. We all have a responsibility to do better and to put an end to sexual harassment, and I’m committed to doing my part.”

Passive voice is the best way to minimize culpability.  #mistakesweremade

We live in a world where a harasser’s friend and employer can set aside documented evidence of predatory behavior and decide that he knows the true character of the man.  Where the trash can be repeatedly passed from one new pool of victims to another.  And where, even in the Post #MeToo Era, you can still claim that protecting harassers is just part of some greater learning process.


There’s a perception in Montana that sexual harassment just isn’t a problem here.  O’Brien had a minimum of three documented claims of harassment in D.C. and NYC, but (allegedly) not one in his six years of employment in Montana.

Is this because Montanans are more enlightened than the rest of the country?  Or is it because we have a different, higher standard for what constitutes harassment?

I have watched women wince while men chuckle since I was a kid.  It was how I learned to keep silent long before I ever entered the workforce.  But I don’t want the next generation of Montana women to learn the toxic lesson that we can only be successful at work by being silent.

The whole state seems willing to forgive the Governor, sweep this under the rug, and go on believing that nothing happened while O’Brien was a state employee.  If he’s not guilty, then we all get to go on thinking that we are beyond such behavior.  But I’m not going to let this incident go simply because it’s embarrassing to my state to confront the fact that it happens here too.

At least, one in four women is the victim of sexual harassment during her career.  FairyGodBoss discusses why sexual harassment often goes unreported and what we can do to combat it.

As managers, we need to start calling for references on potential employees and telling those who call us when someone was fired for inappropriate conduct.  And as employees, as exhausting and scary as it may be, we need to start addressing inappropriate behavior and incidents of workplace harassment with our own co-workers and bosses.  Harvard Business Review and FairyGodBoss are here to help us learn how.

We must take action to hold everyone, including ourselves, accountable.  Otherwise people in positions of power will just keep unapologetically passing the trash onto new victim pools and telling us how our co-worker’s harassment “was just a joke” and they “didn’t mean anything by it.”

I hope you’ll stay in this fight with me.  Not just for ourselves, but for the idealistic interns we all once were.  We must do better because we deserved better.

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  1. Anne says:

    As a woman in politics, I am 100% here for this fight. I’m with you every step of the way. I’ve been groped and propositioned by lawmakers and colleagues alike. There are so few resources on how to appropriately and effectively handle harassment when the power balance is so overwhelmingly tipped in the harasser’s favor. How do you tell a lawmaker not to pinch your ass when no matter what, you have to continue working with him? The times I’ve spoken up, I’ve been sidelined. My boss talks a big game about protecting her female staff, but when confronted with real stories of members perpetrating harassment, she takes no action. Enough is enough.

  2. Katie says:

    Thank you for this post.

  3. Kay says:

    I completely agree with your sentiments Abra and appreciate the resources you highlighted. For me, I work in a male dominated industry. It is not rare for me to be the only woman in a room of 15 men and often times I am significantly younger then the men around me. Over the years I have found myself, whether unintentionally or not, slowly building defense mechanisms to mitigate possible sexual harassment. For example, if I would like to network with a male colleague for professional guidance, I will ask him for coffee or lunch, never drinks like I might do with a female. I do other similar things when I travel with male coworkers or office happy hours.

    Frankly it took me until the #metoo movement to realize I had developed all these little habits and honestly, it angers me. It angers me that I have had enough bad situations with men that I have learned to censor myself and police my behavior in order to mitigate being put in a bad situation by someone else’s behavior. It angers me that I didn’t notice I was even doing this, that it was just my self preservation instincts that had kicked in over time. And mostly, it angers me that I don’t have better advice for the next generation.

    I would be interested to know if any other readers feel similarly and/or find themselves in a similar position.

    • Belle says:

      It is maddening that when society is built to allow for your victimization, you are your best line of defense. Stories like yours are what made me understand male privilege. This is going to take so long to fix, but I’m feeling up to the challenge today.

    • Katel says:

      I’ve worked finance and now engineering – just like you the lone woman in a room full of men more often than not. It’s a struggle to find your voice and be taken seriously and then you have to layer in the extra work of protecting yourself and your reputation?!? It’s exhausting and no you’re not alone – I use the same strategies as you do.

  4. Emily says:

    Thank you for this post.

  5. Mlksah says:

    Serious posts like these are why I read your blog. The fashion is fun, but this important kind of content is missing from so many outlets.

  6. cjr says:

    Yes. Every day. Every comment. Every time.

  7. Ello says:

    Do you have any advice for how to respond if someone in the workplace who makes inappropriate comments about your appearance, particularly when this person is in a senior position of authority? I was recently warned about this I’d like to be prepared for how to respond. It’s someone who I will have to continue working with and who does not have a boss I can complain to.

    • Belle says:

      I try direct but kind-ish on a first pass. “I know you may have meant that as a compliment, but comments about my appearance aren’t appropriate for the office.”

      If that doesn’t squash it, for a recidivist offender you can offer no quarter. “I’ve respectfully asked you not to make comments about my appearance. If you continue, I will have to speak with {senior person, HR, etc.} about it.”

      It will feel to you like you’re being too harsh. You will be scared of retribution. You will wish you didn’t have to do this. But you are just doing what’s right, and protecting yourself, and if you’ve been whisper-warned about this person, make no room for their comments. And keep protecting yourself, be safe out there.

      • K says:

        I’m not guaranteeing it, but sometimes standing up for yourself a little is all you what you need to get these guys to back off. They respond with one kind of respect to people who will push back. Presumably a power dynamic. No guarantee but when you’re giving yourself permission to go out of your comfort zone with one of these guys there are possible outcomes other than getting fired.

  8. Jen says:

    I woke up one day and decided I was tired of complaining to my girlfriends that I had been changing the way I dressed and taking alternate routes to my desk to avoid harassment. I finally filed a complaint that was 9 years in the making and it felt good and I was lucky enough to have support from my management. I know not every woman will have this kind support but I will sure as sh** be there for them! Thank you for this post, Abra.

    • Anna says:

      You’re helping to change things for all the women who work in places where they don’t have any support and can’t, for whatever reason, report these actions.

  9. Em says:

    I’m in and staying in. I switched careers in my late 20s so I’m one of the “older ones” now (even though I’m not that old!) which has brought with it some very helpful perspective and even less tolerance for bad behavior. But I’m still sometimes very tired.

  10. janine says:

    Your post reminded me of the way I felt after the Kavanaugh hearings. At that time, I thought to myself, we haven’t come all that far from my mother’s generation in terms of believing women, in terms of holding men accountable for sexual violence and harassment, in terms of men and women alike protecting men. What does this world hold for my future daughter, should I have one? My friends’ daughters? I couldn’t bear the thought of looking them in the eye later in life and having done nothing. So I vote, I donate money, I do pro bono, and I educate the people around me as the opportunity arises, with the goal of eliminating the systems that have been built to protect men and keep women vulnerable.

  11. Rhianna says:

    Not exactly this, but I gave a presentation three times this week on unconcious bias and how it impacts women at work. It felt good to say things out loud in front of leaders from our company. I hope they hear me and see change is coming. It’s a slow but steady momentum building. I work at a big-ish company and women are tired of it all, less opportunity, harassment, the gamut. They asked me why I was passionate about the topic and I told the VP of HR in front a full auditorium, “I became passionate when I looked at the leaders in this company and they were all tall white men.”

    I’m in the fight with you.

    • Anna says:

      Just this morning I was doing a little bit of research on a gender diversity ETF I invested in and noticed that it had a somewhat mediocre rating from one publication. For a minute I second-guessed myself, but ultimately, I feel really good about putting my money into a fund that invests in large companies with higher numbers of women in leadership positions. The fund invests in a wide range of large-cap companies and has been generally performing on pace with the market, so it’s not like it’s a risky choice, and I really do think that lasting change comes from those at the top.

      • e says:

        That’s a really interesting way of advancing the sort of change you believe in – can I ask the name of that fund? Or of how you found it / similar funds? Thank you!

        • Anna says:

          It’s the SPDR SSGA Gender Diversity ETF, ticker SHE. I first heard about it on the ETF podcast, “Trillions,” can’t remember which episode, think it was in late summer. It piqued my interest, so I looked more into it, and I liked the idea of investing in large companies that promote gender diversity at the highest levels – that it isn’t just up and coming small businesses that focus on this stuff. One of their recent episodes is actually about ESG (environmental, social, governance) investing, and might be a good listen. They mention SHE on that episode, though looking at the episode description, one of the guests is from SPDR, so his take is probably a bit biased. For other similar funds, look up ESG ETFs. I don’t have the time or knowledge to look up and keep track of individual companies, so I like the idea of investing in funds that take into account certain criteria that I support. It might not be the most lucrative investment strategy (though I think that’s debatable), but it’s my own way of putting my money where my mouth is.

  12. Sarah says:

    Yes. I think the problem is that many men, especially of a previous generation, don’t *really* think some of the behavior is bad. They think some of these comments or actions aren’t really a big deal or just a misunderstanding. They used to talk and act that way and people didn’t take it too personally (aka few women reported anything) and it never ruined people’s lives. So in an instance like this, maybe there was an undercurrent of “well, he just needs a talking to and it’ll be fine.” I also work in politics and this mindset definitely still exists, but what’s more, is that men then feel like they need to “censor” themselves or be scared around women because they are too lazy to actually learn where the line is.

    The lesson here is that men also need to be educated in what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior. And hopefully the next generation is raised to understand where the line is from the get-go. I think this is why the problem hasn’t gone away.

    • Anna says:

      Part of the problem is that a lot of the behavior isn’t “that bad” on its own, but there are just so many relatively little things all the time that we have to deal with. On their own, they may not be significant, but combined they make the workplace a much more challenging for women than for men.

  13. sj says:

    Wow. This is so timely. I’m a 22 y/o federal employee in DC and have largely kept silent for the 3 years I’ve been with my workplace. Nothing “egregious” happened, but I am routinely touched and talked to in a way that makes me so uncomfortable (and I’m not a super sensitive person!). I long attributed this to the fact that our office is primarily comprised of former military. I filed a complaint once, after one man who was particularly crude (telling me how good I looked, how he liked how I dressed, etc.) made similar comments to my supervisor. She went to his boss…and he was “talked to.” This man works remotely in another region so I didn’t have to work with him, but did interact with him a few weeks ago when he made comments just as crude. I’m seriously over it and will put up with it no longer.

    Thank you for this!!

    • Janine says:

      Please report this behavior. Many federal agencies have reporting mechanisms in place that they should be following to address harassment, sexual or otherwise. For example, at my former agency, there is a departmental directive requiring that any supervisor to whom harassment is reported must immediately report it to HR, who must evaluate the issue and take appropriate action. Complaints can also be made to the agency inspector general’s office. I’ll be honest, there are challenges in addressing sexual harassment in the federal workplace, but having trained both employees and managers on their legal obligations, many should know better than to ignore the issue.

    • Belle says:

      Please report this behavior. We have a tendency to minimize harassment, being touched and commented upon is egregious. It’s so sad that we’ve set the bar so high that we think this is just mild harassment.

      • Jenn S. says:

        This is so true re: minimizing harassment.

        A former executive in my company did not respect personal space in this regard with several women, including myself (you do not need to touch my arm in a meeting, WTF).

        A peer (on the org chart) and mentor of mine (who was at one point my manager and one of the only other women in a male dominated department), was touched by him MULTIPLE TIMES. I’d urge her to report it, and she was concerned about the optics. Doesn’t want to make a fuss. Doesn’t want to make waves. Don’t want to be known as, “that woman.” He probably doesn’t mean it that way. Etc. “That’s ridiculous,” I’d tell her. “It doesn’t matter how he means it, it is inappropriate and not OK to touch people without their consent in general, much less in a workplace, much less when there’s gross power dynamics.”

        It took a vendor conference later that year that unfortunately all three of us had to attend. During a break, in a group conversation, he tried to put his arm around me. I evaded and said it was unnecessary and would not be happening. Nevertheless, he (attempted) to persist. I maintained my distance and reaffirmed that he would not be touching me. I later reported this to my manager (his peer) and HR. My fear-conditioned colleague was awestruck and thankfully inspired; she appended her experiences when they inquired about what she’d witnessed.

        He was supposedly spoken with, but no disciplinary action resulted. It sucks, but damn it we have to at least try. Fortunately, he was later terminated (unrelated reasons, lame) so we don’t have to deal with him anymore.

        As for my colleague, we talk about this often now – she’s in a management role with direct reports. Some of them may be young women like I was. What kind of example is it to set to be OK with harassment? Yes, it is hard to do. But we have to at least try.

    • Jen says:

      SJ, This is so not ok! The fact that your office is has a lot of former military personnel on staff should raise the ethical bar, not lower it. I work with a lot of military and former military men and women and they would cringe to hear this. Please, please report this and make your superiors follow through on action. I recommend starting a journal of events because documentation will help with disciplining the individual. If you need support or help in making your voice heard, please have Abra put us in touch.

    • Be says:

      Please report when you’re ready. Please don’t buy into a myth of the military as a place that produces crude men. I grew up in the military, even if I did not serve. That’s not my experience with this group. I got more drunk than prudent at a party once and the person who cared enough to get someone he just met out of that situation had just finished his enlistment. These are just examples. I’m sure they’re counter examples. Even if they weren’t military service is to serve our country. So what do we value and we should hold military to that standard.

  14. Jan says:

    Thank you for this. I worked for a political appointee and his deputy who were disgusting. I complained, was forced to leave the job, got a very small settlement. Nothing happened to them. I’ll continue to fight and vote. Ultimately, sexual harassers in power beget other sexual harassers in power. We have to send them and their enablers packing whenever we can.

  15. KC says:

    Thank you for this. You wrote so eloquently about it. This needs to stop.

  16. Sal.b says:

    As a fellow Montanan, I hope you consider submitting this as a letter to the editor in papers across the state. I think the level of tolerance for this kind of behavior here in Montana has not made the shift yet as it has in many parts of the country. Thank you!

  17. Kate says:

    I agree about Montana being a little more cautious in this area. I think there are two reasons for this: 1) we keep our mouths shut to protect our employment as anything above minimum wage are few. 2) Also, (I do not like to frame it like this) there are those of us who just don’t put up with this conduct and handle it ourselves. The professional truth is we shouldn’t have to be fearful or deal with it. Montana provides wonderful entrepreneurial opportunities for women and it also has gross employment inequity. I am hoping that the current situation does not go without remedy. Who knows how many women were harassed, abused, or worse by this patriarchal oversight. I am a Dem and while I have supported the Governor I do not believe the Governor was naïve about any of it.

  18. Jenn says:

    THANK YOU. We absolutely need to call out sexual harassment when it happens. It doesn’t matter how thick our skin is or whether we were offended. Sexual harassment has no place in the workforce and it holds women back from achieving equality. Thank you for using your large platform to write about this!

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