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.
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.