Sometimes it works when he has something to lose, too
Image by Martha M/Feminism India, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons
We drove toward the lot where I’d parked my for an early-morning pickup by John, my boss. I felt no trepidation as we approached; we’d enjoyed a perfectly great day together at a tech expo in New York City. John didn’t mind driving in Manhattan like I did.
As we pulled up to the curb he put his arm around my neck. “How about a kiss goodbye?” I pulled away. It wasn’t the WTF moment you might imagine.
“No, no, that’s not appropriate!” I stammered. “We need to keep it professional.” “Oh, come on!” he said. “Just a little kiss!”
“No, no, John, that’s going too far. Thanks for the ride, I’ll see you Monday.” I scrambled out. I drove back to my Connecticut apartment in emotional dishevelment.
Goddamn him! He’d now crossed a boundary I’d be forced to address.
John and I had a boomerang employer relationship. I met him through a temp agency as I’d begun contemplating a career in computer sales. After a few months, pleased with my work prospecting new business, he hired me.
A few months later, he let me go when business took a downturn. A few months after he called me back. He’d needed time to revamp business efficiency.
It went well, until I became dissatisfied with the way he’d managed sales. I left.
I held other jobs for a few years; then got laid off and threw the boomerang. We met for lunch.
I spoke plainly about the problems with his sales management before. He responded to all of them and described the changes he’d made. I came on board a few weeks later.
I fell right back into the groove, and my old co-workers were used to seeing me show up periodically by now.
At some point, things got weird.
John and I knew each other well. We’d gone on sales prospecting jaunts together in the car, and once or twice a year we went to New York City together for big technology shows at the Javits Center. Of course, you talk in the car.
Back then, office relations were more fluid than in larger, more button-down corporations, with a lot of jokes and laughter and teasing. By today’s standards, any IT office I’ve worked in would give HR the vapors; back then it forged a sense of camaraderie and teamwork when you could be comfortable with your co-workers; some even grew close.
I don’t remember exactly when or how John launched the first trial balloon, but I think the harassment started with little comments here and there. A bit inappropriate, perhaps, but I let them slide. Once he put his hand on my thigh in the car. I don’t think I said anything, but it made me uncomfortable. Like any woman, I didn’t want to rock the boat or create an uncomfortable silence in an enclosed space. I made excuses in my head: He was just being overly-familiar. He didn’t mean anything by it.
I knew he should know better, but I let it slide. In retrospect, I wish I’d spoken up but I didn’t; I was younger and in a bit of shock. Little things built up to the New York curbside moment. Sometimes he suggested we go out for dinner. “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said. “Not as a date. I know some great restaurants I could introduce you to. You’d love them. One serves terrific dim sum. I know how much you like Chinese food.”
“It’s not a good idea,” I said. “Diane [his wife] wouldn’t like the optics.”
He dropped it.
Once, I was in the office with him and the general manager. We were all standing, talking. John held a rolled-up paper and he lightly hit me on the rump with it. The general manager sort of chortled nervously and I said something like, “Okay, ha ha, that’s enough!” My stomach twinged uneasily. Between the thigh touch and the comments and the dinner suggestion and now this, I wondered if something was escalating. John wasn’t really trying to start an affair with me, was he?
Was he insane?
I’ve spent a lifetime making excuses to myself for men.
Whether it’s boyfriends, partners, family, or employers, when conflict arises I try to avoid scenes. I look at things differently, make sure I’m not overreacting. Am I misinterpreting? Am I being oversensitive? Did he not call because he’s not interested, or is he busy with work? (It would be years before I figured out it was manspeak for I’m just not that into you.)
Maybe that’s why I got in the car with John again, for another two-and-a-half-hour trip to New York City. Plus I really wanted to see the tech show. The ones in the Big Apple blew the smaller New England shows out of the harbor.
I don’t remember anything untoward about the day; nothing inappropriate, nor weird conversations coming back. Just his bizarre attempt to kiss me, and driving home in a state of fear and fury. Fear because I’d now be forced to deal with this, and fury he’d put me in this stressful, difficult position.
I had to figure something out, because I didn’t have the usual address avenues. Too small for an HR department, there was only one person above John, and I couldn’t take this to the company president.
He was married to her.
I got home, got really stinking drunk, and emailed a close male friend in San Francisco.
“Tell someone else at the company,” he advised. “So it’s not your word against his if he fires you and you take legal action.”
The general manager. I was on good terms with him, and I’d bet John’s inappropriate rolled-up paper tap hadn’t sat well with him.
Otherwise, I’d have to handle this myself. His wife couldn’t find out. We got along well, but I wasn’t sure she wouldn’t fire me.
Yes, he was that dumb. He pursued someone in an office in which his wife worked, and outranked him.
I spent most of the weekend, as you’d might guess, weighing my options and strategizing.
I told the general manager Monday morning what happened. I outlined three things I wanted to keep the peace for everyone:
I wanted the harassment to stop
I wanted to keep my job
I didn’t want John non-sexually harassing me to make me quit
He’d been known to do that. If he wanted to be rid of someone, usually a woman he couldn’t fire legally, he’d harass her to departure.
“I don’t want you to do anything for now,” I told the general manager. “I need to handle this myself. I’m going to confront John this afternoon. If he starts treating me poorly to get me to quit, I’ll need you to step in and say I’ve threatened legal action if that happens. Don’t say anything unless I tell you. I want him to save face. I want this to end and get back to normal.”
Over the weekend, I’d realized John, too, had something to lose if he responded poorly. His wife worked down the hall. She’d find out. How ugly would things get on the homefront? Nor would he want to feed the lawyers. His wife wouldn’t appreciate it, either.
He also risked something else: Losing a damn good employee, who would never again return.
We’d been on and off for nearly ten years. I knew next to nothing about the computer industry when I’d started, but he’d trained me, and I’d become quite knowledgeable, from the days of Lantastic and Novell to the rise of Microsoft peer-to-peer-networking and Novell’s self-destruction, with some help from Windows NT.
John and I worked together through the exciting rise of the Internet and I’d been an early adopter in the office. My role became a ‘hub’ for inside sales, customer service problems and light tech support. I handled the returns and allowances and occasionally dunned old accounts for unpaid invoices. Replacing me, especially with my level of sales experience and product knowledge, wouldn’t be easy.
So, I concluded, John had some serious skin in the game too.
I made a risky decision. It’s what worked for me, and Gentle Reader now understands how I arrived at my decision. Your mileage may vary.
Monday morning arrived with a strategic plan. I stayed in my office to avoid John. We said good morning as he passed by en route to his own. When he stepped out in the morning, I spoke with the GM.
The afternoon presented a lucky perfect confrontational opportunity. John’s sales calls were usually close to the office, but on this day he’d be driving down to the shoreline for an afternoon appointment. He wouldn’t return until evening. I wouldn’t see him until the following morning; he’d have plenty of time to think and consider his actions.
Good luck with your appointment after this, I thought, heart pounding, as I entered his office about fifteen minutes before his departure.
Goddammit, he deserved it.
I shut the door behind me. He looked up.
“Listen up, because I’m only going to say this once,” I said, speaking up strongly and firmly but not loud enough for anyone to overhear.
“Don’t you EVER touch me again like you did Friday night!” I let my anger build, only enough to give me juice without going overboard and saying something unplanned. I’d put some effort into the script, reworking it and running it past my friends.
“This is a PROFESSIONAL relationship and it will STAY that way!” I informed him. “You will NEVER touch my thigh like you did once in the car. You will NEVER try to hug or kiss me. You will not make any more inappropriate suggestions about dinner. This is between you and I and no one else needs to know. I expect you and I will NEVER need to have this conversation again. Understand?”
He did. He didn’t have much response. The entire rant lasted twenty, thirty seconds.
No threats, nothing about my job, no mention of feeding the lawyers. Just a tacit suggestion that if he keeps his mouth shut and goes back to being a good boy no one gets hurt. I turned and went back to my office. I shook as I sat down to my computer, relieved when he left a few minutes later.
The happy ending is, “And the lawyers all starved to death.”
He met my unspoken demands. The sexual harassment stopped, and no new fresh hell began. John and I never spoke of it again. I didn’t lose my job until John laid me off again a year later, with the country in recession and a dramatic drop in business. We’d all done too good a job prepping everyone for the Year 2000 Techpocalypse, because no one wanted to upgrade.
When John let me go again, we both knew it wasn’t forever. I started a new job but it was high-pressure and I’d sunk deep into a years-long personal depression. I caught the boomerang when it returned.
“I’m ready to take you back,” John said. “Business has picked up and I’ve made some more changes. This time, Nicole, it can be forever. I have a place for you to grow and move into different roles if you want. You can retire here. There will be no more breaks.”
I agreed to return, although I privately knew it might not be forever. I’d begun making plans to immigrate to Canada, but I didn’t mention it.
We spent our last two years together drama-free. We even took occasional car trips together, but only to the big tech shows. He never stepped out of line again.
There are many different ways to handle workplace harassment, few of them really good ones. Even the official advice to take it up with HR or the offender’s boss can backfire badly, even when he’s not married to her.
I was forced to deal with John myself. Hardly an unusual situation for women.
But I am, as I’ve stated in an earlier article, a proponent of taking up an offense — any one, really, not only workplace harassment — with the offender first, if possible. It’s not always doable. Like with Andrew Cuomo. He possesses all the power and his hapless female employees — and bullied male employees — have none.
But some harassers have skin in the game. This is the tale of one such.
I believe it’s why I ‘won’ this one. John put his marriage, a good employee, and the company coffers at risk, via a needless lawsuit. He wasn’t a monster; but a great boss in other ways — one of the most creative problem-solvers I’ve ever worked with. He helped launch my IT sales career when I was thirty and still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Computer sales, trust me, was the last thing I’d have ever selected, but it caught my fire and I ran with it.
My backup was the general manager. If John began acting aggressively to make me quit, perhaps a conversation with the general manager and the threat of lawyers might have ended it.
I offer my story as one way to handle this. I don’t suggest others should do what I did. In fact, I offer only one universal takeaway: Each situation is unique. Analyze it, talk to friends, including trusted male friends. Consider all the ways you can handle this and choose the one least likely to get you fired. Especially consider what he has to lose if you make a fuss.
Consider whether you’re ready to drag lawyers into it. All these elements will play into your ultimate decision, which may be not to confront him at all. Maybe you’ll stay away from him when possible. Or find another job. You have to decide for yourself.
I wish I could offer a magic recipe for my happy ending, but I can’t. Your boss isn’t John. I gambled and I won. I took a risk.
I don’t know how else I could have handled it. I didn’t want to continue working in a stressful environment wondering what he’d do next. I didn’t stop the thigh touching. I didn’t stopped the rump-swatting. I stopped his behavior when I felt he’d forced my hand.
I did, however, enjoy a jolt of new confidence, knowing I’d stood up to a male harasser and beaten him. I knew I didn’t have to tolerate it, that the outcome didn’t always end badly for the woman.
It’s one way to handle it; perhaps not the best. What would you have done?
This originally appeared on Medium in March 2021.