First, a story. While working at the HQ of a large clothing manufacturer in San Francisco my supervisor, one day, hauled off and smacked me on my bald head exclaiming, “Duh!” when he perceived that I wasn’t comprehending what he’d said fast enough. This was witnessed by several co-workers, by the way. About a week later I ended up in ICU/CCU for 3 days with what was thought to be a heart attack from the stress the incident had caused me.
I remember reaching out to HR while I was recovering for help trying to resolve who my medical claim was supposed to be filed with, Worker’s Comp or my company insurance carrier. My once friendly HR rep essentially gave me a phone number and wished me luck. I called it and, of course, Worker’s Comp referred me back to my HR rep. This went on for over a month as my doctor wrote me out of work for stress while the insurance companies blew up my phone trying to get paid for the $130,000 medical bill I’d racked up in 3 days in Intensive Care and an ambulance ride between hospitals. The one memory that stuck with me to this day was walking myself to the Emergency Room with my left arm tingling and getting a call from my supervisor berating me all the way up to the point of sitting and getting wired up to an EKG that would soon register “myocardial infarction” (heart attack) before having my phone confiscated by the nurse, stripping me down, and rushing me upstairs on a gurney.
I ended up quitting the job at the advice of my insanely hot cardiologist (small victories, people.) I didn’t sue the company. Apparently, I could have and won, but I didn’t. I simply wanted to remove myself from that horrid work situation, never see or hear from that idiot supervisor again, and focus on erasing every memory of the place that I could and move on with my life. Unfortunately, that one incident set me back financially for over 10 years. I had thousands of dollars in residual medical bills that I had to pay that weren’t fully covered by insurance or Worker’s Comp. It took me months to recover emotionally enough to find another job, so my savings was wiped out. And I eventually ended up having to file for bankruptcy just to stop the nasty, predatory collection calls from coming. And that bankruptcy stayed on my credit report for 10 full years. Which means my interest rates were insane on any purchases I made with credit. I calculated that the Hyundai I'd financed cost more than a fully-equipped, top of the line, E-Class Mercedes by the time I'd paid it off 5 years later.
While this isn’t the Weinstein, Lauer sexual harassment case du jour splashed all over news outlets, it hopefully gives you a bit of context around the effect that harassment can have on a victim’s life. I strangely consider myself “lucky” to have been sexually abused when I was a child, because it gave me a strength and fortitude that’s unwavering and has afforded me a resilience that no one can break. Unfortunately, the men and women experiencing harassment and bullying for the first time are left to their own devices to try and reconcile both the harassing behavior and their own feelings of guilt or shame or if they’d somehow incited the behavior in the first place. Let me make this clear, in no uncertain terms: If you are being harassed or bullied in any way by another human being, who is fully aware of what they are doing, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Period.
So, what do you do if you’re being harassed?
From my years of working in “sausage factories” (male-dominated industries…keep up) and witnessing and counseling numerous female Assistants being inappropriately ogled, touched, pursued and called derogatory names, I can say that coming forward and being labeled a whistle blower has historically been too much for most victims to want to risk. I’ve seen accusers be threatened and have their character assassinated by fellow employees, wives of the accused, even CEOs to the point of needing hospitalization for stress, even a suicide attempt in one instance. This is not okay. It never has been okay and certainly shouldn’t fly in 2018.
While companies typically have a protocol they’d prefer employees to use when filing a harassment claim, thinly outlined in that tragic little Employee Handbook thingy they hand you on your first day, I’d suggest you use it only as a guideline. Keep in mind, companies aren’t actually prepared to deal with harassment claims in a way that is empathetic and equitable toward the claimant. That claim is considered a threat to “the norm” and the onus is to mitigate any exposure or negative press internally and externally as quickly and quietly as possible. Your loyal service goes right out the window the moment the company’s reputation is jeopardized. So get smart and get tactical. Here are the steps I suggest you follow when filing a harassment or bullying claim:
1. Tell your harasser to knock it off. A harasser knows what they’re doing. So, you have every right to call them on their bullshit and make it expressly clear that you are not the one. And, yes, you MUST do this in a definitive enough way so that your harasser knows you mean business. If the harassment is occurring often, grab your iPhone, open your free Voice Memos app, and have it in your hand recording anytime you come into contact with your harasser. It’s an effective way to stealthily capture any ridiculousness you encounter with a time and date stamp automatically assigned. Save each encounter with a file name and send it to a secret folder in the cloud, rinse and repeat. I even suggest recording any conversation that you have regarding the harassment so that you have as much evidence as you can provide should your case go to mediation or to trial. Just remember to SAVE each conversation separately with a filename. And be careful not to overwrite your file. I’ve done it. VERY LOUD Fbomb ensues.
2. Tell your supervisor. If it gets to the point where you know with certainty you’re being harassed and your harasser won’t back off, tell your supervisor. However, I’d suggest doing it away from the office, either on a coffee walk or over lunch. This typically allows a supervisor to be more human while listening to the information as they are away from their domain. When in the office they have a subconscious duty to protect “the norm” and will instantly go by the book and make weird suggestions that will leave you speechless with confusion. Take them outside and tell them. Now, if your supervisor is the one doing the harassing, continue following the steps below.
3. Call EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). It’s important to reach out early and seek legal counsel. This organization in particular deals with claims of harassment at government level. You usually have between 180 and 300 days to file your claim so it’s best to reach out early. They will talk you through the steps of filing a claim with their agency and give you honest feedback as to whether or not you have a valid claim and subsequent steps if you do.
4. Contact an employment attorney. It’s important to cover your bases and make sure you have a claim. That $300 consultation can save you a world of embarrassment or humiliation by simply finding out ahead of time if your claim, even if valid, would hold up in court. Additionally, an attorney will give you the facts about what you would need to prove the allegations, the invasion into your private life, the he said/she said of it all, and the fact that the defendant likely has the backing of the company’s corporate lawyers with one objective: making you go away…with nothing. A labor attorney is your ace card should you have a valid claim and will help you build a solid case against your harasser and the company, with your best interests in mind.
5. Contact HR. Once you’ve consulted with the above and they’re convinced you have a valid claim, then and only then, contact HR. Your only goal with HR is to create a timestamp and to start a paper trail. That’s it. Do not fall for the trap that is HR. With anything that is potentially injurious to the company or leadership, HR typically takes the side of the company. So, no huge crying scenes in your HR rep’s office. Put everything in writing. Keep your face-to-face meetings brief, 100% factual, and (largely) without emotion. This is the one entity within every organization I’ve worked for that “has no home.” Sadly, they are forced to play both sides of the fence, servicing both employer and employee, but ultimately side with the employer. Not all companies, to be fair, but most in my 32+ years of work experience. I’m sure I’ll catch hell for saying it, but most know I’m right.
6. Prepare to be exiled. The one thing that victims of harassment are least prepared for is the incredible lack of empathy and support and the outright nastiness they’ll encounter once word gets out that they’ve reported a “Golden Child” to HR and the investigation begins. People who you’d been friendly with for years at the company will completely turn tail and treat you like complete shit or ostracize you altogether. Where once you were the happy-go-lucky, reliable employee in Department Z, you’re now painted as the ungrateful scourge of the company who dared to bring scandal inside the “everybody’s happy, everything’s perfect” walls of your Cinderella-story startup. Unfortunately, this is most often the reality. And this type of disappointment breaks most victims of harassment. You thought your harasser was bad? Chile. The victimization you’ll receive from co-workers and other execs, even HR, will be far more intense. And the sad part is you MUST suck it up, stick it out, and stay in position for as long as your attorney suggests or until the stress gets you and you have to tap out. Often, the success of your case hinges on you being able to stay in position and allow your employer enough time to take corrective action or fix the situation…or settle. It sucks, especially for the victim.
7. Even if you win or if you lose, QUIT. Life is short. If you got hit by a bus tomorrow let it be living a life that you’re proud of and where every day is being pursued with joy, curiosity and fulfillment. Not defending your reputation against some executive who couldn’t keep his hands to himself or felt the need to treat you as lesser than. You don’t need that in your life. If you don’t own the company yourself, leave. Report the behavior, YES! But flash double bananas and hit it. If you want to sue in order to prove a point, please do so. But know that you will be giving up a substantial portion of your life in pursuit of something you can’t take to the grave. No amount of money from a case settlement can replace the precious moments of your life that you’ll miss dealing with bullshit like this. It’s a personal choice, to which I give my full support as a victim myself. I chose not to sue and to let Miss Karma work her magic. And, boy, did she…EVERY SINGLE TIME. And there may have been a couple of voodoo dolls involved to help speed up the process. Meanwhile, I’ve lived 3 lifetimes, circled the globe at least 5 times, and woven these experiences into the incredible tapestry that is my life. By all means, tell your story and live your truth. But don’t let this type of victimization define you or in any way keep you from living the best life you can in the short time you have on this earth. Do what you’ve got to do and get the hell out of there. There’s a whole world waiting to appreciate and celebrate you.
Harassment is real and it is injurious, unfair, and life altering to a victim. There’s really no winner or win, even if a claim is won. Somebody loses. As a former victim of abuse and harassment, my goal is to make sure a victim has a game plan so that they can state their truth with conviction, allow the cards to fall where they may, and move on to pursue brighter days of their own making. Get that money if that’s what you’re after. But don’t let it be at the expense of even a moment of your joy. It's something you can never get back. Choose well.
Phoenix is coaching and supporting American billionaires, CEOs and executive teams in tech, retail and banking for over 25 years. He also founded and created MEGA Assistant University, a revolutionary skills and mindset “boot camp” for top Executive and Personal Assistants who want to level up quickly and begin forging a mutually successful business partnership with their executives and teams. Phoenix holds a Bachelors of Arts in European Studies/Civilisation from Trinity College Dublin.