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What It's Like to Speak Up About Sexual Harassment

I Spoke Up About My Sexual-Harasser Boss

When I was in my early 20s, I worked at a magazine — and my boss sucked. This guy came in late, left early, and spent the day achieving impressive feats of laziness. Despite his utter lack of productivity, he demanded a lot of his employees and attempted to motivate us with tales of how hard he used to work when he was younger, describing the "pyramids of empty Pepsi cans" he used to fuel his late nights. He was incredibly annoying and, turns out, kind of a creep.

My boss — let's call him Doug — was in his mid-30s and managed a very junior team, all of us in our 20s. Under Doug, we were fairly isolated from other managers or mentors, and we kept our complaints about our boss within our little group. Over time, I started spending more time with my peers at happy hours and became close friends with one woman in particular, who confided in me that our lazy boss had made a pass at her.

She hadn't reported it, she said, because the incident was more grey area than black and white — as most cases of sexual harassment are. For one thing, the harassment took place after work hours and several drinks. The team had attended a happy hour that lasted long past happy hour, and Doug insisted on walking her home from the bar and hitting on her relentlessly along the way — even going so far as to press her up against a wall and attempt to kiss her. Though he had a pregnant wife at home, he was determined to persuade my friend to let him come home with her. When they arrived at her apartment, Doug tried to come inside and, when rebuffed, lingered outside her building for an uncomfortable amount of time. (Note: some details of this story have been omitted to protect privacy.)

I was horrified. I wanted to help her and prevent Doug from doing this to someone else. But the incident had taken place maybe six months before, and she was ready to move past it. She lacked a female mentor at work who she could have gone to for advice, and being inexperienced myself, I kept quiet about her story but also never forgot it.

Shortly after she had told me her story, she and another co-worker went public about the fact that they were dating. She and her new boyfriend (they're actually married now) had Doug as a boss, and the moment their relationship was out in the open, something switched in Doug. He grew more reserved and removed from office socializing. He let his hair and facial hair grow long and unkempt. It was like his fear that my friend might tell or had told her boyfriend this secret was eating at him from the inside.

Not long after all this, I was promoted, so Doug was no longer my manager. My new boss, a wonderful man who is still a friend and mentor to me today, pulled me into his office one day and said, "tell me the truth. How much does everyone on that team hate Doug?" I felt a wave of relief come over me and proceeded to list my grievances about his terrible management and laziness. Though I withheld the details of my friend's experience, I also told my new boss that I'd heard accounts of incredibly inappropriate behaviour toward a young woman at the company. He nodded his head, as if I was confirming suspicions he'd had for a while.

Not long after, Doug was let go. Technically, his position was "eliminated," which meant no one had to address his performance issues or the sexual harassment accusations. But all that mattered to me at that point was that he was gone and could no longer get away with being such an incompetent creep.

Nearly 12 years later, I'm still grateful to that boss who invited me to speak out about Doug and listened. I often joke that I'm good at keeping secrets but also very good at giving unsolicited advice. I won't share a secret that someone doesn't want shared, but I will advise them on how to deal with the issue, even if they don't want my help dealing with it.

That philosophy has carried over into how I behave as a manager. I try to be the type of manager who people feel comfortable coming to about anything, even if it's uncomfortable. My experience with Doug also made me realize the importance of having professional mentors who are women, because as the #MeToo campaign has proven, pretty much all women understand that sexual harassment is pervasive. The next step is getting all of us more comfortable with speaking up when it happens.

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