What Sexual Harassment at Work Really Looks Like
[Editor’s note: The author of today’s piece has asked to remain anonymous. The reality is that her story could belong to any one of us—particularly because today’s author, like many of us, worked in an office with no established HR department. If you find yourself in a similar situation, reach out. Ask a trusted mentor, colleague, friend or family member to support you as you identify your options and navigate the best path forward. Above all remember: you do not deserve to suffer at the hands of others.]
I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t involved with fundraising for a charity. Middle school walk-a-thons, high school races and events—it only seemed natural for me to go into nonprofit work after I graduated college. At just 22, I worked in an office full of women. In fact, most of my time in the sector was spent surrounded by women. I was fortunate enough to meet my mentor in that world and make excellent relationships along the way.
Two years ago I was contacted by a nonprofit that was looking for a strong fundraiser who had helped to grow and foster strong development programs. I just happened to fit the bill. I was inspired by the organization’s CEO from the moment I met him. I had never worked for a man before, but I was excited about the potential change in dynamics a male leader would bring. He was young and full of optimism and vision. He exuded confidence and seemed committed to making positive changes in the world. It was clear he believed in the mission of the organization and wanted a strong partner on board to help him achieve his goals.
During my second interview, rather than discuss my career or the position, we talked about movies. My senses started to tell me something was wrong at that point—but I ignored the feeling. To me, talking about movies instead of raking me over the coals with countless mind-numbing interview questions was a good sign—it meant he trusted me as a potential employee.
After being pursued for more than a year, I finally agreed to join the organization. The CEO seemed to be my biggest supporter. He would walk by my office multiple times throughout the day to chat, take me out to lunch, and always placed my opinions over those of my boss. I was thrilled to have a partner at work. It was wonderful to feel respected and valued, especially by the CEO. But a month in, things started to take a turn for the worse.
I make it a rule to never befriend coworkers on social media platforms. (I think it blurs the lines between personal and professional. It works for some people, but not for me.) One Friday night, around 10:00 p.m., my phone dinged with a message on my Facebook Messenger app. It was from the CEO. He was having a party at his house and told me he had been drinking. Then, he asked why I wasn’t accepting his friend request. Like so many women, I wasn’t sure what to do. He was my boss. If I upset him, I ran the risk of losing my job. If I responded and played along, then I would stay in his good graces.
The next day, he took a screenshot of a photo I put on (private) Instagram. The caption accompanying the photo was, “You look like a hotter version of a television reporter.” That’s when I knew it was bad. Really bad. I fumbled through my response, brushing off his advance and telling myself he was just being awkward. But after that, the messages came directly to my phone. I shouldn’t have been surprised when they started arriving more frequently—but I was. As the CEO, he had access to all of my personal information. Despite my lack of responses, he would text me multiple times nightly, any time from 10:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. Among his messages were invitations for drinks or compliments telling me how lovely I had looked that day in the office and how much he liked my smile.
I began to feel uncomfortable walking around the office. I could feel his eyes on me as I walked down the hallways. I started to count the number of times he came by my office. My body stiffened when he sat down at a table, always in the chair right next to me, far too close for comfort. In the mornings, I would overanalyze what I was wearing. I would wonder if my dresses (which I had never doubted before) were too short, too revealing. I began to cover up at all times. I began to question my abilities. Maybe I wasn’t hired for my skills. Maybe I’m not talented. Maybe the CEO hired me because he liked my face and the way my body looked. Those thoughts broke me more than anything else ever had.
Finally, one Saturday afternoon, I called my best girlfriend. I was stressed, exhausted, and in tears. She was incredibly calm when she gave me her opinion, saying: “You’re too good for this. You deserve better, and you will find better. Leave that place now, and if you ever need someone to back you up, I will always be there for you.” With those words, I rediscovered my confidence and my decision was made. I decided to quit the following day.
I walked into my office on Sunday morning while no one was there and quietly packed my things. I brought my best friend with me—I needed the mental support. Together, we pressed send on my resignation email. I blocked all of the email addresses and phone numbers of all my former colleagues. That chapter in my life was done, but I had no idea what chapter was next. I had no job lined up; no backup plan. But leaving my job and its negative work environment was critical to my emotional, physical, and mental well being. It had to be done—even if I had to figure out “what’s next” later.
In the time since leaving, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. I’m not working full-time in the professional world, and I’m OK with that. I see a phenomenal psychiatrist regularly who helps keep me focused on my health and growth. Maybe one day I’ll enter back into the workplace. But when I do, it will be when I’m ready—certainly not when someone else thinks I’m ready.
I never thought being sexually harassed in the workplace would happen to me. But then it did. And it forced me to re-examine my life at the age of 30. Too many women are like me. Too many of us suffer in silence for fear of losing our career. But we don’t deserve to suffer at the hands of others. To those women I say, don’t be afraid. As Oprah would say, speak your truth! Speaking mine allowed me to find light in my seemingly endless darkness. And I am forever grateful for that.