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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

My story of workplace harassment: When doing the right thing is always the hard thing.

It's been a year since I worked at that hellhole. For two years, I worked at an accounting firm where the antics belonged on a dramatic series on t.v. I'm not even sure how I lasted that long. I was an assistant to two female Partners of the firm. Prior to me, there were several other assistants who had quit for similar reasons, but I stuck it out for a couple of years. The pay was excellent, the location was 2 minutes from my home and I had my own office with a door.

The pay was the reason people stuck it out, but at the same time, every young person that I was friends with there, quit months before or after I did.

Where do I even start?

I'll start with the abuse that staff endured from the female Partners. When we weren't being screamed at by one, we were being berated by another. One came from a military upbringing, and thrived on making you feel like shit. As their personal assistant, I certainly spent the most time with these two women. I would be set up to fail. I would schedule meetings and they would be cancelled or declined, with no explanations. Like most corporations these days, there was zero training so you either sink or swim. I chose to swim, and fortunately do well with documenting procedures from scratch. I should have known right away, when I was supposed to be taken for lunch on my first day, and that was cancelled 3 times, what I was getting into.

We finally went for my "welcome" lunch and I sat across two women who did not say a single word to me. One started to laugh at the new waitress because she was obviously inexperienced and nervous, and her hands trembled as she poured our water. Always rooting for the underdog, I turned to Bossy Dearest, and said, I'm sure you remember your first job and how nervous you were. She looked surprised at my comment.

Three months into working here, I scheduled a meeting to find out how I was doing. I sensed they were unhappy as there were often snide and dirty looks and derogatory remarks about my work. I sat across the table from them, after ordering lunch and having them comment it wasn't healthy enough, and bluntly told them, I am not doing them any good as an assistant if I am intimidated by my bosses. I asked what the deal was and they told me they were pissed off that I scheduled training on their busy season. Being new to the firm, I didn't realize at that point what busy season actually meant, was every single day of the year from September until May. They seemed surprised that I called it like it was.

Things got a bit better, but only because I knew I wasn't alone. I found emails and documentation of my predecessors describing the hell that went on there. Things got worse when the acting Human Resource person began to harass all the females. When I returned from my honeymoon, I had learned that I would be directly reporting to him. He was like a walking time bomb. At first sight, you would naturally think he was either gay or having a mid life crisis. Late 50's with a 30 year old wife, an earring in one ear and the most obvious faux tan and hair plugs you've ever seen. He taught salsa dancing to the local youth at a club up the street. He once told me that an 18 year old's dress blew up in the wind and he saw the most beautiful purple thong he had ever seen. I wanted to puke.

As time went on, his comments became worse. It was such a small office that there was no way to avoid him. These were the things I documented:

*In front of male staff at an office function, while talking about speeding tickets, he said he could just picture me trying to get out of a ticket by lifting up my shirt.

* He came into my office in front of another Accounting staff who asked that her name not be mentioned and said he swore he was looking at my eyes, even though he was staring at my chest.

* He asked me how many bikinis I brought away on my honeymoon

* He asked if he could borrow my "Cock-ulator" instead of calculator

* He came into my office and said "Pumpkin, can I get under your desk oh baby baby" in front of a colleague.

* While discussing if I had received training from Lotus Notes, he said "Ohhh Kent already DID you. I didn't know you had already been DONE. He DID you quick and dirty. I didn't know you had already been done and Kent had done you."

* He asked a 20 year old colleague upon her resignation to call him because he would "like to see where this relationship goes". She by the way quit, because the Partner would throw files at her, embarass her in meetings and performed a huge "no no" in the accounting world, which was to not inform the existing student that she had passed her huge accounting test. For other favourite students, a cake was ordered, an email sent to the staff and the phone call made. For this beautiful young woman, the Partner specifically did not call her to let her know her results, all day letting her think that she failed this career important exam.

* While a colleague was at the Christmas party, the harassor said out loud, "That's a whole lotta womanly woman, look at those legs."

* He came in to my office and for about 15 minutes started looking at an inappropriate book telling me what he liked and which costumes he liked and what he would like his wife to wear.

* He instilled the fear that there was something going on with a company merger and we should all be very careful and worried about our jobs and if you were in his bad books, like the older staff.

* Our receptionist had confided in me that after over 20 years at the company, this person was the one who will push her out the door as he makes derogatory remarks to her and makes her feel stupid. He made it known that he simply had no use for anyone that was unattractive or older.

This person was in a power position. He guided the 4 Partners of the firm in whichever direction he wanted them to go. He was in charge of our vacation approval and salary review and even where we sat within the office structure. Needless to say, when I came forward about all this, I came back to work and my office with a door was taken and my new desk sat in the hallway by the file room. I was crushed.

At a certain point, we went through a company merger. Ironically, right around the time that Bill 168 was being introduced and the harassor would be conducting the training for the staff. I took all the necessary steps I was supposed to. I tape recorded conversations. I documented everything. I went to the Partners who did nothing. I went to colleagues who did nothing. I sought legal guidance, who, in a surprising twist of kindness, offered to help me pro bono. She said I had enough evidence to win a case, but asked if I was really prepared to spend 3 years of hell going up against a firm with big time lawyers. A part of me felt so defeated when I walked away, but I had a choice, and that choice was to start my new married life off in peace. I chose to fight for my job. I loved my job itself but the environment was so toxic, my Doctor recommended not going back. I was having breathing issues, panic attacks and major pains in my neck and body.

For the sake of our new home and the right thing to do, I came forward. An investigation was launched. 12 women were interviewed and came forward with the truth, however what I was shocked to discover, is when I returned to work, those same women turned on me. They would whisper, not speak to me and were angry that I brought this situation to light. One lady, a Christian, told me that she was forced to be honest, but that if that had of been her, she would have quit rather than come forward. She made it known that she was no longer my friend or confidante, even though prior to this, her husband urged her to quit because she was having heart problems due to the stress of this harassor. The company said they recognize he was at fault but that they would not be terminating him. What it came down to, they told me, was that if I sued them or he sued them for wrongful dismissal, his suit would cost them more money because of his superior position. I had a choice to return to the office or quit. Those were my two choices.

My assistant who was hired to help me, all of a sudden was supporting the Partners, being taken out for lunch and my office and duties were removed. They claimed they were not pushing me out the door, but the moment I gave a month's notice, they happily told me to take the month paid. Sure they did, that was right around the time an employee won a huge lawsuit against a large Payday loan company and it was all over the newspapers.

There was one woman who I can not thank enough. She always knew what was happening and had a backbone. She dragged me into the Managing Partners office and made me tell him what happened. She also went to bat for me and the other women during the investigation. I could never thank her enough. I never understood these other women. It's like they were secretly relieved that something had been done, but at the end of the day, still had to face these people knowing that they came forward and having to face the consequences. The ironic part was, it was my male colleagues, friends and superiors who came to me with support and told me I did the right thing and they shook my hand.

The harassor was found guilty and had to say so in front of the entire staff. My husband was there that day and had a few choice words for him. He actually told him that he made him ashamed to be a man and would never speak to any woman like that. The ironic part of all this is, if I was witnessing someone else being treated like this, I would naturally stick up for them but when it's you in that position, for some reason it is not as easy to say something to your superiors.

I'm no longer there but from what I understand, the abuse continues. The newly merged company did a fantastic job at trying to implement processes and in time, hopefully things will change. It is always the case that the right thing to do is always the hard thing. Maybe this will make these people think twice about how they treat their staff. I consider myself a strong person and I fought for my job and what was right and fair but at the end of the day, sometimes your own personal well being and safety is more important than a good paying job.

I contacted a bullying at work site and did you know they get over 500,000 hits to their site
per month? You wonder why I want to stay at home and work for myself.

If you are a witness to harassment in the workplace, remember that this could one day be your daughter, your mother or your friend, and they need for you to stand by them and do the right thing. It could exist anywhere. You would think this type of behaviour would go on in a factory type setting but the truth is, the white collar corporations are just as guilty, but are more clever at covering it up. I told the female Partners upon my resignation, that they should be ashamed of themselves. They are smart and highly educated females representing half of the firm's management. Their roles are as prestigious as a Partner in a law firm. We as Corporate women have to be just as ballsy as men. If you want to fit in, you have to part of the old boys club. I can joke around with the best of them. In fact, when coming forward, I had to make sure the superiors knew that I wasn't just an uptight prude. Isn't that sad? The truth is, when the economy is on a downslide, people more than ever need to keep their jobs, but at what cost?

I have to say, it was difficult going for job interviews and coming up with a reason why I left my last company. I wanted to tell them the truth but would I be looked at as a "troubled" candidate? I was ready to sign an offer at a competing firm when I heard from a friend that the owner had several wrongful dismissal and harassment suits against him. It was like leaping from the frying pan right back into the fire! After going through what I've gone through, I'm not so sure I would come forward again. When you look at how things transpired, I doubt any other woman who witnessed what I went through before and after the investigation, would ever come forward either. It certainly seemed that staying quiet was the easier road in all regards.

Thanks for listening. I'm now flying on my own and I've never felt so free.


Cheryl Assivero said...

Good for you Wendy! You are a strong and courageous woman and we should all be so lucky to have someone like you on our side. I admire you for your strenght and courage in standing up for what you believe in.

Michael Lewicki said...

That's my wife! Even in troubling times you always offer words of encouragement for others going through similar situations. I'm proud of you. Always will be! You went through a lot and you're free and soaring now!