Updated: Dec 10, 2021
“Cut her off. Don’t give her anymore vodka. It makes her clothes fall off!”
This was said to me - not by a concerned close friend or my husband making a joke - but by a colleague I’d never met before - at a work function.
Yes, this sexually explicit statement was made to a bartender (serving me club soda and lime) by a man I’d never met, as he walked up behind me and stood very close beside me.
If you find this shocking, believe me it was. I was standing there confused and frankly appalled that some guy would have the nerve and audacity to say something so off-color to a colleague he’s never met at an out-of-town work event.
If you think this is just a guy making a joke and it is no big deal, let me remind you that I’d never met him before, and we were at a work function – there is no place for this at work – none…
Here’s what happened next – and I’m sharing this so that it might change how you think about what sexual harassment is and about the impact it has on the person being harassed.
If you read this and think anything other than “we still have work to do” then you need to open up your laptop, log into your company’s sexual harassment training and take it again. Then go out and put it into action, be aware of your words and your actions, be an advocate, stand up for someone else and be on the right side of this whole thing.
I’ve always been outspoken – never afraid to stand up for what is right and never, ever afraid to stand up for myself or someone else. I guess it’s true that you don’t know how you’ll react until you’re actually in the situation because if you’d asked me what I would have done (before this happened), I would have said “Oh I would shut that down. I would tell him to leave me alone and that I would report him to HR.”
But no, I stood there silent. The bartender looked at me, handed me my drink and I walked back to my table where my teammates were sitting and took my seat – in shock.
Two male teammates on either side of me asked “Are you okay?” I stared straight ahead and recounted what just happened at the bar. I sat there reliving the entire brief encounter.
The safety I felt at these work events was shattered. If I’m perfectly honest, I felt vulnerable. It’s one thing to be on high alert as you walk alone at night to your car – it’s quite another to feel like you can’t even go to the bar at a work function without someone approaching you from behind and saying something sexually explicit. I couldn’t make sense of this colleague approaching me and saying such a bold and sexual comment.
If I'm perfectly honest, for a split second, I had the thought "What did I do to make him think that was okay to say to me?" (not an uncommon when you feel violated/wronged/etc.) That thought was quickly replaced with - "I did nothing to cause this but now I have to do something to stop it!"
Then I got angry. If he would say this to someone he doesn’t know, what else is he saying to people (what is he saying to clients and other coworkers)?
So I decided to approach him and confront the situation head on. I knew I had to do something to stop him from harassing anyone else. His reaction would determine what happened next.
I walked over to his table and sat in the seat next to him. I said “I don’t know you, but what you said to me at the bar made me very uncomfortable.” He put his hand out to introduce himself. He still didn’t get it – did he think I was there to pick up where he left off?!
So I tried again – being even more direct this time. “That was not okay. Don’t you take the sexual harassment training every year? You don’t say things like that to a woman at a work event – much less a colleague. You don’t even know me. That was not cool.” He said nothing.
I got up and went back to my table - now I was furious. If he had sincerely apologized and admitted what he did was wrong I might have left it there. But clearly he didn’t think he did anything wrong.
I saw my boss and told him what had happened – I got emotional as I told him because I really felt violated. I told him I was calling HR – he supported me 100%. He said he would report it to his boss, and we agreed to talk later.
Then I found a female colleague I was friends with and told her – what she said next didn’t surprise me. She said another female colleague had been complaining to her about this guy – he’d been following her around and saying sexual things to her for months.
Now I wasn’t just angry – I was afraid for my safety and for the other women at this meeting. I was right to be – he tried to follow another woman to her room. Another female colleague shared the sexually explicit things he’d said to her. The more I heard, the more determined I was to stop him.
I was the only person who reported him to HR. I called that night even though I knew I wouldn’t reach anyone at that hour - I felt compelled to report it immediately. I heard back the following morning – I relayed everything to HR and they spoke to the others who had been affected. By mid-morning, everyone knew, and people were thanking me for coming forward.
When I asked why they hadn’t reported him, one woman said, “It happened to me at a previous job and things were never the same for me there after I reported it.” Another said “I just didn’t want to deal with it. I thought I could just avoid him but now that I’ve heard about all the things he’s done I wish I had said something.” I get it - earlier in my career I may not have been so adamant about doing something - regardless of the consequences. It was an easy decision for me - this person was a stranger to me.
HR investigated everyone’s claims and took action. I am grateful that my employer stood behind what they said about having a zero tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment. I’m grateful to my teammates and colleagues who were there for me and supported me. And I’m grateful to those who may have been too afraid to come forward on their own but spoke up once I did.
There is strength in numbers and we have to band together to stop this. For our mental wellbeing, we must stand together and be clear that this is not okay and it must stop.
So when you’re taking your company’s mandatory sexual harassment training and asking yourself “Do we really still need to take this training every year?” “Isn’t this stuff common sense by now?” “Does this even happen anymore?” The answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes!”
Yes, people still need the training - trust me, there are those who still don’t “get it.”
Yes, it does seem like common sense but for some, the principles in these trainings need to be taught again and again.
Yes, sadly it does still happen – more often than you think and more often than is reported.