Sexual Harassment In The Workforce And The Reference Problem

by Dena Landon

Upper management had requested last minute report changes, due the next day. I was crunching numbers on a calculator with my back to my cube’s entrance when I felt someone’s hands descend on my shoulders and start rubbing. “Go, Dena, go!” the senior manager urged me, laughing.

I froze while his hands dipped lower.

Greg (not his real name) had started at the company a few months ago, and from the beginning, his attentions had been marked. He always stopped at my cube to chat when walking by, or in the hallway. My female friend from across the way had started IMing me when he showed up – I see Greg’s there again! He’d made comments about my slim figure when he saw me eating candy and complimented me on my blonde hair. I’d always ask a pointed question about his wife, which he’d ignore or shrug off. He’d made me uncomfortable but never quite crossed the line. Until now.

After I unfroze I shrugged his hands off my shoulders and gave an awkward laugh. “I’m never going to get this done if you keep distracting me!” I joked, giving him my brightest smile.

Why did I laugh and attempt to minimize the situation? Why didn’t I speak up, or report him to human resources? First, there was the instinct to protect myself. I didn’t feel safe. It was well after 6pm. The heat had been turned off, the cleaning crew had come and gone, and while I’d seen one or two people wandering around our large floor, none of them were nearby. So I laughed it off and minimized the situation to get him out of my space. Secondly, I knew how it would play out if I did report him. Most women do.

I was an easily replaceable lowly cog in the corporate machine. The company had paid to relocate him from another state, subsidized his home purchase, and given him a large compensation package. While he wasn’t my direct supervisor, he oversaw the entire team. He was generally well-liked by the all-white, all-male upper management team. I’d heard him talking about going out golfing with them and joking around about sports. If I complained, whether or not it was immediate or it was hidden in the next layoff, I’d be the one to lose my job, not him.

And I needed my job. Most people don’t work for fun, even if we do like what we do for a living. My husband had been laid off a year earlier and gone back to grad school. He had an internship that paid him a stipend but it wasn’t enough to cover our bills. And he had no access to health insurance other than through my job and some major health problems for which we had to have coverage. Losing my job wasn’t an option.

I spent the next week avoiding Greg around the office, pretending to have forgotten something at my desk so I didn’t have to get on the elevator with him, enlisting a girlfriend who sat nearer to his office to IM me to stay in my cube when he walked by so I’d stay hidden, and trying to figure out my options. I called my health insurance company and discovered that COBRA was completely unaffordable. I looked around for jobs but the economy was still recovering from the housing bubble crash and there wasn’t much out there. I asked my husband to consider going back to work, but he refused. And so I decided to say nothing and stay.

In my experience, when women encounter sexual harassment in the workforce, we usually don’t report it. One recent poll on the Huffington Post found that, of the respondents who claimed to have been sexually harassed at work, a full 70% of them had not reported the harassment. Women, and men – 16% of charges filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission were filed by men — fear retaliation, dread continuing to have to work with someone they’ve reported, or they’ve seen how the HR department handled past cases and don’t trust them.

All of my female friends have had problems with it. One friend went on a business trip with a married boss and found out he’d only booked one hotel room for the two of them. Another’s boss made highly suggestive comments when she was pregnant about the act that leads to pregnancy. None of us have gone to HR. Human resource departments aren’t set up to protect employees, they’re set up to protect employers. We need our jobs, we need health insurance, and even if we have savings accounts or resources (such as spouses who work and provide health insurance) that might allow us to report someone, we need a reference.

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in the modern workforce is that it still clings to the outdated idea that potential employees should provide three references when applying for a job. This business practice has put every woman I know who has debated reporting a supervisor for sexual harassment in a sticky spot. If she reports him, there goes her reference. And even if she explains what happened to a potential employer, she risks being seen as a troublemaker and judged not worth the risk of hiring. Further, even if the harassment she’s reporting didn’t come from her direct supervisor, once the HR department has decided that you might become a problem, they can instruct your supervisor not to give you a reference.

In every single discussion I’ve had with a friend trying to decide whether or not to report sexual harassment, the reference problem has come up. Every. Single. One. This standard business practice has become another way of silencing our voices.

The men who sexually harass women nowadays have also grown smarter about it. They don’t grab your ass; it’s an “accidental” brush up against your breasts in the elevator. Or they stand in your cube talking about work while they adjust themselves through their pants. And, like Greg, they pick the women that they know are vulnerable. Greg knew how badly I needed the job and knew about my husband’s health issues. He also, as a member of the upper management team that had requested the changes, knew I’d be in my cube late that night. And if they’re that smart about picking their victims, they’ve probably thought about the reference problem, too.

If companies were truly serious about ending sexual harassment in the workforce, they could start moving away from demanding references from job applicants. Women in recruiting positions and human resources departments could push back against these requests and offer up alternatives, or point out how this demand can be problematic. There is a fundamental flaw of asking for a reference in the first place. No one in their right mind is going to give an employer the name and number of someone who would say something negative about them.

I solved my problem with Greg in an unorthodox manner — I got pregnant. Once my pregnancy, showed he stopped talking to me in the hallways, didn’t hold the elevator for me anymore, and no longer walked into my cube to ask how I was doing. I use another supervisor from that job when I need a reference and, in a few years, that company will be far enough down my resume that I won’t need them anymore. If only the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace would fade into the past, too.

Top photo: Mad Men

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