When you think of sexual harassment, what comes to mind? Clarence Thomas? That episode of Quantum Leap where Sam was Dr. Ruth and ran into Anita Hill? Mad Men? That episode of Quantum Leap that was kind of like Mad Men? Maybe a Lifetime original movie about some young woman overcoming adversity to one day run the company that wronged her?
You probably don’t think of a 36-year-old suburban mother of two. But I’m here to tell you that I have been—inadvertently—sexually harassing men in the greater Rochester area for over a decade with impunity. Some say that I have a way with words, but never anyone who’s heard me speak.
I have a knack for accidental double entendre. I’d walk around recording myself for a day to see how I can change my ways, but I’m afraid the tape might fall into HR’s hands.
It started quite innocently. Fresh out of school, my first real job, I was in the boardroom for the weekly sales meeting. The whole thing was still a bit surreal. Leather chairs that go all the way up, a large oblong table with a speaker phone in the middle, and people with vice president and director in their titles.
Most of the sales reps were on the road, so they called into the meeting. The department admin was talking about all of the tchotchkes and giveaways she’d just ordered. When she got to the mouse pads, she explained that she had to get the design changed because they didn’t work well for anyone using an optical mouse. The combination of reps using their cells on speaker and the speakerphone in the room made it hard for them to understand the term “optical mouse.”
Instead of trying to explain the issue another way, the admin just kept repeating herself over and over again. Patience has never been one of my virtues, so there was only so much I could take. Finally, I interjected loudly (so that the speakerphone would pick up my voice), “The mice without any balls.” Not the best thing to call out in a meeting, but pretty innocuous.
I picked up steam a few months later. A young man was covering the front desk while the receptionist was on leave. He was only 19 or so, in college, and on summer break. One of his duties was to deliver the mail around the office when it came in. One day, as he struggled to carry a box to the back of the building, I said, “That’s a mighty big package you’ve got there, Jonathan.”
His eyes widened, and he blushed. I laughed. To the casual observer, I harassed the poor guy and then laughed at his discomfort.
Luckily, I managed not to harass anyone else before moving on to the next company—you know, before they could establish a pattern of behavior. Over the last decade, I’ve held positions of increasing importance and responsibility, gone through my fair share of titles, and changed companies several times. And, along the way, I’ve said inappropriate things to men in a variety of positions.
My most graphic statements were made to poor, unsuspecting (and awkward) I.T. guys. Once, when giving up my desktop for a laptop, instead of asking the guy who was setting it up when he’d take the tower away, I asked, “When are you going to whisk my box away?” Frankly, I don’t even know what that could mean, but it doesn’t sound good.
Things got more explicit with an I.T. guy at another company. Despite the fact that our training courses told us never to give anyone our passwords, I.T. always asked. Though the system didn’t require a strong password, I’m in the habit of creating them using lots of symbols and numbers. So, when this particular guy asked for it, I wrote it down on a post-it note. As he slowly typed in my jumble of characters for the second time, I informed him that “I like them long and hard.”
My professional peers have typically borne the brunt of my verbal faux pas:
The man who didn’t get my email, so I told him to: “check your junk for me”
The colleague who wanted me to proofread his training materials to whom I announced: “I’m going to look at your thing.”
The random guy holding the elevator that I let know: “I’m always going down.”
In the winter of 2013, the situation took a dark turn, and I made my male subordinate very uncomfortable.
He was in my office for his weekly one on one. Soft-spoken and quite shy, he was just trying to update me on his projects. I was in the midst of a cold that wasn’t bad so much as it was a pain in the ass (well, nose really). I felt okay, but there was an endless stream of thin, watery snot flowing from one nostril. As I wiped at my nose for the twentieth time in as many minutes, I expressed my annoyance by interrupting him to say: “This is so obnoxious. I’d rather just have something to blow.”
Is it better or worse to harass your subordinates or your superiors?
Before you spend too much time weighing the options, let me just tell you that I’ve done both. In the case of the latter, at least I didn’t do it to his face. There is a woman with the last name Cox, I’ll call her “Betsy.” My boss, I’ll call him “Peter,” often goes on about Betsy’s accomplishments. What I meant to say was, “Peter is always tooting Betsy’s horn.” Unfortunately, I didn’t say horn. Incidentally, I said this to the same man who I asked to check his junk (for me).
By now, you’re probably just thinking that I have a filthy mind. Those of you who know me aren’t even thinking it—it’s just what you know to be true. And we all know what Freud would say.
I will not confirm or deny your suppositions and conclusions, but I will swear (under oath if it comes to that) that none of the statements above was meant to sound dirty or inappropriate. To prove it, I’ll recount my most faultless—and far-reaching—slip.
As I’ve worked my way up, I’ve often wondered if the point of the work world is to get so good at something, that you don’t have to do it anymore. And then, people who are younger, less experienced, or less skilled do it. To that end, I was asked to host a webinar and develop a guide on B2B marketing for the brand and marketing managers around the group (about thirty people in eleven states).
Without getting too technical, I created the guide in PowerPoint (rather than InDesign) because I built it off of the presentation. As most know, Microsoft and Adobe products don’t always play well together. So, when I saved my guide as a PDF, the everyday (and completely innocent) phrase “click here” was transformed into something unseemly.
That certainly looks like the link will lead to more provocative “packages” than the spreadsheets containing pricing and product information.
As of this writing, I have not been turned in for any of these infractions. And these are just the ones that I can remember. But (as any serial offender knows) spreading my victims between departments, companies, and states has helped me allude capture. Until then, I have no doubt that I will continue to say the wrong thing to the wrong people and then laugh in their faces.
And when I do get caught, I know the Lifetime movie will be amazing.