How can employees successfully handle harassment coming from a superior who is protected by the HR department?
My first job out of college was in a private equity group of a large bank. I was the team’s only female investment professional out of the group of sixteen. I had graduated from an Ivy League college with honors and was a student athlete. Because of my sports background, I enjoyed the camaraderie and candor of the investment team. Even though the office culture felt a bit frat house at times, I did not feel threatened or uncomfortable. As the only female, however, I was always cognizant of how I was dressed, erring on the extra conservative, and I never, ever made flirtatious comments or spoke about anything romantic or personal. I knew I did not want to open myself up to unwanted interest. I just wanted to be one of the guys.
I worked exceptionally hard, learned a lot, and did well. I had the highest bonus two years in a row for my cohort, and when I was promoted, they offered to pay for my business school. I loved my work and the people I worked with. Life was good.
Then, on a due diligence trip, the senior partner I primarily worked with confessed his love for me. I was beyond shocked: he was a married father, twice my age, and I had zero clue he “felt” this way (or would attempt this sort of behavior). I didn’t know how to handle it.
How did you respond?
I told the married partner that I was flattered because I thought so highly of him, but that I didn’t think of him in that light for many reasons and thanked him for saying so many flattering things. I left and went back to my hotel room, assuming the interaction was over and all would go back to normal (even if he felt a little embarrassed for a day or two). I called my mom and explained what had happened. She was the only person I originally told (mistake). The next day, the partner brought it up again. And, unfortunately, he brought it up again and again and again.
The situation became unbearable. He would tell me we were flying to meet a company somewhere in the US and would make sure we chartered private travel so it would just be the two of us on the flight. He would “accidentally” caress my leg on the flight or in a meeting. He would show up at my apartment asking me to dinner. He would alternatively cajole or threaten me (jokingly?) to go away with him for the weekend or to dinner with him that evening. He would tell me all the reasons things were “over” with his wife on car rides to company meetings and why they could be “so right with us.” He would send me flowers. Every time, I would politely say “no,” but I became a bit unglued at work.
I asked to work with another partner – but “my” partner rejected the request. I asked HR if I could “expand” the number of people I worked with for exposure; they let me know there was no more attractive job than mine (which was true, other than the partner dynamic). When I asked the partner I worked with again for a transfer, he finally offered a rotation in private wealth management, a very different role he knew did not interest me. He worked hard to cut me off from escape routes, telling colleagues that I was too valuable to his team and that my plate was too full to look at investment opportunities with them. He was the most successful investor and got first pick of the investment associates. Unable to transfer teams, I felt increasingly isolated at work.
I met a woman who had worked in the department years prior who told me the partner was inappropriate with her as well. Her last memory of him was of him putting ice cubes down her white silk blouse for an impromptu office “wet t-shirt night”. Her story made me realize that things would not change, this was a pattern of behavior that would not stop. So I found a new job. When I gave my notice, I set up a meeting with the other partners to explain why I was leaving. I had saved evidence, cards from flowers he sent and other tokens of attempted courtship. I didn’t feel it was fair to leave and not make a statement that might protect future women hired into the firm. I considered litigation as an option, but I felt that leaving without asking for a monetary settlement was a more powerful statement. My primary interest was to learn and grow in my profession, and having a lawsuit associated with my name would have threatened that goal. Given the overwhelming evidence and witnesses within the company I presented, the senior partners conducted a review and found him guilty, but the punishment was “counseling.” It still upsets me that he faced no consequences for his actions when he had unfairly turned my world upside down. He continued to sexually harass women for the next 15+ years until he was eventually fired for this behavior.
While leaving was a lateral move and I had to take a pay cut, my next job turned out to be the best job of my career (and far more lucrative in the long run). Most importantly, I worked with wonderful people and felt happy, safe, respected, and valued.
Reflections in hindsight?
- I should have immediately documented the incident by sending him an email delineating our conversation and my negative reaction to it. That would have put him on notice that I was documenting the behavior.
- I should have talked to someone other than my mother! I didn’t tell anyone at work about it in the hope that it would disappear. Looking back after 20 years in finance where I observed similar situations, I learned that once this sort of episode happens, it never just disappears. It’s critical to get help from i) a mentor senior to you, ii) someone who knows the organization well, and iii) your colleagues so they can protect you.
- Develop a great network and proactively reach out to build more than one senior mentor at work. That would have made it easier in all sorts of ways. Colleagues in the office later told me they noticed he was inappropriate and always hanging around me – I wish I would have been more confident about asking another senior professional for advice.
- Prior to this incident, I was relatively soft spoken. I have learned as a woman that it is better to be known as outspoken and loud. People think twice about putting you in an uncomfortable situation if they believe you will confidently disclose it to half the industry.
- I wish I could say that I should have contacted HR immediately, but it would have led to an inevitable demotion in a small company with relatively few teams. as part of the “solution” to reassign me within a relatively small company. Being transferred to a less attractive group would have “stained” my resume made it harder to interview for similar roles elsewhere. Nonetheless, since the end result was to leave the company altogether, I definitely should have contacted HR when he began making repeat advances.
- I still can’t decide if I should have brought in a lawyer and pursued a settlement. At the time, a famous sexual harassment attorney was begging to take the case. She estimated the case would be settled for approximately $5 million. While it did not feel right for me (and still wouldn’t), it definitely would have made the partnership take the situation more seriously given the financial ramifications of his behavior. My guess is that he would have been fired much earlier with the lawsuit, and I could have prevented ten years of further harassment. However, this would have required me to absorb significant personal costs in the name of justice. The partner would often make comments about the few women who had threatened lawsuits. He repeatedly talked about how the firm would outspend the “complainers,” drag them through years of expensive discovery, and try to destroy their reputation.
- Lastly, don’t second guess or blame yourself. Women have a propensity for doing this. Often times, I worried I had somehow “led him on”, in part because he leveled this accusation at me to absolve himself of responsibility and shift the blame. His evidence: I “smiled” at him, or, I “laughed” at his joke. I firmly believe it is the superior’s responsibility to lead in a professional manner under any situation.