At 21, I received some of the most exciting news of my professional life. I was offered a management position at my job in the hotel industry. I was thrilled. I was married and trying to finish school, and I needed the income to pay for tuition and rent. I knew that, as someone who was still working to finish their college degree and didn’t have a ton of experience in the industry, a promotion like this wasn’t that common. I assumed it would be a challenging change, but sexual harassment from my employees was the last thing I expected.
My new position as a manager positioned me over new employees I had rarely interacted with before. I was consulting with housekeepers and maintenance workers, when previously I had only worked with other front desk employees. At first, things went well. There were some growing pains, of course. The month before I had been their coworker, and now I was their boss, in charge of making sure they followed company policies, showed up on time and stayed off their cell phone while on the clock. For a few weeks, things seemed to be going great. But after a while, things started to change.
Two men in the company started to target me with sexual harassment. One was someone I had to see on a daily basis, while the other was from another location and visited our hotel a few times a year for several weeks at a time. It was annoying, though fairly harmless, at first. They made comments about me to each other within earshot, or one would relay to me what another had said about me. I ignored it, thinking they would get the point, but instead, it escalated. One started to try to give me shoulder rubs, which I shrugged off. Another started making comments about my appearance and later shared some really humiliating comments the other male employee had said about me, insinuating he had no concerns about my marriage or how that would be a barrier in getting what he wanted from me.
Ignoring them didn’t work. I told one outright that I wasn’t interested and made sure he knew to pass that message on to the other employee. The attention grew to the point that I felt unsafe in their presence. I worked at a 24/7 business and I was often alone with these men for hours at a time. I had stopped being OK with shrugging off shoulder rubs or ignoring their inappropriate comments and decided to talk with human resources.
It was awful. I knew human resources was meant to be a safe place, but I was humiliated to admit I couldn’t handle it on my own. In one meeting, I was forced to speak directly with one of my offenders about what he had done. Naturally, he downplayed my concerns, saying that I had misunderstood him and that I had taken him too seriously. For several weeks, I found myself wishing I had kept my mouth shut or simply found a new job. Even though I knew what these men had done was not right, the pressure of the meetings and questions was causing me to question my perception of the events that took place. When one of my offenders suggested I was overreacting, I found myself wondering if he was right. The attention brought on by all of this was embarrassing for me. My employees had succeeded in making me feel ashamed for their actions.
Even though approaching human resources was scary, and creating a formal, written record of what I had experienced was embarrassing, I know it was the right thing to do. One employee was written up, made to work under a different manager, and eventually lost his job over unrelated performance issues. As for the other, it came to light that my complaints weren’t the first in his employee file, and I didn’t see him again after I complained.
Being upfront up about sexual harassment was one of the hardest things I had ever done as a workingwoman. I felt embarrassed, and at times I questioned myself, wondering if I was making a big deal out of nothing. More than once I wanted to cancel my scheduled meeting with HR, to pretend none of it had happened. But, in the end, I am so glad I had the guts to make sure my voice was heard, especially knowing that other women were experiencing the same negative attention from one of the employees. If put in the same situation again, the only thing I would have done differently would be to not wait so long to speak up. Equality in the workplace isn’t only about equal opportunities and pay — it is also about demanding to be treated kindly and respected by all people in the workplace.