Set Up! Harassed! Now Name Is Mud!

Question:

I don’t know if you have quite encountered this one before. What do you think would happen if, after obvious and even public sexual harassment, the harasser could be convinced to change his behavior? Then everything’s hunky dory, right? Well, not exactly. About 4 years ago a well meaning (but VERY misguided) female coworker attempted to “set me up” with a male colleague on the job, in the lunchroom. She actually made up quite a compelling (and belittling) tale about my personal life in an attempt to circumvent the “H–l NO” I of course gave.

The situation was further complicated for me being a single mom and in a field where I end up working with a lot of the same people from one company to another. I’m in collections, and call centers are notorious for being less than professional. I refused. The guy persisted, with subtle and insidious innuendo. I confronted him, to no avail. He’s, well, very “extroverted” and quickly gained popularity there, while me, the workaholic who keeps to herself, has only ever had a few loyal friends at work. I left the company after being subject to all kinds of hostility from everyone BUT this guy, believing naively that my rejection of his advances and the hostility I received from numerous coworkers was unrelated.

About a year later I was unemployed, I had moved out of state and back again, and the company I had worked for was hiring. I called my old manager, she seemed supportive, and I returned. Now this same male coworker, the one whose advances I had refused, had been promoted, and I was placed on his team immediately after training. After several months of harassment, I finally got through to him that this behavior was not ok with me. I was soon transferred to another team. About a year later, the same supervisor approached me, and to make a long story short, I was being transferred back to his team. My performance wasn’t what it should be, and if I don’t accept the transfer there’s really nothing the company y can do.

He had by that time been promoted to supervisor of a specialty team designed to turn around employees who are not meeting goal but are considered valuable enough to keep. I talked to him and believed he would not again harass me in any way. He didn’t, but he did completely neglect to do his job. He has a habit of being involved with one subordinate or another, and on this team were his latest girlfriend, and then a good male buddy of his.

Well, I survived, after having to take a number of his “mistakes” including writing me up for performance where his math was plain wrong to the branch manager at the time. That was almost a year ago. I have gotten by, but my performance has never returned to what it was pre-harassment, and now I am working under a the same female manager I had when I worked there before, who happens to be his friend of 10 years. It seems like everyone here is this guy’s buddy. Most of them witnessed his harassment of me; some of them even encouraged it. I never filed a complaint,

I’m a single mom receiving no child support, and both coworkers, and even managements attitudes have been that his harassment of me was very amusing. I did not find it amusing. This man used very foul and abusive language, and spread degrading slander about my sex life. I have confronted him about this, and to my relief he has long since stopped, although I have no real way of knowing if he is still spreading ugly rumors about me or not. I have also at times succumbed to all the negativity around me, and I suppose my own anger, and occasionally made the horrendous mistake of answering questions coworkers have asked (often in an insulting way) and actually calling the harassment what it was.

Most of my coworkers seem to believe that there was some sort of failed relationship, not the case. Also, many of my coworkers are hostile towards me, and of course, the common myth that “she asked for it” persists. They act like I walked up here in fishnet! Stockings and stiletto heels! I’m an average looking, somewhat overweight chick with glasses. Hello! The hostility I am faced with due to this interferes in my work, in a job where we have to be able to depend on each other. I am ostracized and alienated. I feel that my job maybe my whole career is ruined. This isn’t fair. If I even drop a hint that I’m having problems, I get shushed pretty quickly. Or outright blamed. This whole place knows this story (he repeated it often enough) why are they so insensitive? I haven’t gotten HR involved, although I have had to go to them when a girlfriend of his became hostile with me out of nowhere and when a female coworker of mine kept bullying me.

I have never hinted to HR about the sexual harassment, but supervisors who I’ve worked with for a while and who witnessed it have made various comments to me, some sympathetic, some supportive, and some accusatory. My current supervisor seems sympathetic, but she doesn’t seem to respect me much, and my manager has said things that sounded like she was accusing ME of seducing HIM. The nature of the gossip he spread about me is that he was just trying to “help me out” with a problem with men and sex? Obvious negative female sexual stereotype, only he’s the kind to believe in those, and so are many of my coworkers. I’ve tried being positive, I’ve tried ignoring it (the harassment, until that didn’t work, then the gossip) to no avail. I’ve recently tried being more assertive, only to be met with aggressiveness by my coworkers.

There’s also an issue of race, in that most of the gossiping coworkers are black women, I am white, and I hate to think it comes down to that, but there are some difficult feelings that I think the black women there wants to express about white women, and they use me as some kind of example. There are also cultural differences in attitudes regarding sex. There is also a lot of favoritism in the office for women that have affairs with superiors, and the company is way too forgiving of that. It’s made for a really demeaning atmosphere.

Now they suddenly changed the employee handbook, making it against company policy for a supervisor and their direct subordinate to be involved. I guess because of that case in California? Change is slow. Now that my name has been turned to mud I genuinely fear that this shadow will follow me to another company. It’s likely in this field. I might as well make my stand right here. I just don’t know if that’s going to be trying to turn this around, or how, or if I really need to think about legal action? I have to file a report to do that; don’t I? It’s too late to report the male coworker but what about all the comments I am still inundated with from the rest of the staff, including my own female supervisor? Now I know, if it ever happens again, run to HR! These are the repercussions of trying to be nice and working it out amicably? It’s almost as bad as the actual harassment! Best regards.

Signed,

Mud


Answer:

Dear Mud:

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. I hope we can provide some additional viewpoints that are helpful.

Harassing behavior is any behavior related to your gender, age, ethnicity, religion or other personal characteristics that are demeaning, intimidating or threatening. It is also illegal to demean, intimidate or threaten someone based on the fact that they made a complaint about other harassment.

However, you apparently did not make a complaint, so it is difficult to see what others would be angry with you about. It seems unlikely they would be angry over your refusal to date someone. Whether or not there is a high enough level of negative remarks to indicate an EEO violation is something that would need to be considered in light of specific and provable information.

If you believe you can show the current treatment is directly related to some aspect of your refusal to date a co-worker or become involved with a manger, you should consult an attorney to see if you do have an EEO complaint. You may also have a valid complaint based on the conversation and reprisals you believe are related. You do not need an attorney to file such a complaint, but an attorney could provide advice about it.

When bosses and co-workers, women and men, friends and acquaintances, are all upset with you, it seems to indicate there is something that is happening related to communications or behaviors, that needs to discussed openly. You may want to ask HR to mediate this situation, or ask for a full investigation to determine what has been said about you and why…. especially if you believe you can prove it had to do with a harassment situation.

Most attorneys will provide a free consultation and will advise you if you have sufficient grounds for further actions. Most will also provide general advice about a matter such as this.

I’m sorry you have been in the middle of this kind of upset for so long. I hope you will be able to find a permanent resolution to the situation. Perhaps your best approach will be to find a much better place to work and build your career. However, if you have been subjected to wrongful treatment, that needs to be addressed so that others will not have to endure the same thing.

Best wishes as you work through this situation.

Follow Up: Thank you so much for your reply! Oh, I think I didn’t make in clear in my previous e-mail, the comments I receive at work are clearly related to what the male supervisor in my e-mail said about me. He made a number of disparaging remarks about my rejection of him being based on me having a supposed “problem” with men and sex! Nobody will admit what he actually said, I overheard numerous comments both when I worked there before and when I returned, and a number of employees close to him have made comments that were completely off the wall, unless you already knew about that bit of gossip. Although I know this, it’s pretty tough to prove. Even in comments I heard him say regarding me he was careful not to say my name. I know this is happening, I know he has spread malicious gossip about me, I know it’s because I stood up for myself and confronted him about the harassment and insisted he stop. Proving it is another story.

I generally get along with my coworkers. I always have before this, and I always do when this guy is otherwise occupied and stops talking about me! Since this last time, I had to work with him; however, it seems like everyone is either hostile towards me, or sympathetic, but distant. I didn’t get HR involved about the actual harassment, how would I go about it now? I’m looking for another job, but there’s practically no where I can go where I won’t be working with someone, at least a few people, who I have also worked with here (collections has a high turnover rate) Is there anyway to effectively stop this guy’s gossip from following me? I know I’m asking the impossible! Am I going to HAVE to get a lawyer to get this mess about nothing straightened out? I just wanted to clarify.

Thanks for the advice.

I certainly hope you will be able to find a resolution for your work situation. I think a major component that is required is to get the truth out in the open through an investigation by HR or others who are responsible for your workplace and for ensuring that no liability situation occurs.

If that does not seem to disclose the truth and find a resolution, then you certainly should seek legal advice. You don’t need an attorney to ask for an investigation. You don’t need an attorney to file an EEO complaint. The reason I often suggest an attorney in cases like these is that sometimes an attorney can listen and recognize key elements that you may not realize are significant. I always prefer to try to resolve things at the lowest level, since that makes for the most positive situation AFTER the complaint is handled. But, sometimes the employee has to start in a determined way, at a different level.

If you go to HR–or to an attorney–take a letter that outlines your concerns in chronological order, starting with the times you refused to date the other employee. Acknowledge that you did not complain at the time. Clarify that what you are complaining about NOW, is the unpleasantness and negative environment you feel as a result of that incident. When you get to your current situation list the from and to dates and list the behavior you can prove. If you cannot prove it, describe specifically why you think it. For example, rather than making a general statement that so and so said something that implied such and such, quote the person: “About this date, so and so said, ‘Quote, quote, quote.’ This statement would have required that he know about such and such.”

List anyone who was present when statements were made. List those who seem hostile to you and those who do not. Explain that you would like to know the source of their hostility, since it could not be the result of personal interactions, and likely is caused by their feelings about the former situation.

Take the letter to HR and ask to talk to the highest-level person there. Give them the letter and ask them to help you find the truth so you can get back to enjoying your work and move past this. You may want to say that you would prefer to handle it in-house rather than seeking an attorney. That is a decision for you to make, based on your perception about the results of a semi-threat like that!

Insist on an investigation, with interviews of everyone involved. When it is done, you may or may not agree with the results and can then decide what to do next. But that investigation will provide a background that might be helpful in a legal case–either criminal or civil–since it would show a good faith effort on your part.

You likely will not find all the answers in the investigation. For one thing, people may not be fully truthful–or truthful at all. For another, they may have other reasons they can use for their apparent attitude. As I told you before, I do not think it likely that a large number of people would dislike you or treat you differently because you wouldn’t go out with someone. They might feel that way if they felt you lied about him to get him in trouble. They might feel negatively about your work or your behavior. But few people really care about someone’s social life. They certainly don’t care months later. Even a very popular person would hardly be viewed as so special that everyone, both men and women of varied ages, would dislike a person who wouldn’t go on a date with that person or have an affair with him. They might have negative feelings for other reasons, and perhaps those will come out in the investigation.

Whatever you do, you do need to do something to find a resolution for this. You do not absolutely need an attorney for any of it. I simply think there seems to be such an unusual situation that an attorney may be needed to sort it out and advise you.

I think finding other employment will be a good start to help you move on. And yes, there may be some rumors that follow. But if you show yourself to be a hard working person who is appropriately friendly, you will establish yourself positively.

Best wishes as you work through this situation. If you wish and have the time, keep us informed about the results.

Tina Lewis Rowe