I had just turned eighteen when I realized I was being sexually harassed by a coworker, which believe it or not was just a few months ago.
He was old enough to be my grandfather, and up until I turned eighteen it had never seemed like anything other than a fatherly affection towards me. Shortly after I turned eighteen, I realized that he was being very forward. I was so scared to go work, I was uncomfortable, and most of all I was unhappy.
No one wants to have to look at the schedule and fear that they may be scheduled to work with someone that may cross a line.
My gut instincts saw this coming. I think that is why I had such a hard time moving past it. I knew there was something off, but I considered this man to be a friend, and when you label someone as a friend, your judgement of them is going to be obscured. So for whatever reason, I didn’t see this coming, even though looking back on it now, it seems all too clear.
I worked with this man for two years. I thought he was a friend. He had somehow gained my trust and that was how he was able to abuse it.
He had visited me a few times at work when he knew I was there and he wasn’t scheduled just to see me, or drop off candy or a holiday card. He had always done that for me, the entire time I knew him. I was always his favorite cashier and he made it his mission to spoil me even though I never asked for it. I never realized how strange it was until a little less than a year ago.
I had never noticed before that he did these things and hoped for something from me in return. He stood close by the register almost expecting me to exit and hug him, which I was not always comfortable doing so I did not, but I could tell that he expected something from me, which was probably the only reason why he did these things.
Before I left for Chicago for my eighteenth birthday, he asked me to meet him across the street at a small gift shop after work to give me my birthday gift and help him pick out something for his wife.
I was so incredibly nervous to meet him because it just didn’t seem like a good idea. I had a gut feeling about it. He’d never asked me to meet him outside of work before, but I considered him to be my friend and he wanted to get something for his wife, so I tried not to overthink it.
He gave me my gift and then a hug, one which he held on for just a little too long, making me very uncomfortable and ultimately a little scared. We were in a public place, so I tried not to be too worried, but I was nervous enough to try and think of an escape route in case I wanted to get out of there fast.
He then asked me if I wanted to give him my number before I left for Chicago because he said he just wanted to make sure I had someone to contact if something happened while I was gone. Even though he knew I’m close with my parents and had plenty of people to contact. I told him no, that didn’t feel he needed to have it, that I would be fine, and then I left.
I just thought he was concerned, in a fatherly way, even though after the encounter I began to wonder otherwise.
However the concern left my mind when he signed my birthday card, “from Your Work Dad,” a phrase I coined since I work with a lot of older men who often look out for me. However this man, in particular, looked out for me in a way I never wanted nor expected, and I began to realize it no longer seemed very fatherly.
When I returned from my trip, he asked me if I received his text messages, which seemed weird to me since I did not give him my number.
He told me that he got my number off the staff list in the back, which is only there for managers to contact people if they don’t show up or if someone calls in sick, not to just be taken and used by any employee in the store to contact people for their own agenda.
I did not receive his messages because the number on the list was not correct. I got a new number shortly after getting the job and so the list had my old number. This made me apprehensive because I told him I didn’t want him to have my number and he tried to take it anyways.
No means no. Regardless of the context. It doesn’t mean yes, or maybe yes, or do whatever you want just because you can. I told him I didn’t want him to have my number and he did what he wanted anyways. That is not, and never will be, okay.
Almost a whole month had passed before I remembered that my number on the staff list was still not correct. I didn’t really want to change it in case he tried to take it again, but I also didn’t feel it was fair to the managers for them to not have my real number now that I knew about it. So I changed it.
Almost exactly two weeks later, at midnight on Christmas eve, he texted me and said he wanted to be the first to wish me Merry Christmas.
This sent a chill down my spine. Not only had he tried to take my number once, but he continued to check to see if I had updated it to my current number. Which he then took and decided to wait up and text me at midnight on Christmas eve.
I then decided to talk to my mom about it and tell her what was happening and how I felt. The last thing someone wants to have to talk about on Christmas is that they think a coworker may be crossing the line into harassment. She’s dealt with similar situations in the past, as unfortunately it’s something most young women experience at some point in their lives, and told me to be firm and make sure he understood where we stand, which was only as friends and coworkers.
So I responded the next day and told him I wished him and his wife a Merry Christmas, hoping that by mentioning his wife he would realize I was emphasizing the fact that he’s already married and that I’m not interested and never will be interested. He clearly didn’t pick up on the memo and responded with one of his stupid pet names for me.
I was already pretty nervous for the next time we worked together, but luckily our shifts overlapped only by an hour so I thought everything would be okay.
But it wasn’t. It got so much worse.
He had never, ever treated me differently in front of our other coworkers. He never called me any of his pet names, never made any of his inappropriate jokes, or tried to coax any affection out of me when they were around. I suppose this should’ve been my first clue that he knew what he was doing to me was wrong.
However, that night, before he left, there was a coworker up front at the register talking with us. He is someone I would talk to regularly with and practice Spanish with.
The coworker had recently become aware of this guy’s fascination with me and picked up on the fact that he would get jealous when we would talk at work. I didn’t realize until later that this coworker actually egged him on and essentially provoked him to “mark his territory” on this evening. However the coworker did recognize that this guy could make me a little uncomfortable and tried to stick around whenever he was working as long as possible.
Just as soon as I thought the guy was leaving that evening, he turned and came around the register, stepped inside the small box with me, and told me that he “wasn’t done with me yet” before wrapping his arms around me and kissing me on the side of my head.
I had never before been trapped and violated like that, and I didn’t see it coming. I felt my brain shut down and my entire body clenched out of fear.
I froze. I was so scared and confused. I always felt so safe when other coworkers were around, but he had just done that right in front of someone else.
As he forced his embrace I felt my body tighten and bend away from him, but he didn’t let go and there was something, like a large mass on my chest, preventing me from telling him to stop.
I did not say a word to him after he did that to me, but he left and thought everything was just fine. My coworker’s jaw dropped and he too was unable to say anything.
How crazy it seemed to me that something so seemingly innocent made me feel so terrible and worthless. I wanted to cry and I felt my dinner rise up in my stomach. I can’t imagine what it feels like for women who have had far worse things happen to them.
After he left, my coworker looked at me and told me, “It was written all over your face. You didn’t want that.”
The coworker encouraged me to talk to someone at work about it, preferably a higher up. He offered to even go with me when I said something since he witnessed the whole thing and knew how much this man fussed over me.
Although he egged him on, and caused this to happen, I don’t think he knew that this would be the result and ultimately felt pretty guilty. However, he never did apologize to me.
I thanked him for the support and told him I would think about it, and I seriously did. When I got home, I decided to tell my mom. I had her meet me in my car as I was embarrassed to talk about it in front of my dad. I cried and cried and told her what he’d done.
I was hurt, I was devastated, and I was so so so angry. He always asked me about my love life, interfered with any relationships I had with guys my age at work, and told me he thought I needed an older guy to take care of me, but I never realized what he meant until this moment.
I decided to talk to my female manager about it and my mom went with me. She’s very easy to talk to, so I asked if we could meet her outside of work to talk in person.
I think the most confusing part to me looking back on it now was that I was worried about him losing his job. I wanted him to stop, but I didn’t want him to get fired. Part of me still wanted to think that maybe he just didn’t understand, and he thought this is how you treat your children or people you consider to be like your children. Since he never had any of his own, maybe he didn’t realize he made me feel this way.
But I also knew that if I told him I wanted him to stop, he would laugh and probably try to hug it out, which was not something I wanted to go through again.
He knew he had power over me, there’s no denying that. It was evident in the sexist jokes, and the inappropriate, degrading comments he made to me. He thought they were hilarious. They made me feel powerless.
I love my job, and I love the people I work with. We are quite literally a tight-knit family and I usually look forward to going to work, but this just ruined it for me and I knew it needed to stop. I even considered quitting my job. I didn’t want to dread working with someone or to have to frantically check the schedule each week and hope we were working on separate days. I also was the oldest cashier at my job and I never wanted any of the other younger girls to feel this way or ever have to go through this.
So I did what I needed to do.
I told my manager everything. My manger, my mother, and I sat in the room and just cried. She told me that she felt that someone like that doesn’t belong in our work family and I completely understood what she meant.
As a woman, she knew what this felt like, and has had her fair share of harassment. In the world we live in, it’s just a part of being a woman.
It hurt me to see the pain on her face from knowing that someone they hired could do that. I felt such pain talking about it, but I think it was my mother’s pain that hurt me the most. The tears streamed down her face as I told my manager every last detail of what had been taking place over the last few months. She understood what it meant.
My manager promised that she would take it up with one of the owners the next day and let me know what he decided. She thanked me for speaking up.
I saw her the next day when I went to pick up my paycheck, and she told me that our owner was beyond freaked out by the incident and that he would terminate the guy next time he came into work. Our owner felt so strongly about it that he came in on a day he was usually off just to make sure he was let go immediately after learning about what he had done.
He didn’t want him to stick around any longer in case there was a chance of him making anyone else feel the way I did and I will always be grateful for how promptly he acted.
After everything seemed to be resolved, my mom joked “If you weren’t so cute maybe this wouldn’t happen to you!” which I understood that she said this with the intention of making me laugh, but I began to wonder, why does that matter?
Why did he think he could just take advantage of me? Just because I’m cute? Is that a justified reason to harass someone? Does that justify violating someone? Why are their boys and men who think this is okay? Why the fuck would anyone think this is okay?
I feel like a common misconception about sexual harassment is that it should be easy for the person being harassed to speak up because they want justice. I know I never understood how someone could even hesitate to speak the truth about what had happened to them, but I understand it now.
While what happened to me seemed like such a simple thing in my head, it was so complex and twisted; it hurt me so much to even think about it, let alone say it out loud.
I knew I did the right thing, but I still felt horrible because you can’t help but think about how your decision to speak up affects the one who hurt you. The guy lost his job over this. Should he have done what he’d done to me or said the things he said to me? Absolutely not, but yet part of me still felt like I was to blame.
While I ultimately did the right thing, and I know that, it took me a while to work myself out of a funk.
No one tells you what to do in these situations. There’s no handbook on dealing with sexual harassment that says “If you feel like shit you’re doing it right.”
The days before and after I revealed what happened went by minute by minute. I counted down the minutes until I was to meet with my manager. I counted down the minutes until he was to show up for his shift, and was to be let go. I counted down the minutes until the next shift I would return to work. Each minute felt like a lifetime.
The only way I could see it in my head was that I was the girl who got him fired. He was so nice and pleasant with everyone we worked with. For awhile I actually felt bad for speaking up. I wondered if he didn’t mean to make me feel the way I did, but I know now that he knew. There is physically no way he could have not known.
Even weeks after it was all over and I tried to convince myself I was over it, I quickly realized I wasn’t when someone mentioned his name to me, I felt my blood pressure rise and my heart rate increase out of fear that I would see him somewhere in public, worse yet that he would want answers.
Eventually, all my coworkers found out what happened. Of course, I knew this would happen. When someone gets let go, everyone wants to know why, and they’ll find out one way or another. The truth, or some version of the truth. Almost all of them were sympathetic and felt the need to say something to me. They all had liked our coworker, but each one reassured me that what he did to me was wrong and that I did the right thing. Some of them even saw this coming saying before they even knew “He probably got fired for harassing someone.”
I had learned that he had asked for the numbers of some of my other teen coworkers and made them feel uncomfortable too. He never got the chance to cross the line with them, and because of me he never will.
Months after the fact, he still comes into the store from time to time. He checks out in the back to avoid the cashiers up front. My coworkers say he’s hoping that he’ll be offered his job back. My boss has already said that won’t be happening ever. He said that it just can’t happen, and he will never lose my respect for that decision.
I believe in forgiveness, but it’s impossible to ignore something that affects the safety of your staff when running a successful business. You just can’t ignore it and you have to act accordingly.
Now that he’s been gone for a few months. I have to admit I feel so relieved. I felt so terrible about him leaving, but I can’t help but admit I feel so much better now that he’s gone.
While I still felt like I was to blame for something, even though I couldn’t exactly figure out what for, I knew this:
I didn’t get him fired, his actions did. The only one who got him fired was himself.
The only thing he didn’t plan on was getting caught. He should have never treated me the way he did, regardless of his intentions. Friends don’t do that to friends, and coworkers especially don’t do that to coworkers.
In the world we live in, things like this are always bound to happen. This may have been the first time this happened to me, but unfortunately, it will probably not be the last. Harassment is unbelievably common even though there’s no excuse for it.
We must educate others. We must make people aware of the reality of sexual harassment, we’ve got to stop making jokes, and we have to encourage those affected to speak up. Witnesses can speak up too, if you see something say something. This has to stop.
I hope that by sharing my story, and my personal experience, it may encourage someone else out there to say something. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re overreacting, or that maybe you’re just reading too far into it. That’s how I felt, and once I put all the pieces together, I realized what was happening to me. It’s hard to admit, and it’s scary, but if you feel violated or uncomfortable, speak up. Your feelings are valid and you can’t ignore them. You deserve better. Please don’t be afraid to be heard.