I first learned that I was protected from sexual harassment in the workplace when I went to work at United Parcel Service in 1988. I had already been working since I was 12 years old–when my mom got me a work permit to staff a family friend’s T-shirt booth at the State Fair. It’s how I got new clothes for school.
By 1988, I had worked at the fair, as a babysitter, in three fast-food restaurants, in two mall stores, and briefly in the kitchen of a family restaurant. I quit the kitchen job because the talk among my co-workers was not exactly family friendly. I was young, naive, and thought hostile work environments were just something I would have to deal with.
I don’t well remember the training I got when I started at UPS. I was anxious to get into the hub and get my fair day’s pay for my fair day’s work, and I had become a bit bored and distracted by anything school-like because I had so much going on at home.
I do remember much of the sexual harassment training I got after my promotion to operations management, and again when I was transferred to the human resources department. Suddenly, it all seemed more important and relevant because I was responsible for preventing it.
My mom and I had some great discussions back then, although some of what she told me was disturbing. Like all kids, I hadn’t really thought much about my parents being my age. When she told me about a boss engaging in quid pro quo sexual harassment of her, I wanted to hunt him down and do…something. I was so angry that he tried to take advantage of her financial desperation, after my dad left, yet I was extremely proud that she chose to continue struggling financially instead of accepting her boss’ offer for “additional earnings”.
With knowledge of her experiences, coupled with my UPS training, I began to look more closely at my own experiences and those of my friends.
- I understood more deeply why the jokes about girls with daddy issues offended me
- I noticed how dress codes were enforced differently–not just between men and women, but between women who male supervisors considered f*ckworthy and those they barely considered women
Before my training, I sensed power was imbalanced, but I hadn’t questioned it. I probably even engaged in a few behaviors that kept the status quo, and I’m not proud of that.
After I left UPS, I worked a few years in minor league sport and got another education. I expected the athletes to cross boundaries and engage in inappropriate behavior, and a tiny percentage of them did in the front office. But most of them were highly professional, not wanting to waste their big chances at the major leagues on poor choices in brief moments. They were not the ones I would hear on the two-way radios, discussing the bodies of women attending the games. The players weren’t the ones who planned to give all the men on staff championship rings when our team won the series, while the women got nothing.
I was indignant, fighting for my rights to the $600.00 bonus, as well as the daily fight to be treated with respect, not knowing whether to act more like the men, including when they were offensive, or less like them.
I eventually gave up and moved on to another team–only to be treated worse, end up in a lawsuit against my employer, and struggle to find employment in the industry, despite my experience and bachelor’s degree in Sport Administration. Some say I got “blackballed”.
My stories are relatively minor in comparison to what I’ve seen as a lawyer.
- Stories worse than my mother’s experience of quid pro quo sexual harassment
- Repeated sexual assault and rape
I’ve argued for the rights of those who reported the conduct only to be retaliated against. They either put up with increased hostility and constructive termination until they quit, or they were fired. Regardless, each of them had their professional development and long-term earning potential damaged–like mine–and it’s hard to say if we will ever fully recover.
We keep fighting for the lives we want and deserve, but the damage has already been done. Throughout the four years my lawsuit was in litigation, I had a lot of the symptoms experts now say sexual harassment targets have (whether women or men):
- Sleep problems
- Neck pain
- Diminished self-esteem
These negatively affected my job search and my relationships. At 28 years old, I moved back to Kentucky and rented a room from my mom in resignation. I looked for solace in a cult-like church, alcohol, and any job I could get.
I went from UPS management and executive positions in sport to temporary secretary and retail gift wrapper, thinking that any paying job was a step in the right direction. In some ways, that was true, as it was probably easier for me to get back in management-level positions with a job than unemployed. However, it has taken years to understand the full impact of the experience–and all the ones I didn’t report.
Although my mom died last year, I am still trying to understand the limitations sexual harassment might have had on her, too. I know the quid pro quo case wasn’t the only one, and I wonder how far my strong mother might have gotten, had she not been perceived as a lesser human or an object.
It’s no wonder why I gravitated toward UN Women and the NGO CSW during my two years at the United Nations. I love the possibilities of men and women working in partnership, but we have a long way to go before that is the norm worldwide. But it’s not just about the limitations of women that drives me to prevent and resolve sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment has negative impact on workplaces generally. It deteriorates employee morale, and it reduces productivity. It’s an unnecessary distraction, even when it doesn’t end up in litigation. Employees usually know when it’s going on, and they are watching closely to see whether you address it. When you don’t, your loyal workers feel less protected and less loyal. They no longer trust you as much to follow rules, which can lead some of them to believe they need not follow rules, either.
Bit by bit, the fabric of positive and productive work culture begins to unravel, and as workplace cultures unravel, so do our families, our social circles, our communities, and our world.
According to one 2018 study, 42% of working women in the United States who have children are also the sole breadwinners for their families. They also carry out two and a half times the unpaid domestic work throughout the world. So, arguably, a woman being sexually harassed at work is likely to transfer everything from sleep problems, neck pain, diminished self-esteem, and depression to financial insecurity and more to the people around them.
This is not just about the woman being harassed (although she has every right to work, walk down the street, buy her lunch, and more without being harassed), but it’s about her children who might lack strong father figures and their confused emotions that drive them to unproductive, if not dangerous and criminal behaviors. It’s a community problem that we must all join in solving.
For more information on this subject:
- Beyond the NYS Model Sexual Harassment Training (Course)
- Using Your Third Ear to Uncover Implicit Biases (Blog Post)
- How Employers Can Inspire Flexibility and Autonomy (Blog Post)
Need one-to-one coaching?
Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. Her goal is to keep managers and small business owners out of court and build their conflict resolution skills so everyone has a better work experience. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018, 2019 & 2020), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards).