It’s The Worst Thing That Can Happen At Work — & No One Talks About It

Photographed By Jessie Webster.
I was six weeks into my first job out of college when a coworker grabbed my arm at a company party, told me, “Don’t let me kiss you,” and then immediately did just that. I wish I could say I jumped back two feet and told him to fuck off, but instead, I stood there as he planted his mouth on mine, in front of clients and colleagues, the taste of stale beer on his lips. He kissed me, and I did let him — partly because, after a few glasses of wine, my mind was on a two-second delay. But mostly because he was my boss, and he was the one in control.
When my mind finally caught up with my mouth, I pulled back — and so did he. In a blur, I told him I had to leave and ran out of the Manhattan nightclub. The music from inside dropped to a muffled, pulsing boom as I stepped into the cold air. Shots of panic ran through me. I dialed one of the few women I knew at the company, who had left the party an hour or so before. “Are they going to fire me?” I said, hating myself for not handling the situation better. What the fuck is wrong with me? How did this happen? “Oh my God,” she said. “Okay, this is what you’re going to do: You’re going to hail a cab, get some sleep, and then, in the morning, pretend like nothing happened. It will blow over.”
Except it didn’t. I was one of just a handful of women under the age of 25 working for this old-school media company with a staff of more than 200 people. I’d estimate just 15% of the employees were women — and there were none in top management roles. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reaction to the kiss. I walked onto the floor the next day to find three of my four bosses — all men, all in their 30s — whispering about the incident in one of their offices. I sat at my cubicle, red in the face and shaky from nerves, as I heard my name surface from the murmurs. I stared straight ahead when they emerged several minutes later, the first saying "hello" to me loudly to alert the others that I had been sitting there the whole time (right outside the door, at my desk, which is exactly where I was supposed to be). “Good morning,” I said, barely looking up from my computer screen. Sirens were going off in my head, but I didn’t know how to respond to them.

he was my boss, and he was the one in control.

I thought about emailing HR, but decided it was too risky; the boss who had kissed me was well-liked, and the company had a reputation for being a boys’ club. Plus, I needed the job, even if it paid next to nothing. I’d just been accepted to grad school (I took only night classes so I could work full-time) and was already stretched thin living in Manhattan (even with three roommates and a $30-a-week grocery budget). I took a few breaths and told myself that it was just one incident. Right? That incident had technically happened outside of the office, even if it had been at a company event. And, well, I had been drinking, which means I should probably take some of the blame, no? Come to think of it, he was probably drunk, so that has to count for something. And…
I made a long list of excuses, telling myself that this was just how the adult world worked and that I had better toughen up. While I tried to convince myself that things would get better, my boss started openly talking about how he was looking for a new job, suddenly full of complaints about his current gig. It took two and a half months for him to give notice, during which we mostly kept things civil. “You must think I’m such a jerk,” he finally said on his last day. It was the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a frat boy who spilled beer on your shoe — not from a manager who broke every rule in the corporate-orientation video on how not to be a creep.
Unfortunately, things didn't really get better after he left. A few months after the kiss incident, a male executive stopped by my desk to tell me the graduate school I attended was a “low Ivy.” He tossed me a magazine featuring the byline of his female friend (a woman I not only knew, but very much liked). “And she didn’t even need a fancy degree," he told me, a few flecks of spit hitting my face. I was startled less by the pettiness of his comment — this was a man in his 40s who still regularly inserted into conversation the fact that he played lacrosse in college — and more by the anger in his voice. He was almost twice my age, with a wife and kids and a big office. What did it matter to him where I chose to get my master’s degree?
Other moments included: yet another senior manager having an open conversation with a group of employees (including a female employee who, unbeknownst to him, was a friend of mine) about whom I was dating and whether or not we’d had sex; a mid-level staff member suggesting that my promotion must mean I was sleeping with the boss (who was older than my grandfather); and two older, male colleagues joking that I was too young and dumb to know how to use a fax machine. “After that, we’ll have to show her how to work a telephone,” one said. “And then the photocopier,” the other chimed in. They laughed like I wasn’t even in the room. I did my best not to roll my eyes at two guys swinging their dicks over a fax when I knew HTML, Avid, and Final Cut.

A mid-level staff member suggested my promotion must mean I was sleeping with the boss.

I spent two years putting up with that kind of crap. I couldn’t really afford to quit, but I also didn’t completely want to. It was a world-renowned company, the kind of place where people are super-impressed when you tell them where you work. The other big “stay” factor was that I thought all the Mad Men behavior was normal. This is just what women deal with, I thought. I made a note to start wearing longer skirts and lower heels, to avoid the office version of “asking for it.” That’s how screwed-up my thinking was.
I also stayed because the majority of the people I worked with — some of whom witnessed the behaviors I describe above — were not only smart, but respectful and encouraging. Now, almost 10 years later and a manager myself, I know that this isn’t by coincidence: The most talented people tend to be not only fair, but also kind. And they certainly don’t need to put down junior staff members in order to boost their own egos. Only small people prey on young workers to make themselves look big. I wish I had known at 22 how pathetic these men would look to me a decade later.
What made me write about this now? A few months ago, a friend of mine, who is a director at a large company in the same industry, told me about a young woman she mentors who is being harassed by her boss.
“What did you tell her?” I asked.
“I’m torn, because I want her to go to HR, but I also fear that could ruin her. They could find a reason to push her out because of it,” she replied.

I wish I had known at 22 how pathetic these men would look to me a decade later.

I thought back to the women I’d confided in, who never told me to report the incidents to HR — not out of thoughtlessness, but because of a consensus that it was better to play along than fight back. And I realised how little has changed in 10 years. I also thought about the advice I would give to young women who find themselves in similar situations.
One, get an advocate at work. It doesn’t have to be another woman — just someone to whom you can speak confidentially about professional matters, and whose opinion you value. If you can’t find someone like this at your office (a red flag, by the way), go to someone else in your network, whether a family friend who works in the same field, a college professor who you keep in touch with, or even a former boss from an internship. Two, look up. Do you see women at the highest levels where you work? If so, do they invest in the careers of other women? If the answer is yes, great — ask one of those women if you can take her to coffee. If the answer is no, that’s another red flag, and you need to ask yourself whether you want to work for a company where women aren’t represented at the top.
It’s also crucial to remember that you do have options, including going to HR or looking for a new job. Yes, I said it: You might want to leave, even though you’re not the one who did anything wrong. It sucks, but here’s the thing: Quitting a job where you are treated poorly is not a sign of weakness. You don’t have to stick it out to prove something. And finally, and most importantly, trust that when alarm bells are going off in your head, they are going off for a reason. Believe me: If you have to question, “Was that harassment?” it almost certainly was. And it’s not okay.

It’s also crucial to remember that you do have options.

I wish I had been braver a decade ago, but I also understand why I wasn’t. At 22, I was still learning the difference between office banter and blatant harassment; I also really wanted to be liked. I didn’t want to be the entitled bitch who ran crying to HR, even though I can see now that’s exactly what I should have done. It took years of working at other companies, for other people, and eventually as a boss myself, to understand just how revolting it all was. And also, how normal. I’ve had dozens of female friends, colleagues, and acquaintances over the years share equally if not even more gross stories. At first, it was a relief to know I wasn’t alone. Then, it was depressing. Since when did enduring months or years of harassment become an acceptable hazing process for successful women?
My biggest regret is being silent, not so much for my own sake, but for the young women who came after me. Maybe if I had spoken up, it would seem a little less crazy — a little less “are you sure you’re sure about what happened?” — when another 22-year-old walked into HR confused, upset, and convinced that someone else’s bad behavior was somehow her fault. The author of this article has chosen to stay anonymous in order to protect her privacy. The details about the author's experience reflect only her own opinion.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series