At first, my new boss seemed great—he was super friendly and had a great sense of humor. However, it wasn’t long before his language and behavior crossed the line that exists between boss and employee. Eventually, a group of my female co-workers and I decided it was time to speak out and my boss was fired for sexual harassment. Oddly enough, I felt guilty about it.
My other colleagues reacted pretty badly. I didn’t experience the immediate level of relief I expected when he was fired. Instead, I noticed other colleagues voicing their opinions about the situation even though they didn’t know all the details. They thought he was flirty and a little inappropriate but that’s all. They didn’t think he deserved to lose his job.
I started to doubt myself. Hearing the contrasting opinions of my respected colleagues made me start to doubt myself. Did my experience constitute sexual harassment? Were the other women and I overreacting? Were our feelings valid? Had we made a huge deal out of something tiny? Not having the support of my work friends, people who also interacted with my boss in question regularly, made me wonder if coming forward was the right decision.
Guilt started to creep in. At this point, I began blaming myself for my boss losing his job. I could have just laughed it off and continued working with him. I would have avoided him as much as possible but I would have survived. Instead, HR fired him after I complained. It didn’t feel good to know that we had potentially ruined someone’s life.
Guilt turned into regret. I wished I could take it all back and that I had never shared my experience with the other women I work with. Then I wouldn’t have learned they had similar sexual harassment experiences, some worse. I played a large role in uniting the affected women and encouraging them to come forward and I regretted it.
Regret turned into fear. I started to be scared that I would see him in public. I live in a smallish city, and running into people you’re not looking for happens all the time. I had no idea how I would handle the situation if it happened, and more importantly, had no idea how he would handle it. After all, we’d all given permission to HR to use our names when alerting him of our allegations. At the time I thought it was brave, but that wore off quickly.
I wondered what changed. How did I go from being overly confident in my opinion about his behavior being sexual harassment to blaming myself? The more I thought about it, the more I realized that nothing had truly changed. It was only after hearing the negative opinions of my coworkers that my already firm beliefs started to waver. It’s possible they experienced sexual harassment without realizing it, but I temporarily forgot my colleagues weren’t directly involved and had no idea what our grievances were. They didn’t know that he’d been calling a woman repeatedly and being mean to her at work after she turned down his many offers to take her on a date. They didn’t know he’d swatted another woman on her butt as she walked past him. They didn’t know he told another woman and I that we could not leave for the night until we said something dirty to him.
My reaction was affected by his. Was he extremely apologetic and upset that he had made us feel that way? If so, I felt I could forgive him. Was he defensive? I spoke to the head of HR about his exit interview and sadly I found out he was defensive and denied the severity of his actions, something that has become a common response in today’s social climate. Women accuse, men deny. His reaction became the second pivotal point of realization for me. I played a large role in getting him fired but there was no reason I should feel bad. Instead of feeling remorse for his actions, he blamed us.
I realized the victim is never at fault. This experience taught me exactly how much I’ve been conditioned by society to believe the master narrative of blaming the victim. I’d been blaming myself from the moment I heard others’ doubt our motives and opinions. Even though I think of myself as a feminist, I fell prey to a pervasive cultural mindset. Instead of focusing on how it wasn’t my fault, I wondered if I was at fault for his actions. Even when you know something isn’t right, it’s hard to recognize when faced with an abusive situation.
I got on the path to empowerment. My path to accepting my role and deflecting blame took some time but I emerged empowered. I was lucky—I had a strong support system. I had supportive friends, a few helpful colleagues, and a supportive workplace. Many people faced with sexual harassment at their jobs have no recourse. They have no way to enact immediate change. Fortunately, I did. My employer made swift changes that made a lasting difference to restore our safe, non-hostile workplace. In the end, I couldn’t believe I’d ever felt sorry for my former boss. His actions brought about the consequences, not mine.
Now, I embrace my agency. All of this contributed to my personal sense of empowerment and made me recognize how valuable I am professionally and personally. I restored my personal sense of agency by using my voice to enact change. Sure, I was sexually harassed at work, but moving forward I’ll take this experience with me and use it for inspiration to exercise my agency in the future.
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