Harassment at work- My experience

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I joined my new job in August 2009 and within a few days KC was asked to report to Bangalore. He would be handling sales in North Karnataka based out of Hubli. It was a major shock because he was in Pune till then and we could atleast meet on the weekends.

The new job sucked- the whole place was a chaos, my colleagues were extremely unhelpful, my new manager was new to the job and managerial skills and my first salary was delayed. I had worked in the food industry till then and personal care was a new ball game altogether. Plus, I was handling General Trade sales in upcountry Mumbai- Thane, Navi Mumbai upto Raigad district (includes places like Mumbra, Ulhasnagar, Vasai etc). I had to take handover and training from N who had been working there for 1-2 years and had a good rapport with everyone in the Head Office. Even the MD (Managing Director)- 5 levels above, knew who he was. N was supposed to show me the ropes to the new job and handhold me through it. A was the other colleague who handled MT (Modern Trade) and make-up divisions. I was the only woman in the branch office apart from the receptionist. The other female- the training manager, had no space to sit in the tiny office and worked out of a hotel room in Khar where she trained promoters. It was quite a change from working in a branch which had 2-3 females and being part of a 10 people team. Irony- I had joined a company with businesses in the female oriented sectors like personal care and make up but was the first female Area sales manager in 2009 vs the earlier company which was largely male but still had female ASMs.

Working late hours and travelling to far off places meant that N and I interacted after office hours. A was invited on these jaunts but he preferred to rush home to his wife. Also, none of us liked the new boss and that formed the basis for a lot of gossip. Few things I specifically remember:

  • N and I had gone to Mumbra to appoint a new distributor. We had taken my car and since I was not an expert driver then, he had driven. On the way back, I was dropped off at Mulund (where I stayed) before he went to his house in Chembur. Since it was already 8 pm by the time we reached we decided to have dinner. N was (is?) an alcoholic (I didn’t know it then) and we ordered drinks first. I had to keep looking at my watch to give him the hint that I need to get back home and we should order food. Finally, he noticed and I told him I need to call KC before he goes to bed so we should hurry.
  • There was an All India sales meeting in Juhu. We could either stay overnight at the hotel or not. I decided to stay because it made no sense to drive all the way from Juhu to Mulund for the night and back in the morning. The after party was very boring- there was no music, I didn’t know anybody, my boss was busy ignoring us and N was busy speaking to the CPD Head for his promotion. I went to my room to watch TV. Half an hour later N messaged asking me to come for dinner. We decided to walk to Juhu beach and then took a cab to Marine Drive. He started telling me about his unhappy marriage and how much he loves hi kid and stuff. We had dinner at Jazz by the bay and were back in the hotel around 1 am. I wasn’t sleepy and  AB drunk called me so was on the phone with him for almost an hour (The good old days when AB, DK and I drunk called each other at all hours). N messaged me around 2 am asking if I was awake. I didn’t reply. It is a tactic I learned from another female. Basically, her boss messaged her late at night asking her if she was awake and would like to meet for “coffee”. She didn’t reply. He assumed she was asleep. Next day, she told him she was asleep and sleeps early at night. That was a message that she wasn’t interested. A very discreet way of saying “Not interested”
  • I think N and I had a 3-4 more after office interactions. Basically, they were the same interactions I was having in my previous organization… except, there it was in a group of 10 people… here, it was just him and me because there was nobody else in the team.

Then one day… It may have been 1-2 months in the job… he messaged me about his sex life. That he was not happy with it and shit. I was horrified. I had never spoken to him about my personal life… all my conversations were work related- mainly my frustration with the organization, the work culture and my boss. Sure, he talked quite a bit about his marriage but I didn’t encourage those discussions. I had even told him “we are not friends, just colleagues”. I messaged back saying that if he ever sent me such inappropriate messages or spoke to me in person about such stuff, I would report him to the HR. I deleted the sms. KC was furious when he got to know I deleted the message. According to him, I should have saved it just in case he gets fresh again. I didn’t see the point. I had made my stand clear. If he cared about his career, he would stay away. And I didn’t like the idea of such crappy messages stored in my inbox. Reading it again would just make me furious.

I expected N to be mature about it and let me be. By this time, the organization decided to split MT from A’s portfolio and were looking for an ASM. My boss asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the chance. As exciting as GT was, MT would be the real learning experience… specially in this organization which was one of the best to work in for MT. This also meant zero interaction with N and that was most welcome. What happened next and continued for almost a year was discreet harassment by N… jokes cracked about me- behind my back… sometimes to my face…. bitching about me… etc etc. Now I hated the organization, my boss, my colleagues, was struggling at the new role (for which I had no prior experience) and failing at it, my parents had broken all contact, I was not allowed to speak to my brother because I was a bad influence, KC was in Hubli, my finances were a mess since I had just moved to a higher tax bracket and was actually drawing lesser salary and I had no time for friends since I was so tired by the time it was Sunday. Basically, I was miserable.

And then I heard through the grapevine that N was getting promoted as my boss. I would have to report to him. I spoke to the boss and he confirmed the news. “That’s it”; I thought. This is where I draw the line. The problem was not the sexual harassment from the inappropriate sms… the real issue was the harassment I faced later because he took offence at my rejection. I was NOT going to report to someone like that. EVER. I told my boss everything that happened BUT I had no proof. KC’s advice about saving the sms was correct.

This is the sequence of events next:

– My boss’s boss came to speak to me and figure out what happened. I told him in brief because I was embarrassed. How do you talk these things with someone so senior and someone who makes decisions about your career? He then spoke to N, in private and N made it seem like we were friends and well, that is why he sent the sms. Basically, we were pals and it was one of the discussions we were having. He denied all the subtle harassment he had resorted to earlier.

– I had a weak case. N was getting promoted. He was the apple of everyone’s eyes. I was still new and yet to prove my myself at the job. It was my word against his. Also, what if I just had a grudge against him and didn’t like his being promoted. After all, he was my colleague and I would have to report to him. That is never taken well.

– The organization decided to shift his location so I wouldn’t have to report to him. This is a very common tactic, as I have learned in the last few years. Sexual harassment complaint? Shift the guy… because it is the woman with the problem. The issue is not that there is a pervert who cannot keep it in his pants at work… the issue is that the woman has a problem with the guy so shifting him will solve matters.

– The organization decided that R, who was getting promoted in Delhi, would move to Mumbai and N would move to Delhi. Roadblock- R was never going to agree. The organization was stuck in this loop – for 2 whole months.

– For 2 whole months, I had to still see N at office and interact with him as part of a team. I couldn’t afford to quit without a job and I didn’t have enough experience to find a new job. Also, I needed the money. KC and I had spent whatever savings we had on the wedding, honeymoon (why is it called that… so tacky) and setting up 2 houses at Mumbai and Hubli. *Proud of the fact that we funded our own wedding*

– I called my ex-colleague S and told him what was happening. I wanted the old organization to take me back if I had to resign. I was very clear that I would quit the day N was promoted as my boss. If he could harass me like this when we were colleagues, imagine what he could do if he was my boss. I was not going to put myself in that position. S assured me that he would help if it came to that. With the job security issue taken care of, I decided to force the organization to do something.

– I started telling people about what was happening. Everyone knew something was going on but nobody was sure. If people started talking, the company would have to take some action. Because… there is no smoke without a fire. It worked. My boss’s boss called me and said that HR had heard of what was happening and wanted to speak to me. But they would only get involved if I decided to involve them. His strong suggestion was that I shouldn’t involve HR because it would just blow things out of proportion. I told him “I would think about it and then decide”. That is when I realized the level of cover up going on. Everyone was trying to save N’s ass. HR was not officially informed this was going on. They had only heard the rumours.

– I sent a mail to the HR Head telling her I wanted to speak to her urgently. She understood what this was about and directed me to S, the ethics head. I didn’t even know there was an ethics head until then. The same day X (3 levels above me) called and asked me to meet him in office. After a meeting at Andheri (which I couldn’t miss), I reached Lower Parel at 8 pm. X met me with R, a senior female, in his cabin and asked me what happened. Please note- this guy called me 2 months AFTER the initial complaint and one day BEFORE I was supposed to meet the ethics head. He was trying to save his ass because the guys at the top would be pissed off that the issue was not taken seriously. I had to talk about the experience only with males… not once did they care to get a female to talk to me.

– I met S at the Bandra training centre and told her everything that had happened. I was clear that I wasn’t trying to get N fired. I just wanted everyone to be aware. If he is promoted and has a female reporting to him, he could take advantage of her and make her life hell if she rejected him. As a senior manager, he would have access to off role females like promoters. What if he harasses her? I wanted everyone to watch him carefully whatever his role and new location so he wouldn’t dare try this stunt again.

– Within 2 days of speaking to S, N was asked to leave the organization. The decision was taken by the MD. S reported to the MD only for all the ethics issues. He was asked to leave not only on the basis of my complaint but because he was known for such things in the past.

Yes, my dear friends, N had been upto these tricks in the past too. The only difference is that I complained and the other females did not.

Why am I talking about this now? Because I just got to know that after moving 3 organizations in the last 5 years he has been asked to shift locations in the current one for harassing a female. What a coincidence that this organization is also into personal care and focuses on female products. Who knows how many females he harassed and they didn’t complain. I guess for every 1 woman who decides to speak up, there are 1000 others who decided not to.

Lessons learned:

  • It took me a long time to start interacting with colleagues after work hours. I stopped attending parties, stayed in my room during office trips, stopped talking beyond work with anyone. Thankfully, my then new boss- D, put in a lot of effort to make me feel like part of the team and motivate me. His efforts paid off. All my appraisal ratings were fabulous… I built a good rapport with my team- some of them are my friends… I stayed on for another 3.5 yrs and only quit because of location constraint… and treasure my experience with the organization since then.
  • Women in the corporate world are an inconvenience. There are rules men have to follow around them and taking care of their safety is quite a drag. Trust me, that’s how any organization thinks. Like, men cannot shower abuses when women are around. It curbs their freedom. The culture is very different when there are women around. I have seen it, KC has experienced it too. An organization where the gender ratio is balanced is a much better place to work at.
  • Women oriented organization does not mean one which sells/manufactures women oriented products. It is a place where women are present in all departments, divisions and at all levels. It is also a place where managers have had female reportees. In this organization, all my managers were men (except the very last one) who had never had female reportees. They had no idea how to interact with a woman. Some learned… others didn’t. It was funny to see my boss get uncomfortable everytime I walked into his small, closed door cabin. Of course, I used it to my advantage. It was easier for me to get approvals for anything because he just wanted me to leave asap.
  • Always… always read the ethics code book. It is part of the joining kit but nobody bothers to read it. And take note of who to complain to in case of harassment. Don’t even bother getting into the whole … complaining to boss, then his boss, then his boss’s boss, then his boss’s boss’s boss wala loop. It is just THAT… a loop. Figure out who is the right person to speak to. The government mandates that every organization have a separate and independent cell to take care of sexual harassment complaints. Most organizations have an ethics committee. You do not want to work at the one which does not have this.
  • Complain as soon as the incident occurs. Don’t be like me and wait for things to get worse. Save everything when the incident occurs- emails, messages, WhatsApp, chats. I save ALL my communication, official and personal. Don’t ask me why. I would rather be safe than sorry. Yes, people, whatever we chat on WhatsApp or facebook is saved for future reference.
  • Don’t quit till you ensure the asshole is punished. It is easy to quit, after all… why work in such a place which makes men bold enough to harass someone, but please remember… he could do this to someone else who may not complain. And if you have a strong case, filing a FIR is strongly recommended.
  • Shifting the guy’s location is not a solution. It doesn’t solve the problem. HE is the problem, not the female.
  • Women- it is upto us to stand up and ask such men to fuck off…. no matter what the cost. The men are not going to do it for us
  • I was chatting with D yesterday on this and he insisted that the organization did the right thing. I disagreed with him… according to me, the organization tried to cover up. I don’t think I should be grateful they fired a pervert. They should be grateful I complained so they now had a strong reason to fire him.

Ok, am going to stop here because this is a never ending essay and KC has stopped reading my posts these days because they are too long.


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