Workplace Harassment, Reporting, and the Whisper Network

Anytime I divulge my story to coworkers, I find that they have their own stories of sexual harassment to share.

by Jennifer Wong on April 28th, 2014

Editor’s note: To protect the identities of people in the story that follows, pseudonyms have been created for everyone involved.

My Our Story (See No Evil)

Some time ago, I was sexually harassed by a coworker. A coworker who managed several women, and as I later found out, a coworker who had harassed several women.

My team had two managers and he, Leon, was one of them. I reported to the other, female manager, Deena. Leon carried himself with a certain swagger that attracted a significant amount of female attention, admittedly including my own. We often talked online at work and I found that we had a lot in common. I enjoyed our flirtation, but was also in a committed, monogamous relationship with my then-boyfriend.

I noticed that Leon was intimate with another coworker, Lydia, and assumed they were in a relationship themselves. When I asked Leon about it, he vehemently denied it. And to my surprise, when I asked other coworkers, they either denied or were unsure of Leon and Lydia’s relationship.

One night at a company gathering, everything came to a head. In the company’s typical fashion, everyone at the party drank heavily, were raucously happy, and in general, acted like “family.” In the midst of all that, and in front of several coworkers, Leon plopped himself down next to me, put his hand on my leg and asked me to make out with him.

I was drunk and confused. People pretended not to notice or did nothing. I pushed his hand off my leg and said, “No, I have a boyfriend.” But Leon persisted. I had to repeat myself several times before he finally stopped asking.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Lydia had seen the entire display. She stormed up to Leon and said she was going home. He followed her to the lobby and everyone could hear Lydia’s muffled screams at him. Several minutes later, Leon came back and I asked him (again) if he and Lydia were dating. He denied it, but it seemed perfectly clear to me that something was going on between the two of them.

The next day at work, I messaged Leon telling him to “check himself before he wrecked himself.” He asked what I meant. I told him I was referring to his advances the night before. After that Leon slightly avoided me.

I blamed myself for allowing the flirtation to go that far and decided to pretend that nothing had ever happened.

During this entire episode, I confided in one coworker, Erica. She was patient, kind, and sympathetic. It wasn’t until weeks later, that Erica confided in me.

She proceeded to describe how several weeks earlier, Leon wooed her via online chats at work. He convinced her that he seriously cared for and wanted to date her. They became romantically involved. But Leon was Erica’s manager, so he told her that their relationship depended upon secrecy. So Erica kept it secret, and their romance went on for a number of weeks.

When Erica rejected Leon’s more aggressive advances, he started to ignore her and found another target…. me.

That was it for me – I became infuriated that Leon had targeted my friend, and manipulated and deceived her. And I was angry at myself for allowing him to sweet talk me. I decided to report these incidents to HR. Erica asked that I keep her identity anonymous, but allowed me to describe what had happened to her.

I divulged the entire story to the head of HR, Carol. I then found out that Leon and Lydia lived together and were most certainly dating. Carol, disturbed by the events I described to her, asked if she could speak with Leon immediately. I panicked. I didn’t want him to know that I was the person who’d reported him, and I definitely didn’t want to implicate Erica.

However, Carol went ahead and spoke with Leon and separately with his manager, who reported to the CEO. When I saw Leon leave the conference room, he looked angry and dejected. I worried that he might blame Erica, so I told him that I was the one who reported him. I told him that he was great at his job and endangering it by hitting on women in the office. He agreed and said that he respected my decision. After that, Leon became serious – he lost his swagger and behaved professionally.

I was surprised and glad. I assumed he had received a stern warning, and that management was keeping a watchful eye on his behavior. I told my then-boyfriend about the situation as well. He shrugged it off, forgave me for flirting, and supported my decision to speak with HR.

After everything had blown over, I looked back and realized that Leon had done all of the following at the same time:

  • Dated and lived with Lydia, his coworker
  • Kept his relationship with Lydia secret from most people in our office and used that secrecy as a means to seduce other women in the office
  • Became romantically involved with Erica, his direct report
  • Used his position as Erica’s manager to hide his affair with her
  • Propositioned me, his indirect report
  • Ensured that Lydia, Erica, and I did not know about each other’s interactions or relationships with him, and broke all of our trust

When I described my situation with other women in the office, they admitted that Leon had hit on them too, and seemed relieved that they’d rejected his advances. Eventually, I left that company for many reasons, none of which included these incidents of intrigue and harassment.

Again?! (Hear No Evil)

Fast forward a year or two: I heard through the grapevine that Leon and Lydia broke up. I didn’t know Lydia well, but I felt happy for her. Then came the bad news. Leon was now in a serious relationship with a new direct report, Kayley. I couldn’t believe my ears. I felt that HR and management had learned nothing. I felt like the only reason Leon began to behave professionally was because he knew I vigilantly watching him. I felt that once I was gone, the company allowed Leon to continue his harassing ways.

For months to come, I heard more and more disturbing news of what Leon continued to do:

  • Became romantically involved with another, different direct report’s friend, Felicia (who didn’t work for said company)
  • At the same time he was dating Felicia, began to date Kayley
  • Pretended not to know Felicia in order to protect his relationship with Kayley
  • Lied to all parties to keep his relationships secret
  • Abused his power as Kayley’s manager to invite her to an out-of-town conference

Several months after beginning to date Kayley, I heard that Leon left the company citing personal family issues. No consequences or punishments ever came to Leon. Even after I reported Leon’s predatory behavior years before, HR did nothing to protect the women in that office. His boss, aware of the situation, also did nothing. Leon was allowed to continue to manage the women under him.

This company, its managerial staff, its CEO failed the women it employed.

I’ve recounted my story to many women who used to work for this company. Every one of them said that Leon in one way or another tried to seduce them. Some said that if they knew my story before he made advances, they would have warned more coworkers and coworkers’ friends to stay away from Leon. I was devastated and I again began to blame myself. Should I have warned more women in that office before I left?

Speak No Evil

According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), only about 5 – 15% of women sexually harassed in the US formally report problems to their employers or fair employment agencies. The Huffington Post recently ran a poll about sexual harassment in the workplace and found that of the 1,000 people surveyed, one in five women had been sexually harassed by a manager or boss and one in four women had been sexually harassed by a coworker. Of those women, only about 30% reported being harassed.

There are many factors preventing women (and men) from coming forward about sexual harassment. As the NWLC points out, they include, “fear of losing their jobs or otherwise hurting their careers, fear of not being believed, the belief that nothing can or will be done about the harassment, and embarrassment or shame at being harassed.”

Initially after being harassed, I experienced two: embarrassment and helplessness. I blamed myself for the harassment and felt embarrassed by what happened. Self blame also led me to think that reporting the issue was pointless since I believed I had caused the harassment myself.

Eventually, I learned that these fears are part of what allows harassers like Leon to continue because fear leads to secrecy and Leon thrived on secrecy in order to continue his actions within the office. And I wanted that to stop. I realize now that while overcoming those fears and reporting my situation to HR alerted the correct people within my organization, the more important action I started was revealing my experiences to the ‘whisper network’.

The ‘whisper network’ – if you’ve worked in an office, you probably know it. There are two sides to that network. One is destructive and full of gossip, one is empathetic and fiercely protective. I’ll focus on the latter side and its importance in supporting those undermined in a working environment. The ‘whisper network’ creates a safe haven to discuss problems and prejudices experienced, warn others of harassers, and bolster camaraderie.

Even years beyond my experience of being harassed, anytime I divulge my story to coworkers (new or old), I find that they have their own stories of sexual harassment to share. The prevalence of sexual harassment in our workplaces constantly shocks me. However, the more women who are willing to share their experience, the bigger this ‘whisper network’ becomes. This can lead to a powerful, underground circle of empathy and safeguards.

Woman with a finger over her mouth in the shhh pose.

Image CC-BY via katietegtmyer

Through the ‘whisper network’, I’ve discovered that harassers are often serial perpetrators. Stories often overlap, as I observed with many of my former coworkers regarding Leon. It’s imperative for HR and upper management to recognize these patterns in behavior or reports they receive. Incorporating that knowledge in their response to workplace harassment, especially when that harassment is repeated, will prevent it from continuing.

Companies must also establish boundaries. The company I worked for fostered an environment of friendship and intimacy that often crossed (and still crosses) a line between professional peers and romantic partners, which led to unearned trust in, and protection of those like Leon. Offenders thrive in that type of environment, as Leon did, and more easily manipulate those around them. HR and upper management must ensure they don’t cultivate an environment that can lead to this abuse. They must also put in protections for those who do come forward and speak about sexual harassment in the office.

There are consequences to speaking out about sexual harassment, either formally or through the whisper network. You may be considered a gossip, coworkers may determine you’ve filed a report and try to retaliate, or you may even be fired. Even now, in writing this story, several people I used to work with have stopped speaking to me. Although I can’t be sure of their reasons why, I understand. There’s a lot to lose when you come forward. But there’s also a lot to gain.

Reporting my experience to HR helped stop a perpetrator of sexual harassment for a time. Relating my experience through the web of women within the ‘whisper network’ showed me that I was not alone in my experience. The ‘whisper network’ continues to support me and allows me to support the women who engage in it.

And now, with the strength I’ve garnered from the ‘whisper network’, I write to let victims of sexual harassment know that they are not alone, to urge companies to be vigilant in protecting their employees, and to show that I’m no longer afraid.