Much has been written in the media recently about the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood. I’ve been watching the reaction to the various allegations all over Twitter with some dismay.
Plenty of people have been lining up to point out that often the women still took the role and to condemn them for not speaking up before. The #MeToo campaign has illustrated that sexual harassment occurs in the workplace across all spectrums of life. Not just on the casting coach.
Unfortunately, I’ve also experienced sexual harassment in the work place. Prior to this occurring if you’d asked me how I would have dealt with this I’d have probably suggested some form of violent defence followed by an insistence of sacking. However, much to my surprise when it happened that’s not at all how I reacted.
Early Warning Signs
My harasser was my General Manager. He had overall control over our building and whilst I managed my department at the time I answered directly to him. When he first arrived, I was excited. Our previous manager had been dire and left under a dark cloud. The new manager had an exciting enthusiasm I found contagious.
He was good at his job. I would still stand by this remark despite what happened. He had the best interests of the business at heart and dealt with many of the ongoing problems within a few months of his arrival. He knew how to run the business. However, the signs were there early on.
Within a few weeks of his arrival he had made an inappropriate remark to me about his sex drive. At work, I’m a consummate professional to the point of colleagues accusing me of being up tight. It was totally unexpected and I didn’t know how to react. In the split second that followed I decided to ignore it. With hindsight, this was probably the worst thing I could have done.
Fear of Rocking the Boat
Reflecting now it’s highly possible because I didn’t tell him his remark was inappropriate he may have felt I’d somehow green lighted him. I hadn’t. Even if I had of responded in kind it still wasn’t consent for his later behaviour. I don’t really know why I made the decision to ignore that first remark. If I was pushed I would say it was for fear of rocking the boat. I’m a grown woman, I can take a little banter, right? However inappropriate. In that second I put my advancement above my dignity.
My manager was originally from Nigeria and he soon began to make cultural references to how, “In Nigeria a man takes what he wants. If he wants a woman he takes her. She doesn’t have to be his wife” I began to become alarmed by the nature of these comments. I would argue with him that we weren’t in Nigeria and in the UK, that’s considered rape. My inner feminist outraged at this man who felt he could make such statements. And yet I still didn’t report it. I waged a war with myself that he could deny saying it and the potential disaster for me if this was painted in a racial slant.
Disappointed in Myself
I worked in the same building as my Mum. She adored our manager and thought he was the best thing to happen to the company for a long time. I had mentioned to her I felt he was at times a little inappropriate, and felt he may be harbouring a bit of a crush on me. She wasn’t entirely behind this until one day he asked her how she would feel about having a half Nigerian grandchild. She was stunned by this strange remark. And still we never did anything.
Writing this I can’t tell you how disappointed I am in myself. It’s bad enough knowing I didn’t but admitting it to anyone reading this blog is horrendous. I’m such a loudmouth and yet when confronted with this horribly sexually aggressive individual in my work place I couldn’t act. I was so afraid of making a problem for myself, for what could be dismissed as banter. It wasn’t banter it was a red flag waving violently in my face. And one I chose to ignore.
The Escalation and Rumours
The comments continued, as did him daily summoning me to his office for pointless reasons. I started to hide when his car pulled into the car park. I couldn’t spare the time to sit in his office doing nothing and regularly asked my staff to tell him I wasn’t in if he asked. He would come to the kitchen to look for me. One day I told him I was too busy to which he replied,
“I am the General Manager, if I ask you to attend my office you will do so without argument.”
I was dismayed as I knew it put additional pressure on my department to have me away from the kitchen for prolonged periods. But what could I do?
The work grape vine had begun to spin its rumours. According to gossip I was sleeping with him to be given permanent control of the kitchen. My lead chef was out sick for over a year and this was apparently how I was to advance my career. I tried not to let the rumours get to me. I denied them when mentioned in front of me as strongly and angrily as I could. But it was far more exciting to believe that I was indeed fucking my way up the chain of command.
Coming to a Head
Things finally came to a head in possibly the worst week of my life. My Mum was diagnosed with her first instance of skin cancer and I’d had to liase with him on her behalf regarding her health. I was frightened for my Mum and frazzled with lack of sleep. He came into the kitchen and asked me if there were any areas of maintenance concern. Without thinking I remembered the area in the freezer room which needed repainting and mentioned it. He asked me to show him and I duly led him to the back of the kitchen into the freezer room.
As I turned around I realised he was blocking the door. My instincts began to buzz and I quickly pointed out the area and asked him to move. He reached up and began stroking my hair. My heart leapt and I felt sick.
“Please don’t pet me I’m not a fucking dog,”
I heard myself say. I knocked his hand away and stepped back until the chest freezer was against my back. He hooked his fingers into the waistband of my apron and pulled me towards him. I pushed him away and he pushed me hard back against the freezer and grabbed my breasts. Freaking out I asked him to stop, pushing him harder. He tried to kiss me and I finally hit him. As I made contact he stopped and I slipped past him.
Finishing the Shift
I jogged back to the safety of the main kitchen and to my utter horror continued working! He strolled past the kitchen door and gave me a knowing look and I looked away in shame. Why was I ashamed? Why did I feel that way? My staff noticed my strange countenance and I explained it away as feeling unwell. One accompanied me outside for air as I began to cry. I never cry at work. They didn’t know what to do. I think they thought it was because of my Mum.
I finished the shift unsure what to do. Do I report it? Should I tell my partner? Maybe I should hand in my notice? I was all over the place. I headed straight to the gym from work for some release and to think. Whilst there my decision was made for me. My Grandfather died unexpectedly. I got the call at the gym, I was heartbroken. As I made my way home I realised I couldn’t report it. If I did how would my Mum be able to go to work? She was fighting cancer and had just lost her father in law. If I told my family would they cope with this additional stress?
Sat in the bath that night I sobbed. I don’t think I really realised I’d actually been assaulted until I saw the bruises on my breasts from where he had grabbed me so hard. Questioning everything I mentally berated myself. Why had I been so stupid to go into the freezer room? Perhaps I shouldn’t be wearing a full face of makeup in the work place? I felt like it was my fault. I know you hear this a lot in these stories but it’s 100% true. You blame yourself.
I confided in a colleague on my return to work, I didn’t want to be in the building with nobody knowing what had happened. On my return to work it was painfully obvious I wasn’t ok. I had not a scrap of make up on my usually impeccably made up face. My eyes were swollen and red. People mostly put this down to grief and I was happy to accept that.
I remained in the kitchen all day, scared to leave. But word must have got around about my appearance and bereavement. Halfway through my shift he strolled into my kitchen. I felt my stomach churn as I saw him, my instinct was to run. As I stood holding the handle of my mixer white knuckled he approached me, asking if I was ok. I tightly nodded, afraid to speak in case I cried. And then he did it. He tried to put his arm around me in faux concern.
I freaked. I threw the handle of the mixer up stopping it and shouted at him “DON’T TOUCH ME! DON’T YOU DARE FUCKING TOUCH ME EVER!” My rage bubbled over at him using the loss of my beloved grandad to try and get close to me. My staff all stood stunned. The kitchen fell quiet and he turned on his heel and strolled out. At the end of my shift he summoned me to the office, I felt sick. Standing by the door after I shut it, he instructed me to sit. I sat as close to the door as I could.
Threats and Intimidation
He told me how easily I could be replaced if I was tempted to make any allegations against him. Outlining how hard it is to replace a General Manager, whereas a chef can be replaced with agency in one phone call. I was told my head office would back him even if they had doubts, as I was nothing but a tiny cog in a big wheel. I sat there shaking with rage and fear. Biting my lip so as not to cry I told him if he laid a hand on me again it wouldn’t be head office he would have to worry about. Promising him if he ever came near me again he would wake up bleeding in a ditch. He laughed and told me to ensure I fixed my face before my return to work.
It took me nearly a week to tell my partner what happened. I did it by text on the insistence of my colleague, too scared and ashamed to tell him face to face. I hit send and within a minute my phone rang. He wanted to come to my work, I had to beg him to let me deal with it. Knowing the complications, he told me he would let me deal with it. But he made me promise to not let it go.
Trying to Carry On
Still felt I couldn’t say anything. I feared being “the one that accused the manager of harassment”. Scared people would say I had encouraged it. I feared losing my job if head office backed him and not me. It was weak and I hated myself.
Work became beyond difficult. He arranged for my wages that month to be messed up. I had to ring him to sort it out as I was about to go on holiday and needed my holiday pay. He told me if I wanted my holiday pay I needed to be in his office at 10am the next morning. The day of my grandfather’s funeral. I told him the funeral cars were arriving at half ten and there was no way I could do it. He replied,
“you either want to see your grandfather buried or you want your holiday money, your choice but you can’t have both”
And he hung up.
The stress of the previous weeks was too much. I started to tell my partner I wouldn’t be able to go to my grandad’s funeral and literally collapsed. My legs gave way and I sank to the floor sobbing. Enough was enough. I borrowed the holiday money and attended the funeral. I took my holiday and returned to work determined.
Making my Complaint
I made the complaint well after the incident had occurred. It was late and I knew that wouldn’t help me but better late than never. I wrote the statement and gave it to my lead chef who had returned to work in the interim. She was mortified. She felt somehow responsible for not being there to support me. We both cried.
As the statement was read by management I was told a female undermanager remarked,
“Well, she was always in his office…”
Remarks like that are the reason we feel we can’t report these things. A full investigation was launched and he was removed from the building. I never saw him again.
My company found in my favour and upheld my complaint. As soon as he was gone others came forward saying he’d behaved similarly. I was given a formal apology by my company for failing to protect me.
I’d like to say these things made me feel better but they didn’t. I still hated on myself for allowing it to happen. I still do feel this way a little. However, since starting blogging and meeting and talking to other women who have been through similar I realise I’m not responsible for his behaviour.
Women in this position are genuinely scared to speak out. We value our jobs, our careers, our reputations. We value the things we’ve worked so hard for. And we know the odds can be stacked against us. We know we aren’t always believed. I was lucky I found my strength and spoke out. But I had to deal with the initial fall out totally alone. It’s so hard.
If you find yourself disbelieving such a large quantity of women would keep quiet over something so important think about the me you know. The ballsy, outspoken pain in the arse. Does that tally with this account? That is just how much a sexual assault or sexual harassment shakes you. Please don’t sit in judgement because until it happens to you, you don’t know how you will deal with it.