SWAAY Exclusive: I Was Sexually Harassed By My Mentor

SWAAY Exclusive:

I Was Sexually Harassed By My Mentor

Photo Courtesy of Thought Catalog

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Me, too. And, if you’re reading this, and you identify as a woman, probably you, too. Turning the tide on workplace harassment through transparency, solidarity, and support

Here’s my story:

I was a new employee at an institution–responsible for, among other duties, preventing and responding to sexual harassment of students–and was assigned a mentor to help me succeed. This person was well-regarded at the institution and I experienced them as taking a genuine interest in me and my work. We met frequently, my mentor sharing institutional knowledge and advice, connecting me to other influential figures in the organization, and supporting my professional growth–it was a positive experience for me. I invited my mentor to my first big public event, and they came.

After offering on-stage remarks, I stepped off-stage – out of the spotlights and into the curtained shadows. Suddenly, I felt an arm snake around my waist and I felt my body being pulled backward and pressed into someone. I felt someone’s moist lips press into the bare flesh of my exposed back, hot breath spreading along my skin.

I froze. Then, I pulled away, turned, and saw that the person who had stepped out of the darkness, kissed my bare back, and pressed their body against mine, was my mentor.

The thoughts that flashed through my brain in that nanosecond are still so clear: “Did anyone see this? Did my students see this? My boss? What will they think? Is it because I laughed at their jokes? Gave them a hug? Is this blouse inappropriate? Am I sending mixed signals?” Doubts swirled furiously around an immediate question at the eye of my internal storm of shame: “What did I do to make this person think their touch was welcome, that it was okay?”

I knew that I should report this behavior. And yet, even though it was my job to end sexual harassment on campus, I was terrified to do so. I was afraid. Afraid I would not be believed (who is crazy enough to harass the anti-harassment lady, after all), that I would experience negative impact in my career (I was, after all, new to campus, and this person was very well-liked and respected), and that my damaged credibility would affect my ability to advocate for other staff and for students. And then, only three days later, as I was weighing all these issues in my mind, my university President issued a powerful statement, condemning sexual violence and harassment, and encouraging those impacted to come forward. I printed that statement, shoved it in my bag, and walked to the personnel office to report.

Here’s what happened next..

1. My report was taken seriously, and an investigation was immediately launched. Within a week, my mentor admitted the behavior and was found responsible for harassing me.

2. My boss reassured me that reporting was the right thing to do and that I would not suffer consequences. She expressed sincere regret that I had not been safe at my job, and offered me appropriate counseling resources.

3. A plan was put in place that separated me from this person in our professional lives, extending beyond 9-5 to consider all the informal work situations where we may both need to be present.

Photo Courtesy of LV Criminal Defense
Over the next half-decade at the institution, this is what happened:

1. I felt respected at my job, and my credibility, professionalism, or authority wasn’t questioned because I had made a report.

2. I received opportunities for advancement.

3. I was never asked to work with this person again in any capacity.

4. My supervisors, who changed over time, continued to check in with me to ensure that I was not experiencing negative consequences for my choice to report.

While I should have never been physically assaulted at my job, I received exactly the kind of treatment that EVERY person who experiences harassment in the workplace should receive when they choose to report and that so few actually do. Though I never shared with anyone I worked with that I had reported someone for sexual harassment, my personal experience gave me confidence that the institution would seek to do right by those who came forward to share their experience.

These are the lessons from my own experience that any workplace can adopt to encourage employees to report, and support those who have experienced harm:

1. Provide information and support to the harmed employee during the investigation. Outline specifically what steps the investigation is likely to entail, when possible, offer to notify the employee regarding who you are intending to interview as a part of the investigation, and check in weekly, if desired, on the progress of the investigation. Put protective measures in place during the investigation to ensure the employee does not experience further harm. Take their fears of retaliation seriously and work with them to put a plan in place to prevent retaliation and address it if it occurs. Make confidential counseling options available and provide an opportunity for the individual to use those services during the workday.

2. Once an investigation is completed, share as much information as possible with the reporting employee–including what they can share about their experience and to whom. Word of mouth information about your organization’s respectful and effective sexual harassment grievance process is the best way to encourage others to use the systems in place. Engage the impacted employee in developing a plan for supporting their personal and professional well-being that includes regular check-ins. These practices are appropriate regardless of whether the investigation yields a finding of sexual harassment.

3. Increase transparency in how your organization addresses sexual harassment and prevents its recurrence. While organizations may not share information about individual investigations, they can provide information in aggregate. Practices such as issuing a yearly report that provides data on, for example, how many reports were filed, how many were investigated, the aggregate outcomes, and the range of sanctions issued for those outcomes, sends a powerful message to the entire community that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, and that individuals found to have committed the behavior will be held accountable. It is a powerful step in building a culture of respect and trust.

Finally, encourage your senior leadership to address the issue both internally and externally on a regular basis. Messaging that promotes a respectful workplace climate and that encourages reporting, along with effective and prompt investigations and meaningful support for those who do come forward are the keys to both increasing reporting and supporting survivors. In our journey to ending sexual harassment changing the culture begins with transforming #MeToo into #IReportedAndWasSupported.

Holly Rider-Milkovich

Holly serves as the Senior Director of Prevention Education at EverFi, the nation's leading education technology innovator and creator of the Campus Prevention Network (CPN), a nationwide initiative launched to bring together institutions that have demonstrated a commitment to adopting the highest standards for prevention related to health and safety issues on their campuses.

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