By José Pinero
On a gray November morning something unusual showed up on my Facebook news feed. A colleague posted that a friend of hers was in a difficult situation. Her friend, let’s call her “Erin” (to protect her identity) was let go of her job just a few months after reporting a sexual harassment complaint to her employer’s HR department. As I read my friend’s post, I thought “is this still happening?” Here is another woman victimized by bad behavior from a man. In this case, she was sexually harassed, and to add salt to the wound, fired from her job for speaking up.
Here’s what happened. During a business trip, a senior executive at her company approached Erin. He wanted to spend time alone with her one evening. He specifically asked Erin to come to his hotel room by herself after a group dinner so they could have some “fun”. She ignored the remarks and brushed them off. During dinner, he sat next to her, and told her he was helping her career by mentioning positive things about her projects to the company owner. He said she should be grateful “he was putting a good word for her.” Then he placed his hand on her leg and made more requests. Once again Erin dismissed the advances. He continued to pressure her to come to his room after dinner and she continued to resist his advances by not acknowledging him. Erin was surprised and upset about the harassment. She has a husband and a family, but had she been single would have still been offended. After she returned from her business trip, she decided to stay quiet for a while, only confiding in another co-worker. After some days she decided to tell her husband about the situation and report the harassment to human resources. The HR manager listened to Erin and told her they would take care of the situation. After some weeks, the same HR manager told Erin she had spoken to the executive about the episode and it had been resolved. Not long after Erin complained to HR, her work situation started to completely change. The company hired a new manager to supervise Erin’s work and from day one she was suddenly “not meeting expectations”. The manager micromanaged Erin, looked over her shoulder, and failed to provide adequate support to her. This new manager, who reported directly to the executive who made the advances to Erin, would not respond to Erin’s emails requesting critical approvals and key information, which made her job harder. Ultimately, this slowed down projects and made it very hard for Erin to successfully do her job. The company went so far as to installing a camera looking directly at Erin’s desk. Finally, the company let go of Erin, claiming they were eliminating her position.
I am sharing Erin’s story for several reasons: first, what happened to Erin is unacceptable. No woman should lose her job or be penalized personally or professionally because she speaks up about sexual harassment or improper male conduct; second, there are people and resources who can help and support women as they go through a job crisis or a sexual harassment situation. As more women come forward to report bad behavior from men, it is imperative to seek support, so they don’t have to endure a bad situation alone.
After hearing Erin’s story, I offered to step in to coach her because I am tired of seeing women treated unfairly by men in positions of power. Not only do women have to speak up, but men, like me and others reading this, need to do our part to help stop this epidemic of abuse. If we men, look the other way, make excuses, or justify bad behavior from other men, we are allowing abuse to continue.
When Erin met with me, she felt helpless and thought she had no options but to take what her employer was pressuring her to accept. They offered to pay her only 1-month severance and have her sign an agreement forcing her to never speak about what happened, releasing the company from any wrongdoing and liability. Erin, who is her family’s primary breadwinner, was worried about running out of money, was stressed about finding another job, and was almost ready to give in. She wanted this bad experience to end as quickly as possible.
Just like a management consultant looks at a challenging business problem, I look at a life situation and apply a problem-solving approach. I learned the details of Erin’s situation, jointly defined a successful outcome for her, generated alternative scenarios and analyzed them. What resulted was a plan for her to successfully end this chapter and get proper financial compensation.
Like everyone facing a difficult situation, Erin needed to feel there were people in her corner, rooting for, and supporting her. When I met Erin, she was close to giving in to the pressure from her employer, sign a release, and walk away almost empty handed. I had to tell her: “No, you’re not going to let them win, if you fight this, you will not only feel empowered but be compensated fairly.” Unfortunately, women give up the fight too easily when facing these challenging situations.
Erin’s next steps were finding a lawyer, which she found and because of the support she had she was able to approach the company legally and obtain a 6-month severance payout.
As a company leader myself, who hires both women and men to consult clients and who also provides coaching, I aim to help people achieve their personal and professional dreams, which is a beautiful notion. Yet often what I see more of are difficult situations like a job crisis, divorce, sexual harassment, or other traumatic life challenges. We end up helping everyone, wherever they are at, but I must acknowledge that women and minorities seem to be negatively affected more than other privileged groups. For example, many white men in positions of power have no fear of losing their jobs over a sexual harassment incident. Typically, it’s women and minorities who must leave bad situations, disrupting both their personal lives and career trajectory so they can find more supportive environments where they can work. This stunts their promotion opportunities and their ability to manifest success.
Erin’s case looks clear to me: a competent female professional rejects sexual advances from company’s male executive and she gets fired for doing so. We see women in situations like this every day, many without proper support and guidance. I believe Erin was able to persevere because of my coaching and a lawyer’s help. And while she was able to get a better settlement, it is taking Erin time to recover from this traumatic experience.
“That company put me through hell,” Erin recalls. She wants other women to know there are options and excellent resources out there to help women during tough circumstances. Many women can easily start questioning their worth, as Erin did, “I was questioning myself. Am I not a good professional? It was a rollercoaster of emotions and feelings.”
If you or any woman you know is in a situation similar to what Erin went through, please let them know there are resources that can help. Collectively as a society, we need to put a stop to the abuse that has wounded our mothers, sisters, spouses, partners, daughters, and friends for far too long. The time to say “Time’s up” and “enough” is now. We can create positive change if we speak up, don’t accept injustices, and we (as good men and women) work together to advocate real, measurable change.
About José Pinero:
José is the CEO of The Cultivation Company, a collective of experienced professional coaches who assess career and life situations, define goals, and create a plan for achieving success. José also works as a consultant to Fortune 50 companies and is the author of the upcoming book “Mucho Success – Vol.1 – How Latino leaders made it in America”.
He can be reached at email@example.com or 425-283-9555