Posted on May 14 2019
Most people learn about respecting another’s personal space pretty early on in their life. Family is where we get our first education about socially acceptable behavior—especially keeping your hands to yourself.
For instance, anyone who’s ever taken a car trip with their brothers and sisters knows that personal space is sacrosanct. It’s the like old west: "If you touch me or any portion of my spot you will die”! This is usually a serious threat, so I think for most people the lesson sticks. We then go off to school and this maxim is reinforced except for a few people who just don’t seem to get it, or maybe they just don’t want to get it.
I wrote before about how my first job at Sears was a valuable learning in many ways besides retail. It was a big place with lots of people. These people came from all over the country and the world. The common denominator was Sears but for many that’s where our shared interest and values ended. This was new territory for me.
I grew up in a place where a strong sense of shared values was critical. A small farming community had to have more things working together than not or it couldn’t function. Sears was a Fortune 500 company with the sole goal of making money. Values and integrity weren’t necessary parts of the equation.
In 2017 #MeToo became a movement that brought attention to the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment or assault---especially in the workplace. There were many female celebrities and executives who spoke out about how they had endured inappropriate and sometimes criminal behavior by men they worked for or with over the past few decades. It felt like a tsunami. Was there a decent man in the bunch? Unfortunately, like many groups, it usually just takes a few bad apples to hurt the whole bushel.
I remember listening to Reese Witherspoon talk about her experience as a young actress in Hollywood. She was speaking about how at 16 she’d been sexually assaulted by a director and how the incident affected her for years. She would have trouble sleeping and eating. I thought about how devastating that must have been for her because it was by someone she respected and who was in authority. The worst kind of betrayal.
I have known some abuse in the workplace. I wrote last time about my boss who loved to inflict pain upon anyone he could, but his harassment was always psychological. At that time, the late 80s, women were growing in the workforce, but it was still an “old boys’ network”.
When I was hired at Sears, they were implementing a new centralized buying and distribution office. They were bringing in young, entry-level executives to replace the regional offices. It was like an extension of college. I never knew a job could be so fun. We worked together, socialized together and became the best of friends. We were changing the landscape, but the old ways die slowly.
At the time, I’m sure every woman on these new teams had to deal with some sort of sexual harassment. It wasn’t discussed because I think most of us thought of it more like an annoying fly in the room. Ignore it and hopefully it’ll find its way out the window.
I can’t be sure that no one suffered anything worse because no one would have dared to talk about it. Maybe you won't lose your job, but you’ll definitely never get promoted by making waves. It was 1988 and although there had been progress there was still fear of retribution.
I had been in my job a couple years when the kid’s division got a new VP. Everyone that made it to upper executive levels came from the field. They rose in the ranks by running successful departments then entire stores. They were beloved by the people who worked for them and as a reward for their service they were given a corner office and lots of power.
Our new VP was incredibly engaging. He interacted with everyone no matter your rung on the ladder. He was excited for change and encouraged everyone to present new ideas. His door was always open to anyone who wanted to talk.
There were always team projects in addition to our regular assignments. I had been working on a concept to consult with local markets about specific needs so that we could create the most effective merchandise for an area of the country. If it was launched it could mean a lot to our division, so I was excited about it. The VP met with the team a few times for progress reports and to offer any help he could.
A few weeks went by and I got an email from our VP regarding the project and he asked me to get him up to speed. I thought if I had my act together and presented the material well I would make a good impression. A good word from him would go a long way. I was nervous, I always get nervous to present, but I gathered up all my papers and headed to his office.
I remember his office being so much bigger than most people’s. He had a couch and a conference table. The view was fabulous. You could see the lake peaking through the buildings. I was intimidated.
He was sitting sort of side-saddle on his desk. He was really tall, so he always sat on things to make people feel more comfortable. He liked to look you in the eye. I stood across from him while I went over the information. He nodded and asked a couple of questions and then that was it.
As I turned to leave, he asked me how I liked my job. I was tongue-tied. I hadn’t prepared for this. I was working for a miserable man but didn’t want to say that because I figured it would sound like I was complaining. He could see I was struggling with my answer so he opened the conversation by hinting that he saw my boss for what he truly was and that I could always come to him if I needed to. What a contrast! My boss was so evil, and this man was so good.
Then he grabbed me and kissed me.
I don’t remember much about what happened next. I know I jerked away. I know I’d dropped my papers. I know I ran out.
The next thing I remember is hurling myself into my friend Dave’s office. I don’t remember getting in the elevator, pushing the button or walking the hall to his office but somehow, I was there. Dave spun around in his chair, took one look at my face and said, “What happened?”.
I told him everything as best I could because my brain felt full of fog.
Dave is loyal and honorable. He’s also a gentleman. When I could focus, I realized that I had to shelve what I was feeling and somehow stop Dave from going to punch this guy out! I was in tears because I saw my friend getting arrested and fired because of me. This had gone from bad to worse! I don’t know how long it took to get Dave’s blood pressure out of the stratosphere but somehow, we did and then talked through how to handle my situation.
We decided it was best to do nothing. If he tried something again, I would have no choice but to report it. But, for now, I’d leave it alone. I’m confident that this is how most situations like this were resolved….by trying to forget and do nothing that might make a fuss.
Sometimes I can't believe that all of that happened thirty years ago. In some ways that time feels like yesterday until I remember how old I am.
Time has gone by and the world has changed. There will always be people who try to use their power or position to get what they want but the young "Ritas" of today won't allow it! I'm proud of them.