Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Case of Sexual Harassment in the Depths of a University in California

I have an ex, who remains a friend that recently gave me a call. I believe it was about a week ago that she called to get me caught up on a sexual harassment case she had going on at the university she works at. You see, about a year or so ago she and I had been in touch, and she had started to get me caught up on a situation that had occurred to her. Mainly that she had co-worker who was "all hands."   That is to say he had the tendency to rub his co-workers back. To my understanding mostly the females. She had given him the nickname of one of the members of the Addams Family, because his body type was reminiscent of this character. So I'll call him Mr. Addams.

Based on what my friend told, she had to deal with sexual harassment at a couple of other jobs she had before as well. Unfortunately what she would do, was just find herself a different job and move on. She wouldn't make a "fuzz," mainly because that wasn't in her persona. Even as we spoke she was already in the process of considering looking for employment elsewhere, because the discomfort was too great for her, and she felt it best to move on, even though she enjoyed her work, which consisted of working for a program that recruited students from marginalized communities and gave them financial assistance along with moral and academic support.

Let me work out a chronology so that this doesn't get too confusing.

-It begins over a year ago when she notices that her co-worker makes a habit out of rubbing her back when he's around her at work.

-My friend talks to her supervisor about the touching. Her supervisor against university policy, and to my knowledge sexual harassment policy in most work places, tells my friend to talk to him about it. HUGE mistake on the supervisor's part, who should have reported the complaint to Human Resources.

-Nonetheless my friend talks to Mr. Addams, and tells him, that she is uncomfortable with the touching. According to her, he just stares at her and says "Okay." No other response. He does not apologize, nor gives her his reassurance that he won't put his hands on her again since it makes her uncomfortable, you know the commonsensical thing to do.

-Eventually she gets too uncomfortable with the whole thing. Her supervisor's husband who also works at the university tells her about a position that is going to open in his department, and that she should consider applying. She decides that this is best for her, since she is uncomfortable with the situation in her department. Her supervisor finds out about this and starts to distance herself from my friend.

-She tries to keep things amicable with Mr. Addams since she has to stay in the same office. The touching doesn't stop. After a trip to a coffee shop, with another female co-worker, and Mr. Addams; as they walk out the door he places his hand on her back, but according to her he removes it almost immediately. She considers it a slip-up, where he maybe forgot what she had brought to his attention.

-On a recruiting trip to southern California, they end up sitting next to each other, and after a few drinks, he slides his hand down her lap. She switches seats with someone else. One of the most uncomfortable situations she has had to experience.

-Of course it doesn't stop, she mentions a couple of other instances where he tries to play footsie with her. My friend no longer really knows what to do. Feeling frustrated and isolated she stops attending unity building activities for the team of employees in the program. Some members on her team notice the distance and think she's being stuck up. What is really going on is that, the issue with Mr. Addams has not been resolved, and instead of risking being touched by him, and having to deal with further discomfort, she retreats into herself. She feels that her co-workers don't like her very much, not knowing the actual problem.

-Things don't get any better. Her supervisor is going to take leave of the office, because she's pregnant and is due soon. In the mean time, they want to place an interim supervisor, and one of the people interviewing is Mr. Addams. It is more than likely Mr. Addams is going to get the job. My friend is extremely uncomfortable with this, because this means he'll be in a position of power, and she has been trying to avoid as much communication with him as possible. Now, she'll have to report to him.

-She decides to talk with her supervisor again, about the whole situation. A supervisor who had been sending her e-mails about other jobs that she should apply for. My friend believes her boss is being vindictive, because she for some reason felt betrayed when my friend tried to apply for a different job (that the supervisor's very own husband suggested she should apply for). During the conversation, my friend expresses her discomfort once again. The supervisor's own words: "I don't understand what the problem is. He rubs my back too, and I'm married, but it doesn't bother me." If you just said "WOW" to yourself, then you know my own reaction.

-My friend is at a loss. At this point she gets some advice from someone who notices her distress. She encourages her to go straight to Human Resources.

-My friend goes to Human Resources and the process begins. As a result Mr. Addams isn't allowed to become interim supervisor. However he is not fired. They used to have cubicles right next to each other, but what HR does, is simply place another cubicle between them. And on certain days my friend is given access to a private office. This doesn't end the alienation she's feeling, as office whispers and gossip have painted Mr. Addams as a victim because he's such a nice guy. Not to mention the fact that some of my friend's officemates already don't care much for her, because she distanced herself from them (again not really knowing the reason why).

-My friend has to gather as much documentation that she can get her hands on. Text messages and even give access to a professional psychiatrist she has been seeing. She approaches a friend in a different department who knows her ordeal, and asks him to write up a letter of what he knows about her situation, but he decides it's best not to help nor get involved, because he doesn't want to deal with any conflict this might bring his way, since he at times has to interact with her supervisor.

-It's an uphill battle for the next few months as she struggles to write down as much as she can remember, everything that led up to the events when she decided to file. She's told that she might not have much of a case since she waited close to a year to finally report the incident(s).

-My friend continues to pursue the case as best as she can. Human Resources being a neutral party can't or won't do much about it. The man who runs the program comes to talk to her and asks if it would be enough to get her and Mr. Addams to sit in the same room together, and have Mr. Addams apologize to her. In other words, the program wanted to sweep it under the rug. She reminds the boss, that she already gave Mr. Addams an opportunity to apologize when she approached him directly initially (as her supervisor had wrongly advised), and instead of an apology, she got a blank look, and she felt awkward, as if she had done something wrong.

-Everything is in limbo for some time. An outside organization that usually deals in these types of cases isn't able to do anything, due to the time that has elapsed and because they don't see that the supervisor has been retaliating and siding with Mr. Addams as a way to make things harder for my friend.

-That's how things remained for a couple of months or so. When the semester started anew, my friend found herself depressed and spending most of her weekends just sleeping in, and coping with the mental weight of the hostile work environment she had to deal with since her supervisor's return.

When she called me last week she sounded better. She told me that Mr. Addams had found himself employment somewhere else, possibly at the recommendation or even pressure of his supervisor and program boss. He'll actually be out of the office in the next couple of weeks if he isn't gone already. However, she still has to contend with her supervisor who keeps going out of her way to sabotage or remove her from projects, by handing them over to another person. She finally had a confrontation with the supervisor that involved a Human Resources rep mediating. The supervisor played the "I forgot you were on that project"-card. And my friend asked her, "You forgot four times?" I laughed my ass off at this and applauded her. My friend was also unsure about her position, since she had been given many different roles, and asked about whether this meant a pay increase or if her position was going to be fully defined finally? According to the supervisor her position was only a "pilot" position, therefore they decided to place her back as a recruiter. In other words, since she made a fuzz, they were going to demote her, at the behest of the supervisor, who had an ax to grind with her. In the face of all of this, my friend is looking for employment elsewhere. She is still seeking some type of compensation for her medical bills, which is a process all on its own.

But what is absolutely insane to me about this, is that after my friend came out, and filed her complaint, her bosses started keeping a closer eye on her. They started keeping track of her sick days and really scrutinizing her as an employee. They didn't keep an eye on the sexual harasser, they kept an eye on the woman who had been wronged, the victim. She became guilty of what? I'm not sure.

I told my friend some time ago, the university does not care about you, or it's students. It's a business. We had a conversation about this, she believed that her campus was different because it had a reputation as being liberal and progressive. To which I responded, bullshit. The students might be liberal and progressive, but the university doesn't care about that or the well being of students, until students get hurt. When she started going through her sexual harassment case, I reminded her of this. As a business, the university wants to protect itself, and her bosses wanted to protect the image of the university. A sexual harassment case like hers would give this prestigious campus a black eye, especially after the ineptness and vindictiveness shown by her supervisor. As I said, the supervisor should have gone directly to human resources, if she's not uncomfortable with being touched, that's all good and great, but she shouldn't have expected my friend or any other employees for that matter to be comfortable with it. We all have different levels of comfort or discomfort when it comes to personal space. Something the supervisor didn't seem to understand. Most unfortunate, is that you would have thought, that as a woman, the supervisor would have been more sympathetic to her female employee. Now I have wonder what it would have been like if Mr. Addams were touching any of the female undergrad students he worked with? Would those students feel comfortable reporting this? Or would his role as "mentor" make them second guess their feelings of discomfort? Abuses of power come in many forms, and it is unfortunate that the program, and for that matter that this prestigious University in California has allowed this to occur, and that Mr. Addams has gotten away essentially scott-free.


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