Fight or Flight: A Conversation with a Sexual Harassment Victim
A workplace soured, trust in a company broken, a ‘fight or flight’ attitude and a desperate need for change and survival. This has been the experience of a recent sexual harassment victim at one of the biggest companies in the country. We had the opportunity to sit down and interview her, getting the first-hand experience of the effects of sexual harassment on a person and their work environment.
Please note that if you have been a victim of sexual harassment this conversation may be triggering. If you feel affected by this, please follow the attached link to our page for professional help and support here.
Here follows our conversation.
You have recently been a victim of sexual harassment in your workplace. Please can you tell us what happened.
So, I was sitting at my desk writing with my back to the hallway. She entered the room, walked behind me, and placed herself between me and my other colleagues sitting in the control room. She placed her arm around me, moving her hand underneath my arm towards my breast. She then continued to squeeze my breast while whispering in my ear “nice sexual harassment, right?” In the moment I was shocked and thought “what the hell?”
So, she entered your personal space, while others are in the room…
She made sure that the others can’t see what she was physically doing by placing herself between us and then emotionally harassed me as well.
Is she your direct up-line or what is her work relation with you?
Yes, she is my direct line manager. I have to answer to her. She has control over every hour that I work, in which theatre I work, the working circumstances. She also has access to all my timecards, over time and anything that needs to be addressed financially.
Was this the first time that something like this happened, or has there been other instances before that made you feel uncomfortable?
In retrospect there were many instances, not necessarily sexual harassment orientated, but definitely manipulative in nature. For instance, I would end up working late but then I would inform her that I am not on-call. So, how it works is that if you are on-call you have to stay behind and check lists, even if it is other employees’ lists. So, I would approach her to inform her that I am not on-call. So, it has been a year of emotional and physical harassment which she would subtly use to manipulate.
She would find out that I am not fond of a particular theatre, but then she would make sure that I am working in that theatre every Thursday evening and then schedule me to work late, regardless if I am on-call or not. I will then approach to inform her that I am not on-call and that some of the employees who are on-call have already been dismissed for the day. She will then pretend to have forgotten and on number 99 burst into the room with “oohhh I am so sorry, I always keep my promises…”, give me hug, and make me uncomfortable. Incidences like these have been happening, on and off, for about a year.
On another occasion, I was called out late at night and worked until about 2am. The next morning, I got to work at 7am. She walked into the room and commented that she heard that I worked in the middle of the night. She then said that I looked quite tired and then mentioned that ‘it is ok to sleep’. I was surprised by this comment as it is against the protocols of the company, to sleep while on duty. She responded by saying “oh well don’t worry, I am a manager, I am above the protocols”.
I was dumbfounded. How are you, in any regard, above company protocols?
Was there anything else, other than, as you mentioned, the hug or something, that happened that could be seen as sexual harassment?
Not really, I just find that she doesn’t have any sense for personal space and boundaries.
“It’s a fight or flight situation
and I choose flight.”
Are you aware of any bystanders or witnesses relating to the last incident?
No one saw what happened, however, the one technician saw my reaction to the incident. So, the moment when she left the room, I voiced myself asking “in what universe is this ok?” The technician responded by saying that “it isn’t ok or acceptable in any universe”. So, the moment she was out of the room, I informed my colleagues of what just transpired. It was only after I voiced it, that the reality of what I just experienced hit me.
Did you ever feel that you shouldn’t mention it or is it that there is a culture between you and your colleagues that you can talk about anything? Were you at any moment unsure if you should mention what transpired?
In the section of the unit that I am in, we have very open communication with each other. So, I felt comfortable voicing it immediately. However, moving into the bigger unit, it is not the case.
Now, due to it being quite a big unit in the company, there are two line-managers. So, I went to the other line-manager and she responded with “how could that have happened?”
I then went to report the incident to my line-manager’s supervisor. And the first response I was met with was, “please don’t talk about it. You are not allowed to tell anybody.”
When you spoke to your small unit about it, did you feel support from them?
Yes. My direct team is like my family. We are very supportive towards each other as we work right through the night and crazy hours. They supported me in going to report the incident.
However, the technician that saw my reaction, isn’t a direct employee of the company and immigrated two days after the incident. So, she was not able to come in as my ‘witness’. She did, however, send me an email documenting her side of the story. But I couldn’t help but feel that the bigger company did not support me.
As I said, the perpetrator’s supervisor told me to keep it quiet and to not talk about it but to rather take it to HR. Now at that time, the HR manager was on leave. So, I ended up waiting for the HR manager to return from leave before I could take the matter further.
“Does it have to be Sexual Assault
before it will be taken seriously?”
So, there was no option for you to take an informal route towards reporting the incident and you went straight to a formal route?
Yes. Due to all the other smaller harassment over the year, I felt that I can’t talk to her. So yes, I went to her up-line rather than herself.
So, the next thing that happened was, I went to speak to HR. During the time I was waiting for HR to return from leave, I wrote a report of the entire incident and gave it to them. They called me in, we had a conversation where after she informed me that the perpetrator apologized.
I was confused as according to me an apology is to a specific person. She has never apologized to me. She sent an email. When I was at HR, the HR Manager read the email to me. I found that in the email, she did not acknowledge that she did something wrong, and said that she ‘accidently’ touched or brushed my breast and that she apologized immediately. This was not the truth as she never apologized to me in the moment but harassed me emotionally.
Then HR required that I please go with them, to meet with the perpetrator in a room to listen to her side of the story. I don’t want to hear her side of the story, I don’t want her apology, I don’t want to work under her.
I then informed the HR manager that I am not comfortable to be in a room with her and that I am not comfortable working under her either. When she walks down the hallway, I always try to go a different route in order to avoid her.
The HR Manager then said that what I’m saying is not true as I have been working under her. But no, I am trying to get away. I am constantly in flight-mode. I am trying to avoid her at any cost. If there is a meeting where she is involved, I don’t go.
HR then requested that I arrange a meeting with the perpetrator in order to hear and accept her apology. I didn’t feel comfortable arranging an informal meeting with the perpetrator. After a while HR reached out via email and requested a response. I felt that they could at least phone me. I am a victim in their company. A week later HR sent me an email again informing me that due to the fact that I did not attempt to arrange a meeting, the case will be deemed dealt with and closed.
So, one of their senior managers was accused of sexual harassment and they didn’t offer any real support towards the victim.
So, even though you gave them your full report of the incident, there was no full investigation launched?
There was no investigation launched and there were no evident repercussions for the perpetrator.
And there were no adjustments made as to your working environment for when you work with her or under her or anything?
Are you aware of any conversations held with any of your fellow unit members regarding the incident?
No. Due to the technician immigrating, there were no further investigation or conversations had. I did inform another teammate who wasn’t present on the day. Of course, according to them, she is not supposed to know. But I felt that, when the day comes that I leave, she needs to know why.
So, at the moment, I am still working in the same circumstance, under the same women, and have no power in this situation.
Do you feel that if you went ahead with the informal meeting that things would’ve been different?
I don’t believe that I would’ve felt any different.
I’m currently drinking Urbanol every day in order to do my work. When the phone rings, I just pray that it is not her. When the door opens, I am jumpy and want to run as I’m scared it’s her. So, no. An apology doesn’t take away what she did. It doesn’t change the emotional harassment that she has put me through during the past year prior to the incident.
“This does not define me,
but it defines her.”
Have you ever spoken out about the harassment prior to the incident?
Yes. Some were reported by others but when it is mentioned to HR, they defend her and say “sorry, she’s here to stay”. So, you don’t ever feel trust or support from HR.
I have a small journal where I’ve been documenting the manipulative actions she has taken towards me. I have these records. So, the moment I hand in my resignation, I will hand my letter, written to HR about the incident, and all these records in with it. I will inform them that they can contact me again, the moment that she is not working here anymore.
That will be my next move. I have to find a way to remove myself from the situation completely.
Has there been any repercussions for you as a result of reporting the incident?
Not directly, no. There have been incidences where I would be called to work in a different theatre. In those incidences she would talk to me through the other manager. So, she wouldn’t talk to me directly while I’m in the room, degrading me even further.
Do you feel angry towards the company?
I am angry towards everyone, the company as well as HR. I was a victim in their care and was not supported or protected at all. My rights were not valued or protected.
What is the company’s Sexual Harassment Policy or Protocols?
That we have to tell the perpetrator not to do it again, and then they will take it further.
So, do I have to wait to be fully Sexually Assaulted before I will be taken seriously? She was very aware of what she was doing and exploited the situation even further.
What did it mean to you that the perpetrator was female?
I was shocked. I believe that it also made them react less. If it was a male figure the response, actions and repercussions wouldn’t have been much more serious.
“Please don’t talk about it.
You are not allowed
to tell anybody”
Moving forward, what have you been doing to help you deal with the situation?
Firstly, I know that this does not define me, but it defines her.
It took me a while to get to this point. The incident happened about 4 months ago. I’ve been going for counseling and trauma treatment. The company has a line that you can call for counseling, but I’ve been going out of my own.
I’ve noticed that due to stress I’ve been losing a lot of weight and as I mentioned earlier, I have been drinking Urbanol everyday.
What do you feel has been the effects of this incident on you from an emotion and mental point of view?
I have to be on top of my game every day. I have to be able to focus on my patience and not have to worry about what the perpetrator is going to do right now, or if she is about to walk into the room. So, my focus is very split.
I am always wondering if there has been any consequence for her, but I will never know.
I called the help line, Tears, and they were shocked to know that she was not let go and removed from her position.
The scary part is that it proves her statement of “I am above the protocols” more than ever as there is no evident consequence within the company for her. Also, she is a qualified medical practitioner. Someone that people trust. In fact, she was my nurse during my pregnancy at one point. And then she gets away with doing something like this.
The thing is, I can take this further and go to the police. However, the question I keep asking myself is, is it worth it? Is it worth the effort, trauma and costs? Not just on me but on my husband and two kids as well.
It was a big injustice towards you, but you feel that by trying to get justice it has a further negative impact on you than it will do any good.
Yes. It’s a fight or flight situation. And in order to be able to move on the quickest, I choose flight.
Birch, J., 2021. What you need to know about getting help if you’ve been sexually assaulted. [online] Teen Vogue. Available at: <https://www.teenvogue.com/story/sexual-assault-help> [Accessed 25 January 2021].
College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University. 2021. Sexual Assault Survivor’s Guide – CSB/SJU. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.csbsju.edu/chp/sexual-assault-survivors-guide. [Accessed 29 January 2021].
College of Saint Benedict & Saint John’s University. 2021. Sexual Assault Survivor’s Guide – CSB/SJU. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.csbsju.edu/chp/sexual-assault-survivors-guide#GettingBackOnTrack. [Accessed 31 January 2021].
Melinda. 2021. Recovering from Rape and Sexual Trauma – HelpGuide.org. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/recovering-from-rape-and-sexual-trauma.htm. [Accessed 27 January 2021].
Myths about rape | Rape Crisis England & Wales. 2021. Myths about rape | Rape Crisis England & Wales. [ONLINE] Available at: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/about-sexual-violence/myths-vs-realities/. [Accessed 27 January 2021].
nhs.uk. 2021. Help after rape and sexual assault – NHS. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/help-after-rape-and-sexual-assault/. [Accessed 29 January 2021].
Rape and Sexual Assault. 2021. Rape and Sexual Assault. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.supportline.org.uk/problems/rape-and-sexual-assault/. [Accessed 28 January 2021].
Rape and sexual assault – Citizens Advice . 2021. Rape and sexual assault – Citizens Advice . [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/gender-violence/rape-and-sexual-assault/. [Accessed 29 January 2021].
Rikosuhripäivystys. 2021. Advice for victims of rape – Rikosuhripäivystys. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.riku.fi/en/guides-and-instructions/advice-for-victims-of-rape/. [Accessed 25 January 2021].
South African Government. 2021. Where can I find an organisation that offers assistance to victims of violence? | South African Government. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.gov.za/faq/justice-and-crime-prevention/where-can-i-find-organisation-offers-assistance-victims-violence#. [Accessed 31 January 2021].
Tears Foundation. 2021. What to do if you are raped? – Tears Foundation. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.tears.co.za/what-to-do-if-you-are-raped/. [Accessed 31 January 2021].