Sexual harassment by any other name is still sexual harassment no matter how you try to spin it or excuse away.
I recently lived in a small community located in southern Ontario. The quaint town is like most small towns; everyone knows everyone. It has several redeeming qualities, like beautiful parks and nature trails. It also hosts several well attended festivals. On the outside it looks like the perfect place to live. For most residents I’m sure it is, but for me not so much.
The general population is predominantly Caucasian, however from Spring to Fall the population increases due to the migration of off-shore workers from Jamaica and Mexico. I won’t bore you with more details other than to say there is an understanding among the locals that while the off shore workers are in town shopping, they will sexual harass female associates. Some employers ensure their female staff that they have zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Other employers schedule more male associates on the days that the off shore workers are in town. And other employers, like the one I worked for, don’t feel the need to warn their staff at all.
I had moved to the town in June of 2014 and started working for a home renovation retailer shortly afterward. I was familiar with the community, because I lived in the surrounding area for most of my childhood, and I have siblings that have lived in the community for most of their adult lives. Because I don’t drive, I walked to work and back again. I went for long walks in the parks and along the trails by myself. And I shopped, any day of the week, unescorted.
I mention doing these things on my own for one reason; not once has any off-shore worker approached me aggressively while at work, while out walking by myself or while shopping. Not once have any of them made me feel uncomfortable about shopping on the days that they are in town. Not once in all the years that I have visited my family has an offshore worker every forced themselves on me or my family. So I wasn’t sure what all the concern was about. I was soon to discover however that there is indeed a very serious problem in this community that has global implications.
Soon after I started work, a male associate from the lumber yard, who happened to have moved to Canada from Jamaica, showed interest in me; he would seek me out whenever we worked the same shift. My responses to him were kindly, but I didn’t encourage it beyond polite conversation, so he didn’t pursue it. In September of 2015, I applied and was hired for the position of MOD (Manager on Duty.) Soon afterward I noticed a change in him, in regards to how he treated me. The polite conversation turned to him touching me whenever we were in the same space together. I started to ignore him and only talked to him if it was work related. If we had lunch breaks together, I ate my lunch elsewhere. He gradually became more forceful with his intentions. One day he blocked my way by stretching out his arms. I either had to give him a hug or duck under his arms; I ducked under his arms. Another day I was sitting alone in the lunch room and he came behind me and hugged me, I shrugged out of his embrace. He started asking me out, in front of other associates. I always responded with, “I’m not interested. It’s not going to happen. Please stop asking.” He didn’t take me seriously though, and it wasn’t until a month or so later that I understood why.
One day in December he got very physical; he came up behind me, grabbed my shoulders and started to massage them. I stepped quickly away from him, and in front of other associates, I yelled at him, telling him not to touch me again. After contemplation, I decided to talk to someone about it. I chose to speak with the Front End Supervisor who manages the cashiers. She told me that he had done the same thing to several of the other female associates. In some cases he got quite aggressive about it and harassed them with lewd text messages. He got their numbers by asking for rides to and from work. She even went on to say that in some cases the female associates stopped taking their breaks in the lunchroom when he was there. This was the first time I had heard about it. I thought my problem with him was an isolated case. No one had ever treated him differently that I had noticed. I asked her why he was still working there. She told me that no one else complained about it to management, they just threatened him by saying they would tell their husbands so he backed off. I now understood why he didn’t take me seriously, and why he became more aggressive with his intentions; I don’t have a husband or a boyfriend to threaten him with.
I decided to bring, what I thought was a serious issue, to a senior manager’s attention. After all, I was now part of the management team, and I felt it was my responsibility to make sure that it didn’t happen to anyone else. There are clear and defined rules about sexual harassment in the work place. We all had to sign off that we understood what those were.
To my disbelief the first thing the ASM (Assistant Store Manager) said to me was in reference to my children’s father being the same nationality as the aggressor. My immediate response was, what does that have to do with anything? Well, you know those people, they’re just friendly like that was her reply.
I looked at the ASM with a dumbfounded expression. Quickly I realized how the aggressor was able to get away with it for so long – ignorance of other cultures seemed to be the culprit. Because he was born in Jamaica, his behaviour was excusable.
I do know people who emigrated from Jamaica, I said and some of them are like that. But I can give you names of white men that are like that too, what excuse would you give for their behaviour. It’s unwanted attention that has nothing to do with where he was born. I have not encouraged him in any way. I have asked him to stop, and he won’t.
The ASM apologised, and asked if I wanted to talk to the SM (Store Manager) about it. I told her that I would wait and see if he touched me again, he did so we went to the SM. During the meeting I told him how many other female associates it had happened to, and that the aggressor only stopped after those associates threatened that they would tell their husbands.
The SM’s response was to say, so then it stopped. I got upset and said, only after he was threatened with bodily harm. The SM then defended the aggressor by saying, but it stopped none the less. I couldn’t believe that he was defending the aggressor. The only reason why it stopped was because he was afraid of being beat up. He didn’t respect the right of the female associates to say no. He pursued them relentlessly until he thought that he was going to be hurt by it. He didn’t care what damage he was causing to them. Again, there are clear and defined rules about sexual harassment in the workplace. Every one of us, including the manager, had to sign off that we understood what those rules were. I got angry and said, no he it didn’t stop, he just moved on to the next woman. How could he possibly be attracted to every woman he works with. Besides, I don’t have a husband to threaten him with. His unwanted attentions have become more aggressive and physical.
Because none of the other women had complained, the management team did what they thought was right and wrote the aggressor up. I was willing to let it go at that, and hoped that it would be enough to stop him from doing it again. The situation with the aggressor however, who had worked for the company for several years, worsened.
Over the next week I noticed a change in how I was being treated by some of the male and female associates. I was shunned by most of the male associates that worked in the lumber yard. They no longer respected me as a MOD and stopped doing what I asked them to do. Most of the female associates stopped chatting with me, and only spoke to me if it was necessary. After a bit of investigation, I found out that the aggressor had gone to most of the staff and told them that he had only lightly touched me on my shoulder. I was astonished at how readily the staff was willing to take his word as truth. Especially from the women who knew full well what he was capable of.
One day after speaking with a part-time cashier, about what was going on, she went and complained to her supervisor about it. The supervisor got quite upset, and accosted me on the sales floor the next day. She basically told me to keep my mouth shut, saying what happened between me and the aggressor was no one else’s business.
So much for sister solidarity. Even though I had stood up for our right to say no, none of those women came forward. When the time came for us to stand together as one, I stood alone. Not one of them went to management. By not going to management, in my eyes, they were relaying the message to the aggressor that it didn’t matter who he harassed next, just as long as it wasn’t one of them.
There were days that I literally felt sick to my stomach at the thought of going into work, knowing how I was going to be treated. I decided to step down as MOD; how could I manage people who didn’t respect me. When I told the SM he basically said that there were worse things that could happen to me. I knew there were, because I had lived them. I was taking action and putting a stop to it before it happened again. After that my working relationship with the SM quickly dwindled to non-existent.
The weeks went on and the aggressor became comfortable in his surroundings again. I saw him run his hand up a female associates arm as he walked by her. He didn’t care that I was standing right there. I took it as a sign that he was showing me that he could do whatever he wanted with no really repercussions, because the SM supported him. And even though he never touched me again he started to become friendlier, telling me to smile because Jesus loves me or approaching me from my back and telling me that he recognized me from my behind.
I was sickened by it, but because of what happened the last time I complained, I didn’t go to management. Instead I internalized it, and let the anger boil beneath the surface. Occasionally, out of shear frustration, the anger spewed out of my mouth, until the SM called me to his office and told me to keep quiet or there would be consequences. Fearful that I would lose my job, I put on a false face, shut my mouth and went back to work. The situation however never improved, and I became deeply depressed.
On September 25, I had an altercation with the SM. He questioned me as to why I was getting involved with an issue that arose in one of the departments. After having my concerns dismissed again as inconsequential, I realized that it was never going to get any better. I would always be seen as that woman who ratted out a male employee. It didn’t matter that I was trying to protect myself and other women from a sexual predator. So I quit my job. Rash perhaps, because I didn’t have a back-up plan or any savings to live on, but I couldn’t continue to work there any longer.
Even though I’ve been struggling financially, I was content with walking away, and chalked it up as just one more bad experience to learn from. But then I watched video after video of the Women’s March held on January 21. I was overcome with emotion by how much support there was from all over the world. Women and men gathering peacefully in unprecedented numbers. They were marching together against oppression, tyranny and a government whose leader is a known womanizer and sexual predator.
Even though I have moved out of the community, I decided to share my story. Because no person; no matter their age, race, monetary worth, religious beliefs or global positioning should have to keep their mouth shut when bad things happen to them. No person should have to wear a false face just to make others feel comfortable with their lack of proper leadership skills. No person should have to worry about taking a stand and going against the status quo, for fear of losing their job and ultimately losing their home like I did.
Wake up! Sexual predators, male and female, are like a disease that can be found in every country, in every culture, and in every station in life. It is not unique to the male population of one nationality or the small community I lived in. It’s not a cultural fault it’s a human fault. Educate yourself, especially if you are in the position to manage other people. Stop the madness before one more person thinks that their only way out, is to quit their job or walk in front of a bus.