Helen is a woman working in an office with a male supervisor named Herb. When Helen’s supervisor comes near her, he moans. Herb does this any time he is walking directly behind Helen or whenever he passes her desk. He lets out an obvious moan. Sometimes it is more a grunt. He stares and grunts or makes some kind of guttural noise with his mouth. When he encounters Helen in a common area of the office he moans or grunts loudly and deliberately. Anytime he’s near her there’s a grunt, moan, or groan. Helen pretends not to hear it.
Sometimes Herb sings sexy song lyrics when he’s within earshot of Helen. He paces back and forth in front of her desk singing these song lyrics, sometimes making eye contact. Helen tries to ignore this.
Sometimes Herb stands around the corner from Helen’s desk and calls her name in a falsetto voice. When she responds “yes?” or “what?” he will step out from around the corner into view and ask playfully, “Whatcha doin’?” Helen is working. She says so. Herb feigns disappointment and walks away.
Sometimes when Helen comes back to her desk from the file room or the copier or the bathroom she finds Herb sitting at her desk, in her chair, facing her, legs spread wide. He admits he doesn’t need anything. Helen states she needs to get back to work and nervously waits for him to leave.
Sometimes when Herb hands a file to Helen he waits for her to reach for it and then pulls it back a little to draw her closer to him. He grins while he’s doing it. Sometimes he’ll make evasive maneuvers with documents or folders so Helen will have to step closer or reach into his personal space. Herb will grin throughout this entire exchange and won’t release the papers until Helen smiles back at him.
Herb will sometimes touch Helen. On her back. On her shoulder. On her arm. He will do this in passing or while maneuvering around Helen in common areas. He will do this to other women in the office as well. He will insist certain files needed on a routine basis be stored in Helen’s workspace so he can routinely enter her workspace to get them. He will often touch her when he does this. Sometimes he will make a suggestive joke about it. Other times he will simply loiter and stare at Helen. To avoid this Helen will often leave her own workspace when she sees Herb coming.
When Helen is obviously busy, staring straight ahead at her computer screen, typing away with work stacked up on all sides of her, Herb will walk up and slap his hand down on her desk, bop, bop, bop, to get her attention. If he gets it he says he doesn’t need anything. The implication is that he just wanted her to look up and acknowledge him. Helen plays along for while to get him to leave but it often backfires and encourages him to stay. Helen eventually stops responding.
Sometimes Herb will walk up to Helen’s desk to complain about his wife. On and on, even divulging personal details; things his wife probably wouldn’t want Helen to know. Sometimes he will tell Helen how much he misses his old girlfriend. Helen gives noncommittal responses.
Sometimes Herb will try to show Helen photos on his cell phone which are usually expensive items acquired for his leisure and entertainment, or videos from vacation. He will walk around her desk and position himself next to her as she sits in her chair. He insists upon holding the phone during these exchanges and leaning close to Helen to show her the screen. Helen gives unremarkable responses and reaches for her work to signal her busyness.
Sometimes Herb will walk up — again, while Helen is working — and touch various places on his body and then ask Helen to admire them, such as his abs or his biceps. He will brag about his weight loss, his fitness, or his workouts. He will flex his muscles for her and solicit compliments from her about his body. Helen will try to change the subject or say something designed to discourage him.
Sometimes Herb will stand in the hallway outside the restroom door while Helen is using it. She will hear him on the other side of the door coughing or clearing his throat. She will walk out of the restroom to find him standing there staring at her. Helen will quickly retreat to another woman’s workspace and fake a reason to be there until Herb moves away. Helen begins using a restroom in a more public area of the office.
Sometimes Herb will tell Helen things he has noticed about her car. Sometimes he’ll enter her workspace and play with her personal items. Sometimes he’ll play pranks or rearrange things to make it obvious he was alone in her space. Helen returns her things to order and doesn’t respond. After this happens a few times Helen removes certain personal items from her space.
Sometimes Herb will confess to Helen that it makes him jealous when she is friendly to other executives. Sometimes he will tell her secrets about the sex lives of other people. These people will be mutual acquaintances. He’ll put special emphasis on the fact that these people freely give him this salacious information because, “you can tell me anything.” Helen tells him nothing.
Herb will offer Helen gifts. He will offer her extra time off. He will open up a dialogue with her about weekend plans so he can divulge to her that his wife and children will be out of town. He will do this every time his wife and children go out of town. Helen declines these offers.
Sometimes Herb will ask Helen to step outside to admire his car. She will go no further than the doorway of the building. Sometimes he’ll ask her to come into his office to “take a look at something.” The something won’t be handed to Helen on paper or explained. The something will be on his computer screen, so Helen will have to stand close or lean over to read or comment. While this happens Herb won’t be looking at the screen. He will be staring at Helen’s face or her body. Helen limits her comments to get away quickly.
Sometimes Herb will walk by her desk and see Helen speaking on the phone. He’ll stop, stand there, and stare at her for the duration of the phone call. He won’t need anything. Sometimes when Helen is away from her desk he will go looking for her, notice her in conversation with others, and then hang out nearby, doing nothing, just listening in. Sometimes he’ll comment to make it obvious he’s listening in. Again, he wont need anything.
Herb will unabashedly confess to Helen that in the past he was interested in hiring sluts to work in the office. He will watch Helen’s face carefully for a reaction to this statement. Helen will frown and fail to take the bait.
Helen will learn from other staff members that applicants for her position were stalked on social media to make sure they weren’t ugly or too fat. If a given applicant appeared to be a “party girl” Herb voted for her. He will admit this to Helen as well, grinning and laughing the whole time. Helen knows she was hired strictly upon professional recommendation during a staffing crisis. With no social media to stalk, Helen would not have won a “party girl” vote.
Herb always gets to work earlier than Helen but he refuses to turn on the office lights. Even though he’s inside the building, he won’t turn on the lights. Every morning Helen is forced to walk into the building in the dark, knowing Herb is in there somewhere. It requires a double-digit number of steps to reach the lights from the front door. Every day Helen takes those steps knowing she is alone in the dark with Herb. Some days Helen waits around in the parking lot for other employees to arrive so they can walk in together. Other days she will risk being late so she will have to go in alone.
Helen’s coworkers tell her stories about Herb’s former relationships with women who previously held her position. These stories will include the encouraged display of cleavage, office nudity, special favors, loans or gifts of money, late-night calls, and the open and public discussion of sexual exploits, with endless bragging. Helen hears about angry wives storming into the office for interventions. Helen learns that women who previously held her position were allowed to take naps at work, get drunk at work, and have well-known extramarital affairs with colleagues and clients without getting fired. These were the party girls.
Herb is wealthy, successful, and well-established. He is well-liked and well-respected in his field. He is charming and well-connected. Herb makes it known to Helen that he still maintains personal relationships with women who leave their positions with the company. These women regularly call and visit him. Helen often transfers their calls or gets introduced when they visit the office. After they leave Herb brags to Helen. He shares gossip about sexual activities the ladies may disclose during their visits. Helen verbally disapproves to discourage this.
Helen has no HR department. No staff or office manager. There are no women in leadership to whom Helen might confide. No women above her rank from whom she might seek counsel. There are no policies, no manuals, no grievance procedures, no job descriptions, no dress code, no training, and no guidance of any kind. No one can be accused of violating anything because there are no polices to violate.
Helen likes her work. Helen has good skills. She is well-qualified, reliable, professional, and trustworthy. Helen wants to keep her job but she wants the attention from Herb to cease. She tries to keep her distance. She tries to stay as busy and as occupied with tasks as possible. She avoids contact and is careful not to encourage. She makes every effort not to be alone with him. Herb will not take the hint.
Helen makes grooming choices to reduce her attractiveness, opting out of flattering clothing, wearing layers of modest, loosely-fitting garments. She stops wearing anything which might draw extra attention to her. She wears less makeup, no perfume, and does not discuss her personal life. She changes her hair, doesn’t wear heels, and stops smiling. Helen’s overall appearance becomes gradually more androgynous as she tries to be more bland and uninteresting to Herb.
Helen keeps all interactions with Herb as short as possible, as business-like as possible, oriented only to work and business, and tries to ignore Herb’s attention. Herb will still not take the hint. Helen becomes increasingly quiet and withdrawn. Remember Herb is Helen’s supervisor. Herb has no superiors. Helen continues to politely reduce personal access and shuns all personal or intimate advances as clearly as possible without insubordination. Herb gets frustrated and demands an explanation.
Helen explains that she’s busy. She’s trying to concentrate. She’s tuning out distractions to focus on her work. She is trying to perform her duties well. Helen claims her maturity and work ethic prevents her from socializing while work is pending. She states she doesn’t require as much personal attention as the women who preceded her in employment. She prefers efficiency.
Herb doesn’t believe Helen. He demands she identify an offense he has committed to upset or offend her. Helen denies being upset or offended and restates her desire to concentrate on her work. Helen restates and reaffirms a strong work ethic and the priority time management while there is pending work. Herb still doesn’t believe her. There are several more of these confrontations until the Herb eventually turns hostile toward Helen.
The only person to whom Helen might complain is a male executive of lower rank than Herb but closely aligned with Herb. Although not lecherous himself, this fellow has overlooked and tolerated Herb’s behavior in the office for many years. He minds his own business. When the topic is raised he blames the party girls for inappropriate behavior or relationships and not Herb. Helen worries she would get blamed as well even though she is not a party girl.
Herb eventually stops flirting with Helen but the hostility grows worse. Helen tries several times to establish a working rapport with Herb to ease tensions and reduce the hostility. Herb initially responds to her efforts to reconcile but harmony can never be maintained for more than a week. Helen emphasizes a strictly professional working relationship to benefit the company. Herb scoffs and disclaims any need for her professional skill set. Herb suggests instead that Helen make better efforts to socialize with him.
Helen works silently under the daily pressure of this hostility until Herb begins reducing her responsibilities, curtails her initiatives, and gradually reassigns some of her tasks to other staff members. When Helen complains Herb flatly denies this is happening. Helen requests her role and workload be reinstated. Herb denies all, shuts down her protests, and insists again that Helen socialize with him, making it clear this is her only value. Other staff members take notice and sympathize with Helen but no one will help or intervene.
Herb stops speaking to Helen unless absolutely necessary. When they are forced to interact Herb’s contempt for Helen is obvious. He continues to siphon off parts of her job to other employees. He reduces her tasks to only the most menial and then micro-manages her results. He incessantly questions details he previously ignored. He makes an open show of checking Helen’s work and turns critical of any perceived failure to communicate trivial information he would previously disregard. He begins to complain about Helen to the other executives. Taunting soon follows.
Helen soldiers on but she is saddened and often depressed by the reality that in order to keep a good job in a limited market her only choice is to be hated or to be objectified.
My friends, consider Helen and Herb the next time you are tempted to think #metoo is overblown. It’s not only about full-on assault. Sometimes it’s about staples in your coffee cup.