Unfortunately, for many women in all sorts of occupations, sexual harassment is a prevalent part of the work environment. I, like many women in my age cohort, have been sexually harassed by a variety of men (and a few women) in various contexts: bosses, co-workers, professors (when I was a student), fellow students, my students (when I was a college professor), colleagues, vendors, and clients. Sexual harassment has no boundaries; it can happen to anyone regardless of her/his status, age, etc. One’s reaction to sexual harassment can have long term consequences, often dire, that have a profound impact on one’s career, not to mention one’s personal life. When the sexual harassment perpetrator is one’s client, a carefully planned response is mandated if one hopes to finish the job for which she/he has been hired. My most memorable sexual harassment experience by a client happened many years ago, when I was employed by a large, nationwide litigation consulting company. Although I was not “the boss” on the job, I was the lead consultant due to the fact my boss was not in charge of the client’s research (my boss was primarily in charge of marketing for our office). The client was someone with impressive credentials. Prior to working for a particular law firm, he had been the Chief of Staff for the President of the United States of America. That’s right: he was the POTUS’ “right hand man.” The owner of the company where I worked went to great lengths to explain to my boss, who then explained to me, that, if ever there were an important client, this man was it; he was a VIP, and more. As it turned out, “and more” meant that, as soon as the lights were turned off in the observation room, allowing us to observe mock jury deliberations through a one way mirror without being seen by the mock jurors, the so called VIP decided to get touchy/feely with me! I don’t know who was more shocked by this outrageous conduct, my boss or me! I have never been a huge fan of politically correct behavior and, being taught from an early age to defend myself, I quickly turned on the lights, exposing all of us in the observation room to all of the mock jurors, which had the intended effect: the nasty man stopped his nastiness. (Some people are afraid of the dark while others, it seems, are afraid of the light!). My boss, a former Army Colonel, informed the client that the lights would stay on until his hands were kept to himself and then he placed himself between the client and me for the duration of our unpleasant time together. The moral of this story is that sexual harassment can happen, regardless of who you are, where you are, and who you are with, when you least expect it. Be prepared for your response.
Many jobs and job functions put opposite, or even same, gender co-workers in awkward settings. A dark observation room was certainly one of those for Melissa. And, because she is quick to defend herself, against this indefensible behavior, a worse problem was averted. The fact that she had a boss who backed her up was very fortunate. There are power differentials in many sexual harassment situations. Having an outside, paying client, with such a high profile history is particularly awkward. And, for some, those things might be enough to tolerate the inappropriate behavior. But, the faster it is stopped, the better should be the outcome. And, if the employer does not back up the employee in such a situation, well, there are lawsuits to be filed for that. Of course, that probably means finding a new job, but as employees, one should consider how a scenario could turn bad, and what to do about it. As employers, we have had one or two situations where employees were made uncomfortable by a client or a vendor. It then became our responsibility to ensure the well being of the employee who was obviously very concerned about being around the client or vendor, with the lights on or off!