I once managed an account that was the largest and most prestigious that my firm had ever won. When I got the assignment, I was so excited for the opportunities this account would bring, so long as I managed the project well. The project was challenging, for sure, and involved a much higher level of project and client management than most other engagements. Still, I was ready and willing to prove that not only could I handle this, I could kill it too.
And kill it I did. I convinced the client to budget millions of dollars for research, an amount that at the time was unheard of at my company. To kick off the project, we took a week-long trip to meet in-person with various stakeholders. I felt a little anxious about the trip, because it involved a ton of client management, and so much was at stake. I had interacted with our client contact a number of times, but spending a week together is very different than making small talk before meetings. Still, I felt confident I could make a good impression and show the client how well we could handle the project.
About a month before we were set to leave, I received an e-mail from our client contact asking which hotel my colleague and I had booked. We went back-and-forth on e-mail because the hotel we had chosen appeared sold out, so I suggested some alternative hotels close by. My client then replied, over work e-mail: “If those are sold out too, I guess I’ll just have to stay in your room.”
I remember I was traveling for another client at the time and was sitting in a hotel lobby when I received that e-mail. I audibly gasped, my body tensed up, and for a good two minutes I sat frozen in my seat. I couldn’t believe he had sent an e-mail like that, and so brazenly to boot. What was to stop me from forwarding what is clearly a sexually suggestive e-mail to my boss or his boss? Well that’s the thing—he knew I wouldn’t do anything about that e-mail, because speaking up would be career suicide. While this client did not have direct power or authority over me in the same way a direct boss or supervisor would, his influence over me and our firm was enormous.
All day, I went back and forth in my head about how to respond to his e-mail. I wanted to write him back and say that I would hope we can act professionally toward each other during the course of this engagement, but I was afraid of the repercussions of possibly offending him. I considered telling my boss about the situation, but decided against that too—though I had no doubt that my boss would take the e-mail very seriously and sympathize with me, his response would most likely be to take me off the account, for my own “comfort.” There is no way our firm would walk away from this client because of one suggestive e-mail.
So I ended up telling no one at work and going on the trip. I had considered making up some excuse for backing out of the trip and sending another colleague in my place, but I didn’t want to lose the opportunity that this trip meant for my career. So, apprehensively, I went.
Throughout the first part of the trip, I made sure I was never alone with the client and talked at length about my partner at home to make clear that I was in a serious, committed relationship. He acted professionally, and I never felt that he made any advances toward me, which was such a relief. In fact, half way through the trip I questioned whether or not I had read too far into that e-mail in the first place.
But it turns out, I didn’t. On the last night of the trip, the client tried to kiss me in the elevator. My co-worker and I took him out to a lavish dinner that night, followed by drinks at a lounge. We had been out for hours, and both my client and my co-worker had imbibed heavily. I was so surprised my co-worker would get intoxicated around a client, but then I remembered that as a man, he can do things that I simply cannot do. The client was drunk too, and he and my co-worker bonded throughout the night and had a great time together. If anything, getting drunk probably elevated my co-worker’s standing with our client.
At the end of the night, my co-worker went back to his room and left my client and me alone. When we got into the elevator, he turned to me and said with a tipsy smile, “You know, it was really wonderful having you on this trip.” I agreed, and the next thing I know he starts to dive in for a kiss. I pretended to drop my purse to avert him, and it worked. Right then, the doors to the elevator had opened, and I rushed out, yelling a hasty good night at the client before I booked it to my hotel room.
Returning home, I was a nervous wreck that the client might sabotage me if he was offended by my rejection. He could easily make up some excuse for why he didn’t want to work with me or preferred to work with someone else and my firm would happily oblige him without question. But luckily, that didn’t happen. I continued to work with him, and our relationship remained professionally strong. Did I get queasy every time I had to go to his office for a meeting? YES. Did my heart race every time I saw his name in my inbox? YUP. Continuing to work with him was very uncomfortable, but the consequences of speaking up about his harassment were not ones I was willing to deal with either.
Some people might say that what my client did was not harassment because I didn’t tell him to stop or let him know his advances were unwelcome. All I can say is what I feel, and I did feel violated because of our relative positions and the immense power he had over me and my career. And I knew that as much as I may have been a valuable employee at my firm, I wasn’t worth the millions of dollars my firm would lose had we given up the account because of his behavior.
Much time has passed, but I still think about this experience, and I’m angry that the choices I had to deal with the situation were not choices at all. And unfortunately, I am not alone. A recent study showed that 1 in 3 women ages 18-34 have been sexually harassed at work. And like me, very few women report instances of harassment, citing fear of retaliation as the reason for staying silent.
Workplace sexual harassment exacts a significant toll not only on women, but on all of us. Employers pay for harassment through lower productivity, increased absenteeism, and job turnover. Women are a critical component of the economy, and when women succeed, our country succeeds. It is imperative that we recognize sexual harassment as not a women’s problem, but as an economic problem that affects everyone.