I’m an HR Chief. This is how I handled my own harassment claim
Written By Kimberly Williams
I was only three weeks into my new job when the outbursts began. Initially, the episodes felt random. Sometimes I would walk into a friendly conversation with my boss and other times I felt like I walked into a buzzsaw. Quite soon, the situation grew all-consuming. I worried about finding another job quickly, my bills, my family, and my ability to protect my team. I also worried about how I would navigate this terrain.
I could not go to Human Resources, because I was HR. Any investigation out of my own shop would be tainted. And in moments like this, one can normally rely on in-house counsel. After paying them a visit, I learned that this behavior had gone on for decades. I also learned that no one wanted to address it – including them. I was told this was a matter I would have to take up with the board.
So I did. The Chairperson at the time was immediately empathic and invited me to explain to the full board that we had a problem. I agreed, and in that meeting, I shared my experience and added that there were many other women experiencing the same thing. A few board members pushed back but then acknowledged that there was an issue. One raged. He jumped up and down in his seat and forcefully stated that he did not want to participate in this conversation.
Two days later I met with my boss who had been fully briefed on my closed-door discussion. It didn’t go well, and I left with a strong conviction that I was officially on my own. No one would be coming to my aid anytime soon.
That night I stared at the ceiling until 3:00 a.m. before finally reaching for my laptop. I drafted an email to my boss detailing everything that had transpired between us to establish a record and a clear path forward. I noted where behaviors and actions had been unlawful and clearly stated how I expected to be treated on a go-forward.
The next morning, I walked into work, cleaned up my late-night email, and hit send.
I braced for what would happen next, but no response came, and our next meeting was pleasant. So were the meetings that took place over the next several weeks.
But with time, small flashes of rage returned, growing ever extended and ending in an angry, yelling fit. I drug myself back down to my office to write up the behavior once more.
These callouts bought some reprieve, but didn’t last. I never had majority support from the board, and the boss’s long-time supporter soon took over as chair. Nevertheless, I continued to engage.
I asked for an investigation, but they opted for an executive coach. When it didn’t help, I asked again. They sent someone who worked for the executive coach to interview me. Then they informed me that they were not going to do anything further.
Once again, I wrote the chair documenting the number of investigations my office had conducted into workplace complaints and asked why they were refusing to follow the same procedure our organization followed for every other person who worked here.
They finally opened the investigation.
At its conclusion, several months later, they informed me that there was a finding of abuse, but it was not unlawful and did not violate any policy at that time of the event. Then they firmly stated that they considered the matter closed.
By this stage, I had a significant amount of documentation, which I handed off to an attorney. A few days later, I walked away with a check and a changed perspective on workplace abuses.
Here’s what I wish more people knew:
The data is terrible, but you are not alone. The entire system is built to hide the numbers. Even the EEOC does not give you a complete picture. No company is going to self-report a claim against them, but workplace climate studies, like those conducted by Glassdoor, point to a much larger problem. If it’s happening to you, it has likely happened to someone else at your organization.
There are often two sets of rules. Many companies will take swift action when low-ranking employees violate a policy but hesitate when an executive does the same thing. This is often intended to limit liability and protect the organization. The higher up the food chain, the more potential damage to the organization, so admitting fault becomes more costly.
Everyone is scared. You may be terrified thinking about challenging someone with more power than you, but as someone who has spent years managing workplace investigations, I can tell you that the odds are your boss is scared too — especially if the complaint involves a highly valued employee.
Your words can change everything — especially if you put them in writing. Management will weigh their next steps based on what you say and how you say it. Calm, clear statements that cite company policy and how this situation is affecting you are more effective than informing the company that you are hurting. They can serve as direct evidence that your supervisors knew about a problem and ignored it.
The good news right now is there has never been a better time to assert your rights to a workplace free from harm. The laws are rapidly changing and moving in the employee’s favor. Whether it’s high dollar jury awards, breach of contract cases against employers who violate their own policies, or shareholder derivative suits against public boards who ignore executive abuse, accountability is coming.
Even better, a new anti-bullying bill designed to hold bad bosses in check is gaining traction in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. If passed, these would be the first laws in the country allowing employees the chance to seek damages for psychological abuse at work. And it will likely trigger similar bills in states like New York, Colorado, and California. We can all support this effort, regardless of our home location, by helping to spread the word or introducing a similar bill in our city, town, or state. But no matter how one might engage in this space, it’s important to recognize that each time someone speaks openly about workplace misconduct, they aren’t just changing the environment for themselves, they are contributing to an ecosystem of accountability that ultimately supports us all.