This is a watershed moment for sexual harassment. Recent weeks have brought a flood of stories about inappropriate advances, or even sexual assault, in professional settings — perpetrated by and against well-known people. With each new allegation comes media attention, public outrage and questions about how these accounts went unreported for so long.
But what happens when sexual harassment is reported, by victims who aren’t in the spotlight? In many workplaces, the handling of these claims can be a hushed process, shrouded by confidentiality agreements and legal proceedings that can go on for years.
Through news reports, advocacy organizations and attorneys, The Washington Post identified eight people who have reported harassment in the workplace. They include an assembly-line worker. A prison guard. A nurse.
Here, these workers share their stories, as seen through their eyes and told in their words. The Post did not interview their employers or others implicated in their accounts — nor are we naming them. We identify the workers only by their first names. The ages and locations are listed as they were when the workers say the harassment began. For many, the decision to report was as life-altering as the incident itself.
Rylinda, 41, customer service call center in Maryland: I was good at the job. When customers screamed at me on the phone, I was calm and professional. Then they moved me to another office, where I’d be working with technicians instead of customers. On my first day, I knew it was going to be different.
Genece, 59, assembly line worker in Illinois: I had been working at the factory for nine years when it started. I always arrived an hour early for my 5 a.m. shift so I’d never be written up for being late. I’d be sitting in the break room, alone, and every day, one of my co-workers would come in and start rubbing my shoulders.
Calissa, 19, restaurant hostess in Maryland: I found a job at a chain restaurant opening up downtown. I was told to “dress sexy,” so I’d wear skirts, like the other hostesses. It seemed like the better you looked, the more attention the manager paid you. One day, he asked me to come into his tiny office and organize the cabinets. I had to climb on a step stool. He sat at his desk, watching me and looking up my skirt.
Shannon, 32, medical sales representative in Washington state: Almost all of my co-workers were male. They would talk about “eating taco.” When I came back from having a child, one of them said, “Can somebody cry like a baby to make Shannon leak?” It was a fraternity. You either played along or you got maligned, and in the end, I wasn’t playing along.
Maria, 26, bartender in California: When my boss first touched my butt, he played it off like an accident. I didn’t think much of it. Then he’d start drinking, and he’d do it again and again.
Amber, 24, nurse in Oregon: I went behind the nursing desk to get something from the file cabinet. I bent over to reach it and felt someone slap me squarely on my ass. I flipped around, thinking, “Oh, my God, what just happened?” and looked at the guy sitting behind me. I said, “What are you doing?!” He said, “Oh, sorry. I slipped.”
Jordan, 27, hospital insurance coordinator in Texas: The CEO of the hospital was about to leave my office. When he reached his arms toward me, I thought, “Surely he’s just patting me on the shoulder.” But he pulled me into his body so my breasts were pressed up against his crotch. He held me there and took the deepest, most disturbing breath I have ever heard. I was frozen. He began rubbing my shoulders. He kissed me on the forehead. He said, “Is there anything else you need?”
Bonita, 57, prison guard in Texas: He was the sergeant responsible for making my schedule, so it was easy for him to put me somewhere where I would be alone. The first time, he came in and didn’t say a word. He just started unbuttoning my shirt. I told him to stop, and he started undoing my belt. I screamed, and that made him stop. As he walked away, he said, “You need to change your attitude.”
'He told me that he and I would be leaving together'
Calissa, hostess: I tried to change. I saw the manager look up the skirts of other hostesses, too. I went to J.C. Penney and bought multiple pairs of pants.
Rylinda, call center: My new work environment was always rowdy, always unprofessional. But I was a single mother with three kids to support. So I put up with my co-workers talking about their sex lives. I put up with them cursing. And then one of them came into my cubicle, hugged me from behind, and as he was letting go, he squeezed my breasts.
Maria, bartender: Every shift at the bar, I knew my boss might try to touch me again. One day he said to me, “One way or another, I’m going to have sex with you.” But I had a responsibility to send money back to my parents in Mexico. I needed this job.
Jordan, hospital insurance coordinator: After the CEO left my office, I called my husband. He was so pissed. He said, “I’m coming down there.” I was thinking about our two kids, and how his salary had taken a hit when the Texas oil industry had. It was my job providing our insurance. So I said, “No, you’re not,” and I walked down to HR instead.
Bonita, prison guard: The sergeant started coming to find me almost every night. When I found ways to make sure I wasn’t alone, he moved where I was stationed. He raped me. When I finally told a supervisor, investigators came to my house and asked me to sign a statement. I couldn’t. I knew that if I did, I would lose my job. I was raising my granddaughter, and I was going to send her to college.
Genece, assembly line worker: When he wouldn’t stop rubbing my shoulders every morning, I called HR. I told them I wasn’t out to cause trouble; I just wanted him to stop. They said they couldn’t do anything if I didn’t fill out a report. So I filled out the report.
Amber, nurse: I told some of the other nurses about being spanked. They said, “Oh, yeah, we’ve had a problem with that guy.” I went to my supervisor and said, “I don’t ever want to work with him again.” After that, I didn’t have to.
Jordan, hospital insurance coordinator: When I told the woman from HR what the CEO did to me, she was wonderful. Very apologetic, very understanding, very supportive. They began investigating and meeting with me on a regular basis.
Calissa, hostess: One night, pants on, I tried to leave the restaurant after my shift ended. But the manager said I wasn’t allowed to go until everyone else did. He said, “You’re leaving with me.” He was biting his lip, and the way he was looking at me — I just felt so uncomfortable. My dad was outside waiting to pick me up. So I walked out and never went back. The next day, I called the restaurant chain’s corporate HR and told them what happened. They said they would let me know if they needed anything else. They never called back.
Maria, bartender: I quit. I didn’t have another job to go to. I didn’t know at that time that I would be able to get legal help, that I would file a lawsuit, that I would get compensation and move on with my life. I just knew I didn’t want to be raped.
Genece, assembly line worker: The day after I wrote the report about him rubbing my shoulders, someone from HR told me: “Everything’s taken care of. He’s going to stop.” A week later, they let him go. Right after that, they let me go, too. They said my position had been eliminated. My husband still works at the factory, so I know that’s not true.
Shannon, sales representative: I wrote a seven-page document for HR about the hostile work environment. Within a month, I was put on a plan to “improve my performance,” and my commission was taken away.
Jordan, hospital insurance coordinator: Four months after I reported the CEO to HR, I got a phone call. “Did you hear?” my co-worker asked. “They forced him to resign.” I cried and cried because that part was over. Walking through the halls with the tape recorder app pulled up on my cellphone in case he confronted me was over. Calling co-workers to walk with me to get water from the cafeteria was over. Feeling unsafe at work was over. It was an amazing feeling.
'They made it seem like something was wrong with me'
Rylinda, call center: For months after he grabbed my breasts, I struggled with anxiety and depression. I was diagnosed as bipolar. I took medical leave. I came back, I asked to be moved, and it never happened. Eventually, they told me I could take a job in Richmond. I didn’t go to Richmond. I went to the Employment Justice Center, and an attorney took my case.
Shannon, sales representative: My brother worked in employment law, so I asked him what to do. He said: “With these cases, they make you out to be either a slut or a nut. So you have to be prepared for that.” I hired an attorney. And all I can say about it now is that the company and I came to a “mutually beneficial agreement.”
Genece, assembly line worker: Getting terminated put a huge damper on me financially. I had to file for bankruptcy. My car was repossessed. I sent a letter to the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], but I don’t know. My husband still works at the factory, and I don’t want him to lose his job.
Bonita, prison guard: Thirteen months went by between the day I first reported the rape and the day the sergeant was dismissed. Before that, he received a promotion to lieutenant. It was another three years before my case settled in court. I got $250,000. No criminal charges were filed against him. I feel numb. I don’t know what to do with myself. He is still out there, and I don’t know if he is going to come and do something to me. I want to start my life again. I want to be normal. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.
Rylinda, call center: In March, we go to court. But I already feel like I won. My children get to see I didn’t allow myself to be a victim. For a long time, I didn’t want to be a woman. I didn’t want to be viewed as a sexual vessel. Lately, I’ve been able to wear less-baggy clothes again.
Genece, assembly-line worker: If I had known all of this was going to happen, I never would have called HR. If I could go back, I wouldn’t say a word.
Jordan, hospital insurance coordinator: It was hell. I found out later that I wasn’t the only one. But it stopped with me. Because I reported, no one else had to go through this.
Shannon, sales representative: I look back, and I just don’t see anything I could have done to prevent it.
Calissa, hostess: I found another job and I went to law school. I’m an attorney now. I still wear pants.