Sunday, December 3, 2017

North Carolina Tech "Gem" Had Pervasive Demoralizing, Womanizing Work Environment

Dear Lit Loves,

Greetings. Recently, I have been closely watching all the male entertainment icons fall from grace due to sexual harassment complaints.  I shed no tears for these men who preyed upon female employees who they most likely believed they could intimidate, control, and abuse.  I applaud the female employees for coming forward and reporting to their respective companies that they were demeaned, demoralized and harassed.  Fortunately, we have seen some powerful companies take decisive action once the sexual harassment was reported.  I'm glad because for me, I never felt any action was taken once I reported my own experiences working in a very fraternity-like, chauvinistic workplace except maybe mandatory sexual harassment training classes for all employees. Later, I heard rumors that male employees at this tech company routinely referred to this mandatory class as "a joke".

I worked for a startup technology company in North Carolina years ago that was referred to by media in the local area as North Carolina's up and coming technology "gem".  Trust me when I say that it was no "gem" of a workplace environment if you happened to be a female.  I was low on the totem pole in terms of rank within the company as I was employed as a switchboard operator and receptionist.   In those days the company was spread out among three buildings in an office park.  I was stationed in the first building housing engineering and lab testing.  One of the first events I found totally appalling was when a strip show was held in the engineering lab in the building in which I worked.  Supposedly, it was for one of the founder's birthdays and I was informed a local strip tease artist from a gentleman's club would be arriving to perform.  And she did.  I knew at least three of the original company founders attended this event along with what appeared like most of the male staff.  I had heard the rumors that when engineering leaders at the company hosted customers, they would routinely take those customers to the same gentleman's club.  Later, I believe it came to light that male staff at the company had been using company credit cards to have their vehicles washed at the local gentleman's club that also housed an exotic car wash.

Eventually, I had one engineer who would come up to my work station and place his hands around my neck while I was answering and directing calls at the company's reception area.  This same engineer once walked up to me and said he needed to measure the length of the split in my skirt and proceeded to open the split in my skirt while I was in the midst of trying to do my job.  He also decided that his business cards should not read "Design Engineer" under his name, but rather he wanted it to read, "Engineering God".  Needless to say, I was incredulous.  Additionally, I went to deliver a piece of mail to a male employee in the company's operations building only to find that his screen saver contained squares of nude women in various provocative poses.  At this point in time, this tech company had no real human resources department.  One male staff member left to take a cruise vacation and mailed a tube to the front office addressed to me and containing a poster of tribal men in what appeared to be sumo wrestling gear.  I remember me and the female backup switchboard operator opening the poster and looking at one other with annoyance.  To say I was disgusted would be an understatement.

Meanwhile, this tech startup was growing by leaps and bounds.  It needed staff in all areas of the company and fast.  We had one young woman arrive for an employment interview and she was seated in the reception area waiting for the department manager to arrive for the appointment.  One of the company founders walked out of his office and up to my desk saying, "Well, someone needs to stop with the heavy-handed perfume"  I was mortified because I had noticed the female job applicant's perfume when she arrived, but I sure did not expect a company officer to say anything about it in the office reception area.  The company was trying to obtain incentives to place its headquarters in North Carolina and received some bad press about not employing many African-Americans.  One day my manager met me in a conference room to tell me I was receiving a new "opportunity" and that I would no longer be the lead receptionist and switchboard operator because the company had hired someone to take my place.  I would now be backup switchboard operator.  It was not a promotion in my opinion.  Turns out, the company had hired an African-American woman to take the lead switchboard and receptionist position.  I went to inform one of the company founders that I would no longer be right outside his office as he often asked me to page him when investors called and wanted to speak with him.  He always wanted to be at their beck and call so I made sure wherever he was on campus, he was always able to receive those calls.  I informed the company founder that I would now be backup switchboard operator and my manager was escorting the new lead receptionist around each building introducing her to other staff members.  I almost dropped my teeth when he said to me, "Well, as long  as she doesn't chew pencils and spit them out, we should be okay."  Excuse me?? 

One of the more uncomfortable aspects of being the lead receptionist and switchboard operator is that you were never allowed to leave your desk for any reason including to utilize the bathroom that was not but five feet away unless someone arrived to maintain the switchboard while you relieved yourself.  Seriously, I had to wait until someone came to sit and answer calls at my desk before I could leave to go utilize the bathroom.  Additionally, I lobbied for the receptionist position to have a pay increase from $7.35 an hour to a more realistic wage of $10 an hour. Inevitably, a decision was made and I received a twenty-five cent raise per hour instead.  Additionally, I opted to attend the company Christmas party being held in a ballroom at a local major hotel.  There was food, a live band and dancing.  Meanwhile I had to cope with the reality that a company founder had seated himself at a chair beside me at a table and placed his hand on my leg and thigh. He did not remove his hand so I excused myself and left the table.  Talk about unprofessional behavior. 

Later I watched as a female lab manager was hit over the head with a rolled up magazine by one of the engineers in that department.  Another engineer emailed me something completely absurd about how a woman always stands way behind a successful man  How crass I thought to myself.  When I did leave the company to move on to work as a teacher, I learned an engineer was passing around photos from a vacation he had taken in the Caribbean at a nude resort.  It did not surprise me. Later, I learned that one engineering group was holding Friday keg parties on the company premises.  Ridiculous and quite reckless behavior continued to occur I am most sure.

After leaving the company and accepting a new job as an English teacher, I later contacted the tech company's new Human Resources director.  I set up a conference with her and typed a list of all the harassment and abuse I witnessed during my time at the company.  She listened and then said, "Though I'm sure we would both like to horse-whip these male colleagues for their behavior, what had to be done was a thorough investigation."  To my knowledge the only change that occurred due to my reporting what I witnessed and endured was that the company implemented a mandatory course for every employee on sexual harassment. I subsequently filed a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which never amounted to anything as far as I know, but I felt I should take the action hoping that other females would never have to endure what I did as an employee.

So no, I never saw any form of justice implemented against male colleagues who routinely thought it was perfectly acceptable to contribute to what was a very demoralizing, patriarchal work environment in which numerous acts of sexual harassment occurred.  But I do not regret standing up and reporting what happened.  Someone at that "gem" of a company should have done right by me and the few other females who worked at the company during that period of time.  Sadly, I felt my effort to bring to light a profound problematic work environment for women was just swept under the rug and dismissed by the Human Resource department at the tech company.   And that is a slap in the face to me and all professional female employees.  Ladies, we deserve much better.

Till my next post,