The voices of harassment victims often go unheard, or their stories are twisted. Here, their stories are shared, on their terms. (Charlie Sagner)
The voices of harassment victims often go unheard, or their stories are twisted. Here, their stories are shared, on their terms.

Charlie Sagner

“They just held so much power over me”

Students face the harassment in the workplace

February 5, 2020

Students’ names have been changed to protect privacy.

Content warning: This story contains language that pertains to sexual harassment.

 

Being a high school girl, Anna is used to using social media to talk with friends and casually flirt with boys her age.

But she never expected for a man who was 30 years older than her to weaponize social media by initiating sexual advances: “Age is no boundary.”

Who was married: “It’s ok, my wife wants to join.”

Who was her boss: “I love that you’re a hardworking girl.” 

Who attempted to silence her: “Whatever, just don’t say anything.” 

 Students enter the workforce expecting to be met with the same level of respect given to their adult counterparts.

“I felt like it was going to be a professional environment where you could become friendly with your coworkers,”  a Whitman senior said.

 Instead, their initiative is often met with manipulation and mistreatment. 

In a workplace environment survey of 91 Whitman upperclassman, 10% reported experiencing verbal abuse, 22% reported witnessing something that made them uncomfortable and 7% recall witnessing harassment while at work.

Dr. Susan Fineran, professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine, conducted a similar survey of 260 students at a New England private school. Fifty-two percent of the girls surveyed reported experiencing sexual harassment in a workplace environment. This is particularly disturbing considering the majority of teen workers only work part-time, and yet they experience the same rate of sexual harassment as full-time workers, Fineran said.

Young workers are likely to be targeted by harassers because they often aren’t aware of their rights and how to protect themselves, Fineran said.  

“If you start working and you aren’t an informed worker, you’re just sort of a sitting duck for anybody who wants to take advantage of you,” Fineran said.

 The legal definition of workplace harassment is “any unwanted or undesirable conduct that puts down or shows hostility or aversion toward another person at the workplace,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Any derogatory remarks, slurs, crude jokes, physical harassment, unwanted sexual advances or discrimination in the workplace are all considered illegal.

An EEOC task force attributes the lack of accountability of harassers to the prevalence of mistreatment. Teenagers specifically are less likely to report an incident because they may be new to the work environment or fear they would lose their job if they were to speak out against another employee.

The voices of harassment victims often go unheard, or their stories are twisted. Here, their stories are shared, on their terms.

Manipulating the power dynamic

Anna was 16 when she started working as a hostess in a restaurant in Bethesda. Starting her first day, she noticed some of her older male managers hitting on her, but she brushed it off as camaraderie between coworkers. But being the youngest worker at the restaurant, she quickly began receiving unwanted advances from her older managers.

“I would be bending over doing something and then they would say ‘you look so good doing that,’ whispered in my ear,” Anna said. “I didn’t know what to do in that situation. It just made me so uncomfortable.”

The managers had access to every employee phone number so that they could reach employees if necessary. When two of the older managers added her on the social media platform Snapchat, she didn’t think anything of it — many of her coworkers communicated through the app. 

But, in the time it takes to send a picture, her work environment changed from social and friendly to uncomfortable and violating, she said.

After working at the restaurant for two months, Anna began receiving nude images and explicit texts via Snapchat from a manager who was around 40 years old. He would ask Anna to have sex with him and his wife, whom he said had already agreed.

Anna immediately declined his advances, explaining that it was inappropriate for him to be soliciting sexual relations with her. Even after she stopped responding, he continued to send her inappropriate messages.

At the same time, a different adult manager started reaching out to her, often calling her while heavily intoxicated late at night to profess his love for her. 

“He was calling me at 3 a.m. telling me he loved me and that age was no boundary,” she said.

The managers reached out to her primarily on the weekends after they had been drinking, Anna said. The managers’ behavior led her coworkers to believe she wanted the attention and was giving them sexual favors in exchange for benefits and paid days off, Anna said. 

Her coworkers would tease her, saying she was “was the hottest girl there” and “getting all the managers.” 

After enduring a year of harassment, she quit.

“I think they thought I was a little girl that wouldn’t say anything,” she said. “They just held so much power over me, and I could have lost my job if I said anything.”

About nine months after she quit, a manager familiar with the situation reached out to Anna and informed her that the managers who had harassed her were no longer working at that location and offered her a new job at the same restaurant.

Although the managers who harassed her no longer worked with her, she still felt the impact of their harassment, she said. On Anna’s 18th birthday, one of her coworkers told her that they would call her old boss and tell him that she was legally an adult.

Her coworkers laughed. She didn’t find it funny. 

Pushing boundaries

The summer after their sophomore year, Julia and four of her friends wanted to make the most of their time off and decided lifeguarding would be a good way to make some money. After interviewing for a position at a pool, Julia took a lifeguarding and first aid course. Two weeks later, she was clocking into her first shift. 

Initially, the manager there conducted himself appropriately, but as he got to know “certain workers” — the majority of whom were female — he pushed the boundaries of a professional relationship, Julia said.

Her manager was over 60 years old, and the majority of the employees were minors. But the over 40-year age gap and inherent expectations of a professional relationship didn’t stop him from asking the younger employees overly personal questions about their lives and making inappropriate comments to female employees, Julia said.

“He always asked a lot about our personal lives, like if we were getting with guys or if we were drinking and smoking,” Julia said. “We would show up to work and he would make comments like ‘You had too much fun last night. You look like you partied hard.’” 

The manager went to extensive lengths to get attention from his younger coworkers, Julia said. He was tolerant of substance usage and permitted the underage employees to drink and smoke marijuana on the premises after work. 

“He promoted it in the fact that he literally bought the alcohol,” another female employee said. “We didn’t have to pay for it or anything; it was a gift. He would just hand us fifths of Svedka and be like ‘for a job well done.’” 

In addition to consistently purchasing alcohol for underage employees, he offered to give the female employees money to buy “cuter” bathing suits. After that comment, Julia said she felt self-conscious working around him in a swimsuit. 

The manager would go from acting like he was a highschooler to being aggressive toward employees, Julia said. He would curse explicitly when employees complained and occasionally referred to female lifeguards as “bitches.”

Upon becoming aware that one of the boys at the pool was interested in Julia, her manager would physically push Julia toward this boy and make suggestive comments about him.

“I was like, ‘why are you, a 60-year-old man involved in a 15-year-old girl’s life right now?”’ Julia said. “It was definitely weird.”

Witnessing harassment

Being the victim of harassment can ruin a workplace experience, but seeing other employees or customers harassed can also be unsettling, senior Daniel said.

Since his interview with a popular eatery in Bethesda, Daniel began enduring uncomfortable interactions between himself and his managers. The initial interviewer showed him videos of workers drinking and partying together outside of work. Daniel found it odd that someone he had just met would show him, a minor, these videos, but he attributed it to the company’s “young culture,” he said.

The next red flag showed up during his training at a D.C. location. His manager told him and the other employees to imagine they were making a drink for a pretty girl and had to make it and serve it perfectly without getting distracted by the customer. 

The manager repeated this scenario multiple times during the training, as well as other sexual innuendos. Daniel didn’t expect to work with this manager again and assumed the uncomfortable comments would be left behind at the training.

But at his first day on the job, in a different location with a different manager, Daniel witnessed the new 23-year-old manager repeatedly flirting with underage customers. 

“A girl about my age ordered a small drink,” Daniel said. “As he’s handing it to her he says ‘you’re too pretty to have a small, so here’s a large drink.’ I didn’t really know what to do or say, and I could tell it made her uncomfortable.” 

Daniel had previous work experience and recognized the situation was unprofessional, so he decided the best course of action was to alert the regional manager about the manager’s inappropriate conduct.

That was until the regional manager came into the store and began flirting with the female customers and offering young girls free drinks. 

On the job search engine Glassdoor, former employees leave reviews commenting on their work experience. The eatery Daniel worked for received negative reviews regarding sexual harassment; multiple reviews mention the eatery overlooking harassment and a male-dominated, toxic, “cult-like” culture.

 After recalling the lessons from a “confronting sexual harassment” online course that the employees were told to participate in, he felt an obligation to let human resources know what he had witnessed. 

When he began to research how to contact HR, he noticed the current head of HR had been involved in a sexual harassment scandal himself at a European location. Daniel felt trapped in a system that he believed would never listen to his voice, he said. 

“The guy is ‘buddy buddy’ with the regional manager here,” Daniel said. “There was no way my voice would have been heard within the company and within the system at all, especially being a new employee and having no background.” 

Daniel doesn’t label himself as a quitter, but after a final “disturbing” exchange with his managers, quitting was his only option, he said.

 “The regional manager said to me as another manager was listening, ‘a girl who wears no bra gets a free drink,’” Daniel said. “It reassured me that I was doing the right thing by leaving.”

Students cope with aftershock

Dr. Fineran’s study found a statistically significant difference in the amount of workplace stress and job withdrawal reported by girls who had been sexually harassed at work in contrast to their peers. 

“For many students a negative work experience may deter them from a career path or hurt them psychologically to the point where they don’t want to work,” Fineran said.

The study also found girls who have been sexually harassed are more likely to skip classes and experience academic withdrawal than their peers.

Fineran believes the most effective way to protect teen workers is for schools to provide courses and information on workplace rights and sexual harassment. Students who experience harassment in the workplace can report their experiences to the EEOC.

Anna has told her mother about her experiences and they have considered taking legal action. Now that she is an adult, she’s scared that in future situations, a manager may do more to her than text her. 

She says her experiences have taught her how to defend herself in other harassment situations.

Although she enjoys her job again, Anna said she feels more isolated at work after these experiences, and while being nice and friendly, she tries to “keep her distance” from her coworkers.

Julia is currently in college but she and the staff at the pool from that summer still keep in touch. They often send each other Snapchat memories and pictures from that summer and joke about the state of the pool.

 Multiple staff members have said the manager has reached out to them several times from different phone numbers since leaving the company. He even asked one of the guards from that summer if he could sleep at her house and live with her. He still follows and inappropriately comments on many of the employees’ Instagram accounts. 

Daniel’s managers and coworkers at the eatery believed he quit due to a scheduling issue but months after he quit, he reconnected with a former coworker to explain his decision. Daniel explained the incidents he witnessed while working for the eatery. The coworker realized he had grown numb: he stopped noticing the comments because “they became so natural,” he said. 

Daniel has since returned to a previous job he held before working at the eatery. During his time at the eatery, he was able to recognize the toxic environment because of the good example of his previous employment setting, he said. In contrast to “feeling trapped” at his job at the eatery, he feels very comfortable and free to open up at his current job. 

“Now it’s a story I carry with me, but it’s also a way to pick up on things,” Daniel said. “I can identify harassment easier, and it keeps me more aware of my surroundings, especially when it’s mostly an all-male environment.”

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