The ugliness of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can make people feel threatened and fearful. It has no place in the workplace as everyone should feel safe and free to report it.

The ugliness of sexual harassment by Nancy Knowlton

As a fully qualified CA and experienced in my role, I often interacted with staff from other offices within our firm. Multinational clients would need staff from a variety of offices to audit subsidiaries, and their work would be rolled up in the top-level audit findings. Tax provisions would require review and input from in-country experts with a similar roll-up at the parent level. It was quite normal to participate on teams where Calgary was the head office or where Calgary was the subsidiary. It was usually a great experience.

Saying no

One year a U.S. tax specialist came to Calgary for one such multinational audit. As was often the case with senior visitors, I was asked to take him out for dinner, and I was happy to oblige. These were great opportunities for me to learn more about the firm and about his area of expertise. We had met several times before, and that meant we could have a very engaged conversation, bypassing all of the pleasantries of a first meeting. After dinner, he asked me for a drink, and even though I didn’t drink, I agreed to 15 minutes, explaining that I was meeting friends shortly. It was during that time that he made a suggestion about spending further time together that evening. I ignored it, pretending not to hear but really hoping that he would lose his nerve and allow me to escape to my other commitment. He followed up his vague suggestion with an explicit pass with no room for misinterpretation. Interestingly, he made a comment about the fact that he was more senior than I as if that would prompt me to accept the proposition. I said “no” clearly and walked out, happy to have avoided any further conversation or interaction with him. We saw each other at the client’s office the next day and there was no conversation, only a cool look exchanged. As quickly as he breezed into Calgary, he left for home.

Aftereffects

I was annoyed and relieved all at the same time. I was annoyed because what I thought was an interesting, professional exchange was not that at all in his mind. I replayed our conversation from the early part of the dinner and could see no room for any other interpretation – we were simply 2 colleagues talking. I was relieved because he was gone quickly from the office, and I wouldn’t have to see him until perhaps next year when he would invariably be back to work on the same account.

stayed tight-lipped about the incident within the firm, choosing not to make a big deal out of the situation as I was not yet completely certain about my career path. I thought that I could be on the path to partnership, and the last thing that I needed to do was make waves with a claim of sexual harassment. I also was acutely aware that he was more senior to me, and he would not take a claim like this lightly and would more than likely come after me and my story aggressively. I rationalized the situation in my mind that nothing had really happened and that it was just words spoken. I didn’t need a messy situation like this to get in the way of work and progress, so I stayed silent with one exception – I immediately told one of my two best friends, because she worked at the same firm.

Retaliation

I should have known that this matter wouldn’t just die. A few months after the incident, a partner for whom I regularly worked asked me to come to his office to review something related to the multinational client. He had received a performance review from the U.S. tax specialist specifically about me and the quality of my work. The partner was flummoxed, because the comments were so negative and contrary to the partner’s experience with me over a number of years, and he wanted to give me a chance to respond. I did not tell him the full story about what this tax manager had propositioned, but I defended myself on the basis of the partner’s direct experience with the quality of my work. I am sure that the partner knew that something had gone on between the 2 of us by the tears that welled up in my eyes, but he did not probe or ask any further questions.

Hindsight

With the benefit of experience and perspective, I would now report this harassing behavior to a superior. I would not assume that it would simply fade into the background. I would assume that this behavior would have been part of a larger pattern and other women would have been unsuspecting targets. I would be prepared to sacrifice a career opportunity to call out this inappropriate behavior. I would be confident in not wanting to work with people who would not take my account seriously.

Harassment is unacceptable

On a proactive basis, now that I am in a position to influence or direct policies and culture, I have been overt in communicating that harassment of any type is unacceptable. Victims of all genders and orientations have a voice, and no one need feel threatened or abused.

Times have changed and undoubtedly improved for women in business, but we should not assume that all is well because women are silent. We need to make environments everywhere safe for them to flourish and speak up about harassment. Women are equally responsible for their own behavior and that means respecting men and women in the workplace as well and not making false or exaggerated claims against others. In short, everyone needs to be educated about harassment to keep it at bay.

I know the fear and uncertainty that I felt as a junior staff member, and I suspect that it is the same for many young women today as they are starting their careers. Sexual harassment is ugly business, and it has no place at the office or any place where colleagues may interact.

Latest Posts

Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.