Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Harassment in the workplace

Yesterday, I was reading a post on Facebook by Sandra Heska King about the #metoo hashtag, sexual harassment, and Harvey Weinstein. Sexual harassment may not affect 100 percent of women, but I suspect it’s affected many and likely most.

#Andmentoo. Not as common as women’s experiences, but #Andmentoo.

I was 29, married seven years and with a new baby at home. My job was a corporate speechwriter, one of three in the department. I was the new kid on the block, so I was assigned to write for the top vice president in Human Resources. And he was a good man to write speeches for. He understood the speechwriting and speech-giving processes. He was smart and articulate. He loved saying provocative things (unusual for someone in HR). And he kept the corporate hierarchy away from his speech drafts.

For one speech, he asked me to talk with one of his direct reports, to get some studies and statistics. It was a name I was only vaguely familiar with, but I made the appointment with the man’s secretary. I arrived on time, and she asked me to sit while she informed him I was there. I was slightly surprised as how formal everything was. I also had the impression that the secretary seemed very tense.

Within a few minutes, I was ushered into the man’s office, and we talked for about an hour. He knew what information I was seeking, and had made copies of several reports. He had exactly what the senior HR leader had asked for. I sat on a small sofa in his office, and he sat in a chair across a coffee table from me.

As we finished the conversation and stood, with me preparing to leave, he pointed to my suit jacket (we wore coats and ties in those days) and said, “That’s a really nice suit.”

Surprised, I said thank you.

“No, that’s really a nice suit,” he said. And he reached toward me and began to rub his hand on the suit jacket I was wearing, repeating “That’s a really nice suit.”

I may have been 29, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew I was being hit on, and I tried to retain my composure and figure out how to get out of there. I finally blurted out “I got it on sale at Dillard’s” and fled his office. His secretary saw me burst out through the door and she quickly looked down at her desk.

I was shaken. This had never happened to me before, and I didn’t know how to handle it. Do I tell someone? Do I tell his boss? Do I go to my HR representative? Do I tell my boss? Do I say nothing and pretend like it never happened?

I finally decided to say nothing. It would likely come down to my word against his – and that wasn’t a rationalization. No one else witnessed it. No one else was affected. I considered the possibility that maybe I had misunderstood, but I knew what was happening. And I knew from his secretary’s reaction that she understood why I was running out the door. But I also knew that he could literally upend my career – he had that kind of power. And the company would inevitably side with the management in place, because that was the culture. Management was always right. Management never made mistakes. And management was always good.

So, I said nothing. I did make sure to avoid the man from that point onward. Fortunately for me, nothing happened, or at least nothing that I knew of.

Flash forward 12 years. I’m now leading the speechwriting team and a few other functions as well. I had had the opportunity to build the team from the ground up, and we had some outstanding people. One of them had been a secretary in HR, and one day as I walked by her desk I heard her mention the harasser’s name.

I asked her about it, and at first she wouldn’t say. And then she told me the man’s reputation. He was an equal opportunity harasser – it didn’t matter whether it was men or women. If you didn’t give in, you paid for it with your career. And he had a knack for picking on people who would likely have little credibility or would be too afraid to say anything. And everyone in HR was well aware of the problem, she said. And she went further, and talked about the other sexual harassers in HR. The guy who pawed me wasn’t the only one, by a long shot.

I told her what had happened to me. By this time, she was in tears. I didn’t ask about her own experiences, and she didn’t volunteer anything.

I went to the one HR person I knew I could trust, or hoped I could trust. I told him what had happened to me all those years before, and what was apparently still going on. He was embarrassed, and shamefaced. He was well aware of the stories, and of the perpetrators. He asked me to give him some time, and he would see what he could do. I wondered if I had signed my career death warrant.

It took another 18 months, but a new HR organization lead from outside the company finally cleaned it out.

Looking back, I realize it wasn’t just the harasser himself. It was also the people who knew what he and others were up to but did nothing. It was the corporate culture of “we’re all on the same team and you have to be a team player” and “management never makes mistakes.” It was people like me who had been harassed but chose to say nothing, even if we only knew about our own experience. It was the fear of what could happen to your career.

Somehow, this has to stop, or be stopped. No more silence.


Top photograph by Cristian Newman and middle photograph by Ben White, both via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Poets and Poems: Michelle Menting and “Leaves Surface Like Skin”

Lichen sticking to the grooves of tree bark. Pine needles surrounding a house embedded in the woods. A pale, yellow flower grazing the finger of a young man leaving for war. Imagining life as a tardigrade, or “little water bear.” Bramble-scrawled oak trees. Burial mounds so natural they seem part of the landscape.

Nature and geography offer a wealth of images and metaphors for poetry, and poet Michelle Menting drinks deeply from that source in her new collection, Leaves Surface Like Skin. The 46 poems of the collection are filled with nature’s images, but filled in a distinct way. Menting uses nature, geography, landscape, and the seasons to probe and push against the human condition. This is not so much nature poetry as it is nature poetry in the service of understanding one’s self and the people surrounding you.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, October 16, 2017

“The Ferryman” by Jez Butterworth

The story opens rather ominously. A body has been found in a bog; the man had been missing for 10 years. It’s clear that he had been executed – his hands had been bound behind his back and he was shot in the back of the head. Two men attempt to convince, and then successfully threaten, a Catholic priest, to convince the man’s older brother to let the death be. 

Switch scenes to a farmhouse early on the day of harvest in 1981. The Carney family is waking up, and it is a large and extended family. Quinn Carney is the family head; he and his wife Mary have seven children, stretching from the teens to a baby. Living with them is Quinn’s sister-in-law Caitlyn and her son Oisin; Caitlyn’s husband disappeared 10 years before, although periodic rumors report sightings of him in Ireland and England.  

The family includes three aging relatives – Aunt Maggie, afflicted with dementia; Uncle Patrick, who likes his liquor; and Aunt Patricia, who is rather sardonically funny and lives to hate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

This is Northern Ireland. It is the Time of Troubles, the Irish Republican Army, and random and not-so-random violence. And what looks to be a happy, loud, and somewhat raucous family will discover the violence of politics and the politics of violence rearing their heads. 

This is the story of The Ferryman by British playwright Jez Butterworth. It’s a moving story, and a disturbing story. It is also a story that, while it may be about Northern Ireland and the IRA in 1981, it is also a story very much with us today, in this age of extremist politics, protest, division, and anger. And this is true for both reading the play and seeing it performed. 

As such, the play can be considered a warning against what happens to the family when politics and violence fuse together. 

Jez Butterworth
Butterworth is one of Britain’s leading playwrights, and the author of several previous plays, including Jerusalem, Mojo, The River, The Night Heron, Parlour Song, and The Winterling. The Ferryman debuted in April in London and is currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre. 

The minor character of Aunt Pat is a critical one to the story. She not only directly introduces the edge of politics into the play; she also represents the longstanding bitterness and anger against the English that fueled so much of the IRA’s activities. 

But it is the character of Quinn Carney that is the critical one. He’s a man in love with his sister-in-law and not his invalid wife; he restrains himself politically and focuses on his managing his farm. But he also has a past as a former IRA soldier. And as the growing shadows gather around Quinn and his family, the question becomes what he will do. 

The Ferryman is a hard story, but a story that needs to be told. And read. 

Top photograph of harvest in Northern Ireland via WallpaperStock.net.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The wind rushed

After Acts 2:1-8

The wind rushed in violence,
a scouring, dust flying and blinding
our eyes, pouring over us like
blood invisible but heard, the sound
of filling and the sound of fear, and awe.

As it flowed around and into,
as it streamed within to without,
a pouring of voices, words, languages
erupting from an inner unknown,
strange words and sounds pouring
over those assembled in expectation,
over those told to wait,
but never expecting this wind,
this rushing, this violence, this flame,
this transformation.

Photograph by Luca Zanon via Unsplash. Used with permission.