As an entrepreneur who recently dealt with sexual harassment from a client, I came to realize that threats against my person are inherent threats against my business, too. In recent months, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we have all learned that people don’t “look like” predators. Predatory behavior is non-discriminatory, crossing gender, age, racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic bounds.
As cliché as it may sound, my story started innocently enough but quickly progressed. After signing a lucrative contract with a new client, my business partner immediately picked up on his advances after one of our meetings early on. I had been convinced to sit down with him for a “business meeting,” which quickly turned into a hostile interrogation where he focused on my personal life and questioned how serious my current relationship is, rather than the work-related items he said he was coming to my office to discuss. I spent at least 20 minutes of the discussion trying to tiptoe around his feelings, acting as if I was oblivious to his advances. I wanted to remain professional and kind.
I felt trapped, and I was physically alone in the meeting, so I ended up cutting it short. I made up an excuse, apologized and left.
I’ve always considered myself a strong, independent woman, but this situation gave me pause. Was all of this just in my head? Was I making a big deal out of nothing? Or was I being harassed? Having studied Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies in my undergraduate career, the thoughts that flooded my mind were ones I assumed I would never have — thoughts like: Is it my fault? Did I do something to encourage this? Was it something I wore? Am I making this up? Once I took a step back, I understood the answers were clear: no.
We immediately terminated the contract with said client. We ended up losing thousands of dollars in potential revenue, but no amount of money is worth the possible physical harm and anxiety that he caused me to feel.
Instead of just pushing everything down and forgetting about it (which was what I really wanted to do), I came up with a plan of action that would work for myself and for my business.
Feel your feelings. I checked in. How was I doing emotionally? I wanted to confide in people, so I did. I wanted to be alone, so I was. When I was done, I picked myself up, put my red lipstick and chainmail necklace on, and marched out of my house like a warrior.
Take safety precautions. It was imperative to take precautionary measures not only for myself but also for my employees. As an employer, I have a responsibility to create a safe space for the people who dedicate their time and attention to growing my company. Making sure this person could not enter my place of work and inflict any emotional or bodily harm was a priority, so I gave his information and photograph to building security.
Gather evidence. I created a summary of what happened, saved phone messages, emails and made sure there was an accurate timeline of what occurred.
Lawyer up. I spoke with an employment lawyer about how to protect myself but also our company, due to the early termination of the project. Trying to navigate all possible outcomes while thinking ahead was imperative. What if one of our employees was in a meeting with a client who harassed her/him? How would we protect her/him and would we be liable as a company? We came up with strategies and shared the protocols with our team members to ensure they would know what to do in such an event.
If it feels right, report it. Once a complaint is made to the police and the offender violates that complaint (and if the offender has a prior), the offender can be arrested immediately.
A friend of mine working in the adult leadership and learning program asked me, “After all this, what is the outcome you would like to have?”
Well, I’d like to share my story and let people know that in situations like these it is easy and OK to feel uncomfortable, vulnerable and alone. It can be difficult in such emotional situations to identify the clear steps that need to be taken in order to protect yourself as a professional. But it’s necessary and doable to bounce back and enact proactive steps to combat such occurrences, with the right support systems and legal practices in place. While you can’t control how others act, you can control how you react.
I hope my experience illustrates why personal safety should always be paramount to profit.