This business with Herman Cain and workplace sexual harassment allegations against him sparked a memory from almost thirty years ago. It didn’t happen in a car, it wasn’t at night, there had been no drinks and dinner, and there was no physical groping.
Was it inappropriate? You be the judge.
It was 1983. I was in my early thirties. I’d applied for a position with a major employer, and was in the final phase of the hiring process. I’d already survived a panel interview, a presentation to demonstrate my skills, a self-assessment exercise in others’ presence, and reference checking. The final step was a one-on-one interview with the hiring manager, the person to whom I would report.
Things went fine until he began inquiring about my personal life. There was no one else present.
“I understand that this is your second marriage, and that you went through a tough time a few years ago.” “Yes,” I responded, “my first husband and I divorced shortly after my last year teaching at the university. But my professional performance was not affected. In fact, I received the highest instructional ratings of all faculty in my department.”
“What were the problems in your marriage? Why did it end?”
Red lights began to strobe in my head. “Who IS this guy,” I thought, “and exactly what do my first marriage and its dissolution have to do with my qualifications for this position?”
I paused, thought carefully about what I would say, trusted my gut, and finally offered some bland response about growing apart, being too young. The subject changed and there were no further questions about this topic.
I wanted that job. I knew I was more than qualified, even though I also knew that what he was asking was prurient and out of line. The company was big and new to me and I didn’t know whom to tell. What I did know was that I felt extremely uncomfortable, and that a boundary had been crossed. I also knew that, if I had complained at that point, I probably would not have been hired. I had absolutely no reputation or influence yet in the company. I would have been a nobody, complaining about an established manager.
I got the job and reported to this individual for five years. And, I remained on alert.
Distance–personal and physical–worked for me. I rarely was alone with him, except for the annual performance review discussion. I revealed little about myself and always kept conversations professional. This is not my usual style, but my gut alert dial with this person never moved off “red.”
He was terminated in my fifth year. A series of complaints, from within and outside our team, to Human Resources about his hostile work environment got company leadership’s attention and sealed his fate. The system worked. I went on to a rewarding twenty more years there.
The women who have filed complaints against Herman Cain may have felt the same disbelief, powerlessness and isolation that I did at first thirty years ago. Circumstances can prevent a voice from being heard immediately. What’s important is that it’s heard…finally.