Chloe Plescher: Young, working and sexually harassed

Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 2:47pm

Though it seems like it is in the news quite often, particularly because of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment is an everyday concern. It is especially a concern for workers in restaurants, cafés and retail, where most employees are young adults. While this can be beneficial, it can also create a toxic environment for women and students ­– an environment that unfortunately includes sexual harassment.

Since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment in the workplace is considered illegal. Companies have since created policies to prevent harassment, but this does not completely stop it. Rather, no-tolerance sexual harassment policies exist to encourage individuals to report. However, companies’ investigations can be as damaging as the harassment. Reporting and investigation processes need reform to eliminate victim-blaming and retaliation. Victims should not be on trial.

I experienced a poor investigation first-hand. At a café job in the summer of 2018, a worker 10 years my senior took advantage of the freezer’s tight space, and he groped and rubbed my body against my will. I avoided him the rest of my shift and tried to ignore what happened. But once home, I obsessively recalled every detail. It was not the first time someone hurt me, so I convinced myself I deserved what he did. I mapped what I did wrong and what I should have done to escape his grip sooner. To escape further harm, I quit before my next shift and returned to my previous movie theater job. I was severely depressed and terrified to report. After all, I had been there for two weeks and my assailant had been there for a decade. However, the general manager at the café was suspicious and told a worker whoever harmed me would be fired. So, a week after quitting, I emailed a report to the manager. I assumed corporate would become involved, they would interview my assailant and the decision would be made without any drama. I assumed incorrectly. They investigated the abused instead of the abuser. Corporate talked about my mental well-being to workers uninvolved. They threatened write-ups if the situation was discussed, yet called staff repeatedly for questions. In the end, the environment became hostile and fearful, as my assailant was declared innocent. I resented myself for reporting.

Yet, I am not the only one who has felt this way or who has experienced retaliation after reporting. Sexual harassment is an epidemic in the United States, and it is not only a problem when the news deems it one. Fifty-four percent of women surveyed in a 2017 ABC News-Washington Post poll reported they had been sexually harassed, and 30 percent said they had been sexually harassed by a man in the workplace. Moreover, 23 percent said it was a superior who harassed them. Power dynamics already take control away from subordinates. Whether it be boss to employee or professor to student, the superior can abuse their power and attack young women and students without fearing consequences. Superiors keep their position without worry, while victims’ lives are dissected.

Workers are then not only in danger of being sexually harassed but are in danger of physical and mental outcomes of harassment and retaliation. According to NBC News, sexual harassment victims can experience physical side effects including headaches, muscle pain and “chronic” high blood pressure and blood sugar issues. Furthermore, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are prevalent among sexual harassment survivors. For me, I sank deeper into my self-harm. For some, it can result in suicide. Obviously, reform is needed, but change can happen only through proactive efforts. Thoughts and prayers will not solve the sexual harassment crisis.

Companies must improve training and investigations. According to a study reported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 75 percent of those who report harassment in the workplace face retaliation. The retaliation can vary from gossip, undeserving discipline, reassignment, demotions and being fired. A University of Massachusetts Amherst study found two-thirds of victims who press charges are fired. Despite the fact that firing an employee for pressing charges is illegal in the United States, it is overwhelmingly common. Hence, only companies can change their behavior when they do not abide by the law. The BE HEARD Act is a great legal start, but if companies do not already follow laws, we cannot anticipate strong results. The sexual harassment reporting and investigative processes need to be analyzed and reformed to aid the victims, not further attack them further. Workers should not be at risk when on the job. For student workers, they already are at risk on campus for sexual harassment and retaliation. They deserve to be safe at their jobs. Workspaces should be positive environments spurring productivity, not trauma. 

Women and students can take action by starting the conversation, perhaps meeting with supervisors to discuss sexual harassment policies and prevention training. Students can be ambassadors to provide a testimonial perspective and be their own advocate. However, the extra effort is not solely the responsibility of women and students. It is not up to the oppressed to overthrow the oppressor when companies are a resourceful bystander. It is impossible to change workplace sexual harassment without company involvement. While many have training explaining the no-tolerance policy, it obviously does not do enough. When I worked at the café (a major chain), the only sexual harassment training was the scheduling manager saying it was a no-tolerance policy. In a place where most of the staff are teenagers and young adults, this is dangerous. Women and students are in peril when companies do not value employees. The training must focus on how sexual harassment harms people, not how it harms the company. People are more invested in learning when it directly involves them. In-depth workshops should discuss how sexual harassment affects the work environment, how it affects life outside the workplace and how it affects mental health. Each side effect impacts the other and can take years to heal from, if the survivor heals at all. Sexual harassment goes beyond causing a bad day – sexual harassment sabotages daily life and can even end one. 

Chloe Plescher can be reached at chloebp@umich.edu.