“We want to normalize a reality where having children and advancing your career are not mutually exclusive.”
I’ve carried the darkness for 23 years. As I’ve reflected on why I didn’t report, I’ve come to realize that I’m part of the universal cover up. I’m embarrassed. I want my privacy. I don’t want to be affiliated with debauchery or promiscuity. I didn’t want to be labeled the radical poster child of the “women’s movement.” But I know now that I am at a precipice. I can no longer support justice quietly, from my safe haven of privacy and solitude. I need to shoulder some of the risk, I need to normalize speaking out.
I was 16. I was introverted and studious. I was committed to athletics and school, to going to bed early and maintaining a healthy diet. I’d never been to a high school party. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke. I had few close friends, spending my time with my high school sweetheart, reading good books and working out. That’s when sexual assault came knocking on my door- or rather, storming right through it.
It was roughly 11 PM on a summer night. I don’t remember the exact date. Years and trauma have washed away the transactional details- what remains are the vivid emotions. I had long since been asleep in my own bed, in our quiet neighborhood, in sleepy Des Moines, IA. I was a light sleeper and heard my bedroom door open, a shadowy figure outlined in the space. He closed the door quickly behind him and I knew... I was not naïve to darkness in the world, to catcalls, lingering touches, the leers of men both young and old. My life had been lived with the caution required of being a young female in this world. I had an older brother and his friends came and went into our home frequently. Usually filling the space with laughter, but tonight filling it with something horrible.
Adrenaline was pulsing through me, I scanned the room for an escape. We lived in a small home and it took him just one step to leap from the door to my bed, smothering me with his 18 years of masculinity. The smell of alcohol was pungent, a sour stench radiating off of him. I recognized him as a boy who had attended my high school, a few years older than me. He had been on the wresting team, muscular and athletic. I knew almost nothing else about him.
There were no words, no kind gestures. He aggressively kissed me, forcing himself on me, making me gag on the abrupt attack and sour taste. There was no pretending that he intended anything to be consensual. He forced all of his weight on me, frantically grabbing at my body. I was sleeping in a t-shirt and athletic shorts. My instincts had taken over and I was fighting back with all of my might, turning my face away, trying to push him off of me. I plead, “STOP, STOP, STOP, GET OFF!” His hand was up my shirt now, clawing at me and tears were in my eyes as I pushed against him with all of my power and will. Why didn’t I scream? To channel what my 16 year old self was thinking is difficult because I am a different person now. Today I’d scream from the top of my lungs. I’d bite his ear off. I’d be unapologetic about defending my body and soul. But we, the world, don’t teach girls to be unapologetic. We teach them to question, to be thoughtful about others, to be polite with words and level with actions. We teach them not to be presumptuous, or rude or hurtful. I was a “good” girl, a rule follower and not a wave maker. I wanted to defend my body, but be humble and kind while doing it.
He was grasping at my shorts and I was in pure panic. It was exactly what I held up, of all of the fears in my young mind, as my worst nightmare. He was grinding on me with his full body weight, enjoying the game of cat and mouse. I was sobbing, my neck straining to get my face away from him. I couldn’t move, his 50 pound advantage pinning me down. I suddenly felt his body go limp and he chuckled lightly. He stood up, staggering slightly, and sheepishly grabbed at his pants, indicating he’d “finished” what he started earlier than he meant to. He staggered out of my room without another word.
I was left with the weight of shame and fear, and I wore it like a coat as the years ticked by. I was diligent about my personal safety, I steered away from men, dark spaces, college parties, any place where I didn’t feel in total control. I went on one date, with one boy in college, breaking it off after he tried to kiss me. I didn’t tell my mom, my best friends or my eventual husband. I didn’t label what happened. I didn’t say, even to myself, “that guy sexually assaulted me.” When the attacker’s name on rare occasions came up in social circles, I’d mutter quietly, “that guy was always a creep” and drop it.
Today, I am done covering it up. It’s inhumane to take dignity and safety from another person and I will not perpetuate the notion that it’s dirty to talk about being a victim.
I am a CEO. I am a leader of people, a protector of youth. I am strong, achievement-driven, intelligent and compassionate and I am standing here today saying what happened to me was someone else’s wrong. It was not dirty or scandalous. It was not deserved or radical. I teach girls every single day about self worth and strength, and it is my duty to risk something, and share in the job of shouldering the enormous weight of changing the way we talk about sexual assault. In the words of my high school basketball coach, “this isn’t a spectator sport, get in there and fight.” Maybe it took 23 years, but I’m in the fight.
“I let out a sigh of relief, took a sip of wine and mingled. They had flown me to the conference as a facilitator and expert and I felt like my session had gone well. I saw the owner of the firm across the room and he made his way toward me. This felt like the start of a great partnership and potentially more consulting work for me. He walked up next to me, slid his arm around my waist, and with vodka-scented breath whispered, ‘I’ve always thought you are attractive, let’s ditch this party and head up to my room.’ I saw a few sideways glances from his employees standing nearby and wanted to shrink right out of that Ann Taylor suit and get on a plane and go home.” –Female sales executive, married with 2 kids, Des Moines
I sat listening to her experience, shaking my head and commiserating with own tales of “professional creepery.” It's clear it impacts all ages, genders, sizes and demographics. Every few months an experience nudges me to write about it, but I back away, knowing it’s a topic that ignites blame, insecurity and finger-pointing. I hesitate to put thoughts to paper, because it’s a hard thing to talk about. But then again, many things worth discussing are.
It’s estimated that approximately 25% of the workforce has dipped their toe into the waters of workplace dating. If you’re looking for love or companionship in the pool of your professional network, this isn’t the article for you. You may want to check out “I regret dating a coworker...”
All kidding aside, there’s a population of people who are not seeking a sexual partner from their professional network. They are in a committed relationship, or simply want no part of mixing their work and personal lives in this way. I’m in this camp.
Here’s the dilemma: as a female (Creepery happens across all demographics and genders. This is my first –hand account, relate it as best you can to your situation.) I feel conflicted. After-hours networking is important and rewarding: dinners, galas, golf, tail gaiting, and happy hours are commonplace at work. Professional bonding can lead to career opportunities, peer support, professional references, and genuine friendship. But it can also lead to suggestive come-ons, retaliation, gossip, reputation risks (see intro story), and cause relationship issues. My very spirit is built on a need to achieve, or have at least a fair chance trying, a mighty voice yelling “fight for your seat in the club!” But there’s a soft whisper afterwards “But don’t smile too much. Or accidentally brush against anyone. Or seem too interested. Or look too feminine. Raise the neckline, lower the heels, confidently look men in the eyes, but not long enough that it implies anything.”
It’s exhausting. I hear from good men in my life that they feel worried about saying or doing the wrong thing when it comes to their female counterparts. So after a few decades of navigating this tricky landscape, I’ve created some personal guidelines that encourage professional relationships and minimize the risk of misinterpretation. Harassment can happen to anyone, there’s no immunity shield to avoid it or deflecting accountability for those who instigate it. Rather, I’ve developed a blueprint on how I want to be treated and how I will treat other people in an atmosphere that is dotted with ambiguity.
1) Be unapologetic about demanding respect for my time, dignity or body.
If that little red flag goes up for any reason, I am pleasantly direct about my boundaries. A LinkedIn acquaintance (let’s call him “Jack,” totally made up name) recently messaged me about a business article I appeared in. I responded to discuss the content of the article. He messaged again. I did not respond, yet the frequency increased and the content evolved to his personal life. Soon, there were 5 unanswered messages and an invitation from Jack that we should text instead. I simply responded, “I prefer to keep all communication on the professional level.” No qualifiers, no apologies. It took me many years to realize when someone is infringing on my boundaries I don’t owe them polite subtlety. Mature, well-intentioned peers will respect the clarity.
2) Avoid invitations to move conversations into personal digital spaces.
In my experience an invitation to move conversations over to a text or messenger thread, are rarely for the purpose of being more professional. Personal digital channels are themselves not problematic. I enjoy a wide social network of colleagues, both men and women. I enjoy their posts, pictures and getting to know their aspirations and families. My cell phone number is also accessible to many, and I exchange texts with male colleagues. These social connections tend to happen organically, only after establishing a baseline of trust and respect.
3) Conduct business communication as close to business hours as possible.
Admittedly, this is squishy. We live in a 24/7 connected world and I’m right there. But as a general rule, I avoid communicating privately on evenings and weekends when it’s not relevant to a timely project or event. Another business contact I had, “Dave”, accepted a business meeting with me with the caveat that it had to be in the evening. I thought that was reasonable given his long hours and standing in the community. The night before the meeting I received a thread on a social media message asking what type of wine I preferred and a winking face emoji, at 9 PM. I’m at a stage I’d rather be presumptuous than sorry so I cancelled the meeting.
4) Limit alcohol consumption.
Alcohol is present at most networking events. And I like it. I like it at receptions. I like it on the golf course. I like it in a box. I like it with a fox. You get the idea.
A glass of wine or two breaks down an invisible barrier we introverts seem to carry, just enough for me to enjoy great dialogue and get to know those I’m with. I take both my reputation and ability to drive safely very seriously, so two is the cutoff.
In addition to quantity, context matters when it comes to drinking. An invitation stating, “Are you free to grab a drink and discuss XYZ topic” next week feels innocuous and probably is. But anything I’m passionate about discussing with my male peers is just as exciting to me over lunch. There’s something inherently not seductive about polishing off a plate of fettucine alfredo. I do meet one on one with male peers, I do meet after hours, and I may enjoy a drink, but the combination of all three is a situation I don’t put myself or my peers in.
5) Avoid deep discussion about partners and relationships.
I recently had coffee with an esteemed professional acquaintance covering a range of topics. I learned a lot and valued the opportunity greatly. I’m grateful to have some trusted colleagues to lean on for mentoring and advice. But it’s easy to misinterpret professional politeness for personal interest, so keeping topics that are potentially vulnerable or emotional reserved for my personal circle is my rule of thumb. I am particularly mindful of conversations that include personal details or remarks about either person’s spouse.
It boils down to personal boundaries. I count many men among my close friends and people I admire. I enjoy great conversation about business and projects and life. At times I have to adapt the guidelines to new situations or people, but one thing I’ve learned is to be intentional about the things that matter to me most and my personal space, reputation and dignity is near the top of the list.
Creating a positive organizational culture is akin to devouring homemade pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. That is, at our house, it’s not an afterthought or a luxury to be enjoyed only “if there’s room.” It’s a requirement. You build it into the plan, priorities are established: pie, turkey, potatoes, in that order. Likewise, culture, engagement, results. It’s a winning recipe.
First, some context. Our organization was struggling and there was a direct correlation to workplace satisfaction and performance output. Only 19% of our workforce identified as being satisfied with the workplace culture and 38%+ of our staff turned over annually. In tandem, nearly every key performance indicator was on a multi-year decline. Exactly one year into our organizational transformation, our workplace satisfaction soared to 89% and a mere 6% of the workforce turned over. Subsequently, every single performance metric rose, breaking records in growth, sales, retention and revenue. There’s something remarkable about a team with spark. Passion, commitment and positivity are contagious and you can’t stop them from improving your results.
Culture is a funny thing though. The results aren’t always obvious and instant, like flipping a light switch. It takes commitment and consistency. Gradually, like a slow dawn, things get brighter until light starts to permeate even the darkest shadows.
The list of the initiatives, ideas and people that turned our culture around is extensive. Here are four critical pieces of the pie that shaped our transformation.
First, we received communication. As the CEO, I invested time to meet one on one with every employee and board member. I asked questions about what could make this their dream job, and who they identified as the top performers. I took notes on what they’d tackle first if they woke up to find they were the CEO. It takes extraordinary effort to put aside all defenses and simply listen to ideas and input. Any form of blaming, retaliating, or making excuses renders this step ineffective. It is an information gathering mission.
We also gave communication, authentic communication. It was a gift we had been withholding, creating distrust and disengagement. We became transparent with staff. When we made hard decisions, we gave the sometimes painful background.
With genuine listening and open sharing, we were able to utilize the skills and passions of the entire team and invited them to be part of organizational solutions. Even when solutions were stubborn, the team had developed trust in the process.
Caring For People
Step two was acting on what we had learned, and it took a leap of faith. We overhauled the entire organizational chart, aligning positions with skills, goals, and a structure of servant leadership. It literally represented a bottom up approach, with CEO as the “bottom rung” in the organization, lifting and elevating the next team, and so on.
We emphasized the great things that were already happening on our team, from performance to attitude to milestones. We celebrated and honored staff, giving awards and showing public appreciation at team meetings.
Part of caring for our people was updating our benefits and policies to reflect what was best for them. We added paid parental leave, increased PTO, added paid time off to volunteer in the community, transitioned some employees to remote/home-based workers, created a casual dress code for appropriate roles and allowed employees to customize their work spaces. You could say trust and autonomy became our love language. A group of team-leads came in after hours with bright paint and vinyl letters, working late into the night so that when Monday morning came, the staff on that floor was greeted with “Awesomeness Happens Here.” And by that point, they were all starting to believe it.
Connecting With Purpose
As an organization with struggling performance metrics, the work had become rigid. Performance pressure had led to more meetings and more data: report, review, require. Wash, rinse, repeat. It was easy to forget that real people were involved. So, we began our weekly executive meetings with “Brag and Tag,” an opportunity for each team member to celebrate a personal accomplishment and share one that they’d witnessed from another staff member. The 10 minute investment we made each week helped us connect on a level beyond spreadsheets.
We carved out time to write hand-written notes to staff and began thinking outside the box on celebrations: office chair relays, a chopped challenge, decorating Valentine boxes and Take your Parent to Work Day, just to name a few memorable activities from the past year.
Perhaps most important, we flattened our attitudes alongside our org chart and made leading by example priority number one. No team member was asked to do something an executive member wasn’t willing to do. We make sure when we hire someone that they won’t shy away from running a vacuum for a few minutes at the end of an event if duty calls.
With team members across six physical locations over portions of three states, it became a priority to bring the entire team together three times per year with a focus on growth, passion and connecting. We’ve played games, zip-lined and completed service projects. From silly-stringing the CEO for hitting a staff-wide goal, to kicking off the gathering with a parody R&B song utilizing lyrics representing our organization, we embraced things that make people smile and showed that we’re in this together…not just work, but life.
We made learning about leadership and acting like leaders a priority. We read several books as an executive team and implemented key strategies. We developed ways to measure performance so we could provide clarity and resources for staff. Personnel and policy changes were made to align with our goals and culture. We made some tough financial decisions that were emotional but needed. We transitioned some responsibilities into a Talent Development role to raise the bar for our whole staff and recognize the skills they had to offer. As the CEO, I took on portions of front line work to better understand the challenges. When executive positions opened, we promoted internal candidates who had showcased their talent and commitment to our positive culture.
Remarkable metrics have been reached in our organization, records broken, national recognitions received, and promotions abound. But the most meaningful outcome sits on my desk, a gift I received from the team. It’s a clear mason jar decorated with a small twine bow, stuffed full of small slips of paper. On each slip is a sentence written by one of our staff members exactly 12 months into our transformation. I’ve yet to read them all, I savor them, pulling a new one out in moments that I need healing or inspiration. I pulled one out to close this article and it reads “Your genuine care for staff is authentic. We’d move mountains for you, because you’d do the same for us.” That is culture change, when your team knows, trusts and expects that you work for their gain.