I worked at a small independent record label some years back as an executive assistant to the president of the North American branch. With the headquarters in London, our office had only about 10 people total and only one other person apart from myself was a woman.
My boss, who I'll call C, was exceptional. He treated me more like a friend and less like an employee. While the job itself was taxing at times, he was very generous with days off, free lunches (and sometimes even breakfast), and even sent me to The Grammys one year simply because I stated that I wanted to go. He even allowed me to smoke in the office at the end of the day if I wanted. C was a caring and liberal boss — something that I had not encountered often in my lifetime.
C often talked to me about his problems with his New York girlfriend, Marla*, a former escort that he "Pretty Womaned." And while I didn't love having to give him advice, I didn't entirely mind it because I felt he had to be lonely if there was no one else for him to talk to apart from his fairly new assistant. I'd come to feel bad for him as his layers unraveled, revealing a lost soul.
While my boss had no problem sharing his personal issues with me, it wasn't until he called me into his office and asked me if I could get cocaine that I'd felt he'd crossed a line. Put on the spot and not wanting to disappoint my boss who had been cool with my degenerate pot-smoking, I told him I would see what I could do, and after a few hours went by, I told him I couldn't find any. I had hoped this was just an anomaly and assumed he wouldn't ask me again, until he did. Over and over again almost every day, he started asking me if I could procure cocaine and/or molly.
Right around this time, a major record label absorbed us and we were no longer an indie. My boss's behavior became more erratic, and everyone chalked it up to the stress of the merger. A few people in accounting had their suspicions as his expenses started to become more and more questionable — something that I knew first-hand since he often withheld receipts and would just ask me to write things off, even though I knew they were bullshit (like when he dropped $800 on Beats headphones and told me to write it off as a computer expense). Still, feeling a sense of loyalty to C, I never told anyone what was really going on.
One morning, I walked into work to see him crying at his desk. Apparently, Marla cheated on him with their coke dealer and got knocked up. At this point, I had no advice for him. As a no-nonsense person, apart from "leave her," I had nothing else to say.
A few days later, I woke up to several texts from him that he had sent me at 1:00 a.m. that morning. He said he was lonely and asked me if I knew anyone who would want to come over. I responded and told him that I just saw the texts, and then he straight-up asked me if I was up for having any fun.
The texts progressed and got more and more uncomfortable, but I still went to work that day because he told me he wasn't going to be there and it was the last day before the July 4th break.
When I got to work, he left me a message demanding that I leave work to go to his apartment. The line that stuck out most — the line that I would come to repeat over and over again to coworkers, friends, family, executives, and HR personnel — was when he said, "You're my assistant. It's your job to help the boss out of a rough spot."
I was floored.
Once this happened, I immediately started messaging all of my friends and sending them screenshots of the nefarious texts and explaining my predicament. At a loss for what to do, I sought their guidance. I even alerted my other female coworker and played her the voicemail. She, too, was shocked and did not know the best way I should handle it.
While everyone initially told me I should alert some of my superiors or HR department about this situation, I did not view that as an option. "They'll blame me for having tattoos and for how I dress," I argued. "I'll get blacklisted from the industry for snitching," I worried. "He has so much more power and authority. No one will care," I assumed.
I felt scared and helpless, but above all, I felt devalued. The job I had taken so much pride in and believed I was good at now meant nothing as I was questioning my validity as an employee. My self-esteem suffered. I felt worthless.
Ultimately, my plan was to update my resume, find a new job as quickly as possible, and quietly leave so as not to rock the boat. With my boss taking more days off as a result of his coke binges, I managed to carefully navigate the rest of the summer by strategically taking days off and being in his presence as scarcely as possible.
While he didn't proposition me again, he did drop a mystery package off at the office one afternoon and demanded that I mail it to his hotel in Albany. When I peeked inside the package at the suggestion of one of my coworkers, who had also grown suspicious of my boss' behavior, I uncovered a rock of cocaine the size of a golf ball. I was no prude, but I still felt the symptoms of panic burn through my body.
"Don't send it," my co-worker said. "It's a felony. Just don't send it."
I took the advice and didn't send it.
When the package didn't arrive the next day, my boss called me in a rage. "Where is the package?" he shouted. Shaking, but knowing I needed to remain strong, I firmly told him that I didn't send it. "What the fuck is wrong with you? You keep taking unexplained days off, you aren't listening, and now you won't send me my package? I'm gonna have to let you go."
"Okay. I'm gonna walk the package down to HR now and show them what's in it," I snapped with a cold sassiness that took every bit of strength I had to deliver without bursting into tears.
Suddenly, his tune changed. Apologies and excuses poured out of his mouth. "I'm so sorry. I'm going through a hard time with Marla. I didn't mean to get angry. Just leave the package in my office and I will deal with it when I get back. I don't want to fire you, and I want you to continue working for me."
I should have taken that package and the texts to HR right then in there. I should have left. But I was still afraid — afraid of being dismissed and afraid of being unemployed. I stayed a little longer.
The breaking point was that September. I took another Friday off, this time to visit my parents. Word got back to me that he was planning on firing me and had already started interviewing people. At first, I was thrilled. He could fire me, I'd collect unemployment, and I would be free of his fuckery while I continued to look for a new job. But s I tried to sleep that night at my parents, I was stricken with an anxiety attack. I couldn't be fired or unemployed. I couldn't let him sully my reputation when he had been the one abusing his power. I couldn't let him win.
I went downstairs to my mom in a hysterical mess and while initially I couldn't tell her everything because I was embarrassed, I finally told her about the proposition just two months earlier. My parents were really supportive and that Monday, I went to HR with the texts and my story.
The blessing was that HR acted quickly. Our CEO from our London office flew in the next day and they suspended him immediately. Come the following day, they asked him to resign. The words "whistleblower" and "retaliation" were tossed around a lot, so I decided that it would be best for me to keep quiet as I was still in fear of my reputation within the industry.
I ended up leaving the label just a few months later anyway. I never felt the same after that and needed a fresh start. I've only heard from C once since then and it was because he called my current job seeking our publicity services for an artist he works with. We obviously declined, but what got to me more than anything is that I later learned that he knew I was working at the company and he still had the nerve to ask us for representation.
I want this to never happen to anyone else ever. The vulnerability, worthlessness, and shredded self-esteem that comes with someone's abuse of power are crushing. This was extremely hard for me to write; I'm petrified about the ramifications that might come with it, but I keep reminding myself that anyone who shames me for telling my tale is the asshole in this situation. Sexual harassment and abuse of power is sadly not uncommon within the music industry (or within any industry, as I have experienced harassment at just about every job I've ever worked). The first step towards eliminating it is by addressing it. No one will know that there is a problem that needs to be addressed if it's kept a secret.