IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Superior Made Me Uncomfortable With a Sexual "Joke" At Work... Here's Why I Didn't Report It

I feared everyone would think I was uptight and making a huge fuss over a harmless comment. I also feared indirect retaliation – not being put on more projects, not being promoted.
Publish date:
November 3, 2015
career advice, IHTM, sexual harassment, workplace harassment

For years, I loathed the very thought of working in an office.

As cliche as it sounds, I was an aspiring actress, and I only wanted to work in theater. But it wasn't long before I realized that a steady job in that world was difficult to come by.

So I reluctantly decided to attempt life as a Responsible Adult and get an office job, something that could finally pay the bills.

To my surprise, and despite my limited administrative background, I found employment at a prestigious corporation that everyone has heard of.

When I learned I got the job, I was initially very nervous. What if the job was too tough for my artsy brain? What if it was too corporate, and I hated it? Even worse, what if my co-workers were jerks?

But one I started, my concerns vanished. My co-workers and superiors alike were genuinely friendly, and I even made friends with a few of them. I adored my boss, who had an amazing sense of humor and soon became a mentor.

I actually enjoyed my work and looked forward to coming in to the office everyday. I was happy and excited to embark on a new career path.

Like my fellow co-workers, I sat through the silly sexual training seminars and videos that every employee is made to watch in the corporate world, complete with a quiz and everything. I laughed at how ridiculous and outdated many of the pointers were.

“Don't grab your co-workers ass.”

“Don't compliment the shortness of your co-workers shirt.”

It seemed wholly unnecessary, but I grudgingly participated, and I even received a "Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Certificate," honoring my completion of the training.

Then came the Incident.

At first, the incident seemed pretty innocuous, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. Bob was an indirect superior of mine who worked in my department. Though I had never been as friendly with him as my other co-workers, he had always been perfectly polite to me.

One of my duties was to assist him with the creation of a database. We were having trouble coming up with the details of how it should be organized, and he soon left to go to a meeting while I brainstormed.

I wanted to impress him with my work, as I knew any good deed would get passed along to my boss, so I mused hard over how to fix this particular problem during the next hour. I was excited when I came up with a viable solution that I was proud of. Bob soon returned to ask how it was going.

“I was just thinking about you –“ I began, excited.

Now, the entirety of the sentence would have been, “I was just thinking about you and our database problem.”

But he quickly jumped in before I could complete the sentence, deepening the timber of his voice to what I assumed was his version of a “sexy voice.”

“Oh, what were you thinking about?” he asked suggestively.

“I was just thinking that we could --” I continued.

“Because I don't charge,” he interjected, still in that suggestive tone. He then proceeded to guffaw at his “joke.”

It took me a few dumbfounded seconds to get the... joke.

“Charge for what?” I almost asked, but thankfully I didn't, as I slowly realized the punchline of said joke. He doesn't charge for sex. That was the joke.

I was mortified, but I quickly laughed as well, my face flaming. I then got back to the matter at hand, telling him about the solution I had come up with, one that he liked.

But as soon as he left my office, a sickly feeling grew in my stomach as his statement sunk in.

I immediately chided myself — Why did you laugh? The “joke” was totally inappropriate and made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially considering that he was my superior.

For the rest of the day, I kept to myself, weighing my options. The department was small, and if I made an anonymous complaint, I had no doubt he'd know it was me. I was too embarrassed to bring up the matter to my boss for the same reason — Bob would definitely know that it was me.

He was a superior, I was a mere assistant, and I really needed the job. I didn't want an innocuous joke to become an issue.

So I chose to do nothing.

And I've regretted it ever since.

I've gone back and forth, of course. I blamed myself for saying “I've been thinking about you.” And then I realized that was victim blaming. There was nothing wrong with what I said. It was my superior who turned a work-related comment sexual.

And then I regretted falling into the trap many women are forced into – not speaking up for ourselves for fear of retribution, remaining silent when we should speak. We're told to not rock the boat, to not stand up for ourselves, and that's just what I did.

But I was in a position of fear. I feared everyone thinking I was too thin-skinned for not taking a simple “joke.”

I feared everyone would think I was uptight and making a huge fuss over a harmless comment. I also feared indirect retaliation – not being put on more projects, possibly not being promoted.

I tried to justify my silence – he didn't touch me, it was just a comment. He didn't mean any harm, from his perspective it was just a joke. And it was just a joke, wasn't it?

I remained at that company for several years, taking care to avoid Bob whenever necessary, before I got a new job. I didn't leave the job due to that incident, and thankfully there have been no such incidents at the company I work for now.

But I do know that whenever I am put into that position again, and statistically, I fear I will be – I won't laugh. I won't be silent. I will speak.