hostile work environment | Laila Halaby

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I was not the target
I was collateral damage
and still
my heart beats extra
as I write this story

my boss

was capable and funny
someone you could talk to
someone who seemed to get it

we interviewed an older white man
for a supervisor position
he seemed competent
but was very flip
much too familiar for an interview
my boss dismissed my concern

some months later
when I told my boss
about this supervisor
who wanted to accompany me
on a drive into the desert
to visit a client
and I refused because I was uncomfortable
and I had told him this
and the supervisor had said
I didn’t know I could still make women feel this way
as though I had just complimented him
those some months later
when I told my boss
about this supervisor
who checked out women
made obscene gestures
once commented to a coworker
those sandals remind me of bondage
sat on another coworker’s lap during a meeting
and no
I would not be alone in a car with this man

even now
my heart beats extra
as I write this

my boss stared at me with his mouth open
I remember
he was eating his lunch
stopped mid-bite
the spoon was suspended
for the duration of my talking

he said he would deal with it
and I believed him
because he was capable and funny
and seemed to get it
he was also gay
so I thought he understood

none of us were privy
to the next steps
the harassment continued
one co-worker called in sick
could not bear to talk to the supervisor
please just relay the message
he intimidates me

the woman on whose lap he sat
was fired
two other young women quit

the leers and finger suckings continued
complaints were lodged
my boss grew agitated
the supervisor came to a staff meeting
and told us about his own sex addiction
his past drug use
acts of violence
in which he was involved
more complaints
the supervisor
was sent to meetings with HR
at subsequent staff meetings
the supervisor told us
how he was being harassed by management

we all sat numb

eventually the supervisor was fired
he was not escorted from the building
which allowed him time
to yell at me from his office
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID
I stared dumbly
surrounded by my coworkers
I KNOW WHAT YOU SAID

I don’t remember if I spoke back
I probably did
silence has never been my forte
if I spoke
I would have told him
that he was the one who said
all of the things
that got him fired
I would have told him
that he was the one who did
all of the things
that got him fired
I would have told him
that he was the asshole in this story

I left shaking
and went to my boss
to report the incident

you need to look at your role in this
he said
I stared in disbelief
you are culpable

even now
my heart beats extra
as I write this

*

the supervisor debacle
marked the start of the unravel
of my boss
who no longer seemed to get it
he micro-managed our every moment
held meetings
that lasted two hours
during which he pontificated

the story goes on
but I want to tell you
about a co-worker
another older white man
who brought in a painting
of a naked woman
and hung it on the wall behind his desk
the painting was four feet wide
four feet high
the woman lay on her side
spread eagle
meaning her vagina was looking you in the eye
whenever you walked by

we all pointed out to him
that this was not okay
not appropriate
he hung a hat over her crotch
a couple of days after she arrived
my boss came in
looked at it
leave it up until someone complains

the painting remained
until the man’s desk was moved
to the space next to me
he hung the painting on the wall
and looked at me in the reflection
of the glass
my face
on her vagina

even now
my heart beats extra
as I write this

*

our company email was hacked
HR sent out several emails
DO NOT OPEN THE EMAIL
from xyz website
we complied

my boss came bounding in that morning
giddy
do you want to know what it was?
he asked
there were four of us there that morning
is it that bad?
we were each hesitant
no, not so much
you want to see it?
he came over to one of our computers
and instructed one of us to open the email

filling the screen was a man wearing nothing
but a cowboy hat
his ass facing the camera
pulling his cheeks apart
and exhibiting a hole large enough
for a fist
my confidence
all four of us
we all turned away
my boss laughed

even now
my heart beats extra
as I write this

*

we met with HR
with lawyers
most of us lost our jobs
or chose to leave
the broken justice is
that all three offenders
in this story
were fired

my heart beats extra
as I write this story

I was not the target
I was collateral damage
and still
my heart beats extra
as I write this story

 


Laila Halaby is the author of two novels, Once in a Promised Land and West of the Jordan, as well as a collection of poems, my name on his tongue.

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