Years ago, I was accused of sexual harassment. And with almost no due process, I was let go. This is the story.
This is a hard story to write, because no matter how I write it, someone will think I’m creepy. Even I, sometimes, worried that I was a creep.
Well, I’m not a creep. It’s hard to prove it, but I hope you believe me.
I am aware of the difficulties faced by women and minorities in the workplace, and try to examine and overcome my own bias, and to challenge those of others when I need to, championing people who may not do so for themselves.
During chit-chat at work, I talk only about vague family things, like “So, do you have kids,” and only when I suspect I know the answer, as I’m just trying to acknowledge people as humans beyond the workplace.
Outside work, I’m aware that I’m a large, brown-looking male, and I go out of my way to avoid being perceived as a threat. At any location, if there’s just me and one female there by some chance, I avoid being near them, walk on the other side of the road, and never look at them, to make sure they’re comfortable.
I’ve never been in a fight, and can’t even use a four-letter word without it sounding weird.
So, all this is why it’s surprising that I was accused of inappropriate workplace conduct and summarily terminated.
Lesson: Don’t Ask if Someone’s Persian (Without Enunciating)
At one of my consulting projects, there was a woman who I had occasional professional contact with — we didn’t work together directly.
She helped me with a couple of things though, and I enjoyed working with her. She was smart and helpful.
After she helped me with something, I thought I’d ask a few questions to build more rapport. I was curious about her cultural background because she shared some features with people I knew.
I like to connect with people of other cultures and make them feel welcome, appreciated, and respected. As a member of a minority, it’s a role I try to play.
I’m also aware that people may not be happy with conversations about ethnic background, so I never approach them bluntly.
So this is how the conversation went with her. It wasn’t the first time we had spoken — we had spoken a few times professionally, but this was the first friendly one, as I thought we had broken the ice.
(Details changed to protect privacy.)
- Me: “So, do you mind asking where your last name is from?” (Her last name gave no clue about her background.)
- Her: “Oh, it’s from my father’s side. My mother’s Egyptian.”
- Me: “Ah, your father’s side! I was wondering if was your married name.”
- Her: “Married? I’m not married.”
- Me: “Oh, but you’re wearing a ring, so I assumed…” She was wearing a sparkly ring on her left ring finger.
- Her: “Oh, this is just a ring. I don’t even believe in boyfriends. I’ve had some bad experiences.”
I was confused at this point, as it suddenly got personal, but changed the subject away.
- Me: “Anyway, Egyptian, that explains it. I thought maybe you were Persian, but I can normally tell!” I joked. I assumed she knew I was Persian (or that it was implied).
At this point, the conversation seemed to end and I walked away. I didn’t speak to her again.
Over the next few times I saw her, I noticed she felt vaguely uncomfortable. I avoided her and gave her space. I had no reason to speak to her, so I didn’t.
A few days later an HR rep from the client set up time on my calendar for a “Sync”, something intentionally vague. I assumed HR wanted information about a former colleague who had left in a blaze of glory, claiming systemic racism and sexism.
To start with, the HR rep asked me all the people I worked with. I listed them. I didn’t even list that person, as I didn’t work with her directly, and only had occasional contact with her.
In that call, the HR rep asked me a few questions:
- “Did you have a conversation with this woman?” Yes.
- “Did you ask about her marital status?” At first, I couldn’t remember, as I hadn’t directly asked — it came up in another context. But yes, I suppose we had discussed it as part of a normal conversation.
- “Did you ask if she was a virgin?”
I absolutely had not asked her that.
Reviewing the above conversation, you probably can see where the misunderstanding was — she had misheard “Persian” as “virgin”. I didn’t even realise at first.
During the call, I wracked my brain trying to think of some part of the conversation that could have been construed as me asking if she was a virgin. I couldn’t think of one. All I could tell the HR representative was: “I’m sorry, I didn’t say that. I don’t remember the details of the conversation.”
I was quite stressed out during the call. This does something to your memory — I was in fight/flight response. It was hard to remember details that came back to me later.
But saying “I don’t remember” can be as good as saying “I’m guilty but I don’t know how to deny it.”
Now, you might not believe me. I don’t care, as the only important thing is my personal integrity. But for context, I had never asked anyone that question, indirectly or directly. Not even my brothers, nor my partners.
It’s inconceivable that I would ask it of someone I barely know.
I told the HR person later in a chat that I thought she might have misheard the word “Persian” for “virgin”. She thanked me “for the additional information” but I don’t know what happened to it or where it went. I didn’t hear from her again — my client sponsor told me a few days later that my contract had been terminated.
How HR Procedure Can Hurt Innocent People
It’s frustrating how easily this could have been avoided by better procedure — or avoiding it altogether.
Rather than say “Excuse me, what?” or clarify in some other means at that point, the accuser decided to tell HR immediately, who asked if I did it. I denied it, and my contract was immediately terminated.
Of course, it’s within the rights of the person to go to HR if they feel uncomfortable. But HR should then allow for a natural process, not a non-transparent process in which the interests of the company come first.
It was easy to get rid of me. I was a contractor (albeit a well-paid one, as a consultant) and had worked there for less than six months. So I got no protection under employment law. Nothing was published or in writing, so I got no cause for defamation.
Even within the company, the procedure is designed to protect the company first, and then the accusers. When there is no evidence, the company can decide without a hearing or any formal process what path to take. There’s no judge and jury, and no due process.
The company’s HR team only got information from me, and did so in their own way. They didn’t convey any decision-making process or outcome. There was no right of reply.
A couple of days after the HR call, my client sponsor (and one of my close friends) called me, looking exhausted, telling me sadly that it was out of his hands and the client had decided to end my contract.
My friend/sponsor believed me, but he said this is the way that company works, especially in today’s climate.
Even my contracting company that technically employed me believed me and understood how this kind of mistake could happen.
Other People’s Stories of False Sexual Harassment Claims
The surprising thing is that when I talk about this with my close friends, I hear of quite a few stories of false/exaggerated claims of harassment.
Many of these have been directed against my closest friends who are people of impeccable virtue. Like me, they were shocked at the accusation, denied it, and in every case, it ended with an HR warning or no action taken.
In some cases, the accusations were motivated by frustration or anger by the accuser, for example at being passed over for promotion. One friend told me that years later, the accuser apologised directly to him for behaving the way she did — but it was after having spent quite a while telling other people that he was a harasser. She did a lot of damage. It was too little, too late.
But people don’t talk about it because it’s embarrassing.
Again, the systems are designed (and should be) to protect accusers. But people like me, and other good people, can become innocent victims.
Maybe there are no innocent victims; maybe by being a cis-gender male I’m born guilty. But that doesn’t feel right, and doesn’t make me feel motivated to be part of the solution. I’d rather just avoid the system altogether.
What Can We Learn?
The sad message that I learned — and that my friends have learned — from being falsely accused of sexual harassment is that:
- In large, bureaucratic companies, don’t talk to people about anything other than work.
- If you’re in a senior position, don’t make friends with women or men at work. Making friends with women is dangerous, and making friends just with men can be viewed as bias.
- HR is not your friend. They defend the interests of the company. (I knew this, but I learned it again)
Those lessons are painful ones — but it’s wise.
Are the glory days of companies at which you can enjoy working, and at which you can make life-long friends and possibly meet your partner, now over? I think they are.
If you liked this story and you want to get in touch (even just to commiserate), get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.