For the past year, I have kept myself quiet in regards to how I found myself in my situation. Not many of even my closest friends have been aware of the events that occurred. I guess I felt it was taboo to talk about, that it wouldn't help anything any way, or maybe I was embarrassed. I'm really not sure. However, I am feeling a little braver and a little stronger, encouraged by the #metoo movement and the strong women I have seen come forward recently. So, I've decided to be open about my experience.
Some may say I had it coming, some probably will have some harsh things to say, some may show support. In any regards, I was once very confident, vivacious, maybe even a bit too much. I let certain things get to my head, and was knocked down a peg or five. My only reward is the knowledge gained from the experience.
In early 2016, I began working for a small cyber defense company. Having just been laid off, I didn't really put a lot of thought into accepting this position. It was just the first one that came along. But it was offering an executive position, great pay, and was 20 minutes from home. As a small business, the owners of the company did what a lot of small businesses do, which is not comply with all the rules; if caught, feign ignorance. My supervisor, who was also the CEO/Owner, was strange. I wasn't ever sure if he was truly a creep, or if he was just simply a strange man trying to be nice and coming across the wrong way. A few months into the position, I learned that my supervisor had a drug and alcohol problem, as well as legal issues. In addition to this, he would have mood swings, swinging wildly from super manic to dangerously low.
He had a strange "fascination" with me. He would spend hours just sitting in my office, asking me all kinds of penetrating questions. One that stands out is he asked me to describe to him in detail what I do, what I say, from the moment I get home to the moment I come back into the office, so he can get an intimate vision of me outside the office. He would lean in my doorway and stare at me, sighing loudly until I gave him my full attention. Sometimes he would launch into conversation after this. Sometimes he would say he's "just watching me." He would often make comments to me on how I looked, my voice, or gush about how he liked something I said or did. It might have been a kind compliment, if it weren't for the way he went on about it. As all of this became increasingly borderline harassment, and as the director of HR, I made mention to him of how uncomfortable he was making me. He became angry, aggressive, and retaliated against me for this. He swung to the opposite end, refusing to speak to me at all, which directly affected our work. I tried to help find a balance, but soon realized I either dealt with it, or would get the retaliation. His retaliation became even worse, as I tried to ignore any behavior that bordered on harassment. I guess I thought if I did not engage with him when he was being inappropriate, and engaged with him when he was being professional, I could weed out the bad. He resorted to pouting (literally), lamenting, sighing, becoming angry, or the silent treatment unless I engaged with him in the way he wanted. This constant tightrope walk/dance caused tension between us, and in the office.
He began to offer me money outside of my normal pay. He would write me large checks and tell me to go buy myself "something nice,” which I would refuse. When he noticed my car needed work, he had the mechanic next door provide an estimate or so he told me. At the end of the day, I was given my keys and a bill, fully paid, in the amount of over $2500. I told him I couldn't accept these things, and asked for the auto-bill to be deducted from my paycheck, but was always met with a smirk from him. As long as he felt I was accepting his gifts, and engaging with him as he wanted, he would chipper and be in a good mood; if I declined, or did not engage, back to his childish tactics.
Since I am a single mom, I felt I couldn’t just walk away from the job. I also felt I was overreacting. So I pressed on, but continued to casually look for other employment. It became clear I was not overreacting when we hired a new male colleague. This man was to work under my supervision. My supervisor did not want us to get along. The more we were friendly with each other, the more frustrated my supervisor became. He started fueling disagreements and creating problems. He felt satisfied if my relationship with our new hire was not friendly. In essence, he began to act like a jealous boyfriend. Shortly after this new hire, I started dating someone. Everyone in the office found out when flowers were sent to me at work. My supervisor handed me a trashcan and said flowers were not permitted in the office. He began to ask me questions about my relationship that I refused to answer, visibly upsetting him. As the weeks wore on, he became more and more manic, and more and more angry. He started offering to take me out to lunch, to dinner, or ordering lunch for me and him and forcing me to have a “lunch meeting” with him. He began sending his son home early while he stayed late at the office so I would drive him home. He had lost his license previously due to his alcohol and legal issues. I was always the last person to leave the office, and he would hang around until then. Each time I drove him home, I was interrogated about my relationship and told I should end it. The second, and the last, time I drove him home, he spent 15 minutes in front of his house trying to get me to come upstairs for a tour of his new bedroom furniture (a deep cherry wood with a lacquer finish, if anyone is interested).
When my birthday arrived, I had more flowers sent to the office. They come from family and the man I had been seeing. He pulled me into his office and gave me a sheepish look, apologizing profusely for not having given me flowers, and telling me that he had had a grand gift to give to me but seeing as I already got flowers, it would seem as if it were an after thought. So instead, he gave me $300. Shortly thereafter, I took a vacation.
The day I came back, it was just me and him in the office. He was on a downward spiral, and going down fast. He paced around my office and flipped from focusing on the decline of his company, to focusing on the ten major things he had to do, to focusing on me and him. He was stuck on repeat. I remember being frightened, trying to figure out a good excuse to go home, get out of the office. He was talking so fast, so manic, and well, crazy. Everything he said ended up being my fault. The company is failing, because of me. He can’t get his ten things done, because of me. Me and him, or lack thereof, was because of me. I saw him as completely mentally unstable in that moment. I considered telling his partner about everything. But every time, I stopped. He had constantly told me before that his partner didn’t like me, and the only thing between me and the door was him, my knight in shining arm. I know now it was a fear mongering tactic, making me afraid to go to his partner with anything. But then, all I kept thinking was I need another job before I leave this one or worse, lose this one. Since his partner and I hardly spoke, I believed him when he said the guy despised me.
Things happened quickly thereafter. We had discussed my getting a raise to help with the increase of my rent. Once he found out I was still seeing the same guy, it was off the table. “You should have a man to take care of that for you. You have a boyfriend. Why isn't he paying it?” he asked. When I brought it up again, he said he couldn’t justify it because his partner’s wife can’t come into the office because of me. It wouldn't look right. Finally, he gave me a concluded story about some random stranger coming into the office when he was alone there and asking if our company was a brothel because he had seen me outside. I look like a prostitute and am bad for business.
To make matters worse, our tightrope dance had been faltering. I was getting fed up with the constant harassment that was only progressing. He would give excuses for me to HAVE to sit in his chair to read over something he wrote, and put his face in my neck and smell. Or excuses for us to work alone, behind closed doors, only to have him grill me about my relationship and get jealous and angry with me about it, and make a case for himself. When he wasn’t feeling well, he would come into my office every half hour to complain about how awful he felt. On one of these occasions, our new hire asked him what it was he wanted us to do, as he kept complaining and none of our responses seemed to be right. He abruptly jumped up, looking straight at me, and shouted, “Well, I was at least expecting you to say ‘aw, poor baby’ and rub my neck or something!” All of us looked at him, shocked. He muttered that it was what his girlfriend would do. As his behavior worsened, I responded in the only way I knew how at the moment. I became cold and distant to anything not work-related.
With him, if you give him an inch, he took a mile. I could not say or give implication of anything that did not pertain to work, lest he would think I was “finally coming around.” I started to make it very known that I was not happy with the way he was harassing me, and would not engage with him in any way, unless it had to do specifically with our work. After a month of my hardcore stance, I had to take a few days off to move. He causally asked me how my relationship was going. “Great!” I said.
When I came back to the office, I discovered that in the two days I was gone, everyone in the office had moved to the new office location several miles away. The only person that stayed was the new hire my boss didn’t want me to get along with. I also discovered that my boss ceased communication with me.
We were right in the middle of some major projects, such as open enrollment. Now, if you’re in the HR world, you know this is a big deal. I was imperative that I communicate with him on who accepted what benefit plans, the amounts that would be deducted from their checks, as well as receiving final approval from my supervisor to move forward. For a week, I attempted to call and email him. I attempted to get the address to the new office, something I was not aware I did not have until then. I also attempted to have IT fix my multi-function printer so that I could scan the benefit elections to our broker. After a week of failed attempts, I physically delivered the paperwork to our broker. I had a feeling this was no accident, and that my boss was refusing to speak with me. During that week, he had called our office several times to speak with my colleague, but always seemed to have something to do, or would just outright hang-up when the phone was passed to me. On my way home from delivering the paperwork, I called the new office, his cell phone, and direct line. All went unanswered. I then called the main office line, blocking my number. I knew if I called his office or cell with a blocked number, he wouldn’t answer. Blocking my number through the main line was my best chance at figuring out if he was truly, purposefully not communicating with me. Sure enough, after one ring, he answered. “Hi, so and so!” I said.
“Oh shit,” I heard him say, along with some muffling. “I’ve been trying to get in contact with you about what’s going on for a while now,” I reported. He went off on a tangent, where have I been, what is going on, he has no clue what is happening because I refused to respond to him. I played along and suggested we meet to catch up, or if he had ten minutes, we could review now. He gave me several reasons as to why he couldn’t meet with me, told me that he had no time to talk, and to send him an email with all the information.
I stayed late at the office that night, drafting up and sending my update email to him. I left around 9 PM. The following day, I was told that he had arrived at my office at 7 PM, but saw that our light was on and so asked our neighbor who was still in the office. After finding out it was me, he turned around and left. Several days later, I got an email from him stating that his email had not been working properly and apparently had not been receiving emails, please send him an update as he has no idea what is going on. I complied, but would get a similar email at least three more times. I was getting the feeling that he was making a paper trail, in addition to my already high inclination that something was not quite right.
After a month of non-communication, I started receiving complaints from employees that their pay was not right. Since I was not getting any response from my boss, who handled payroll, as to what the problem was, I investigated myself. Now, I already knew of some shady action going on in regards to pay. I knew that my boss had his salary capped at $140k, while his son was receiving a wage $70k higher than what his position paid, and that my boss pocketed the difference. As it was explained to me by him and his partner, this was down so that they could receive their 8(a), Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business license, which requires the CEO and President to not receive more than a certain income annually, and still make a higher salary. What I found out in my investigation as to why our employees pay was messed up revealed even more illegal activity.
Also during this time, I had made the decision to come forward to the partner/President with my boss’ behavior and illegal activity. I had months' worth of documentation (document, document, document!) I was going to provide him, and had began to draft an email detailing it all. To get my ducks in a row, I began to contact employment lawyers. It was a Wednesday night when I decided I would just schedule a meeting with the Partner to discuss everything, as I didn’t quite know how to put it all into words. I never got the chance though.
On Thursday, about mid morning, my colleague was sent home for the day. Shortly after him leaving, my boss, his partner, and a woman I had never seen before walked in the door. My boss came to me and asked that I join them in the conference room.
Already knowing what was about to happen, I nervously walked in. “I want your cell phone, in fact, all of your electronics and things out of the room,” said our CEO. I offered to turn off my cell phone instead. I found just having it with me as a comfort, as I didn’t know what was about to happen. My boss physically took it from me and placed in the other room. Behind closed doors, I was told that I was being terminated from my position, and handed three documents: a performance review, an agreement of terms, and a non disclosure.
“I took the liberty of only including your performance of the past month in your review,” my irate supervisor said. “How convenient!” I thought, “as that was the month your communication ceased, preventing me from fulfilling my duties and thus affecting my performance.”
“Some of the things on here are obvious, as you’ll see, and some you don’t know about,” he continued. My review had four things on it: insubordination, failure to perform essential duties, embezzlement/stealing. For the life of me, as I write this, I cannot remember what the fourth item was.
Given the previous month, and our relationship, I was not surprised to see that he had put insubordination and failure to perform essential duties in my review. Insubordination for him was not engaging with him in the way that he wanted. Failure to perform essential duties was due to the fact that several deadlines were missed, waiting for his communication to move forward. It was the embezzlement/stealing that I was shocked to see. I inquired about it. My boss opened a manilla envelope that from across the table appeared to hold a single sheet of paper. Its contents, he said, were receipts and accounts that proved I stole money from the company. I’ve never stolen anything in my life! Except for a lipgloss at Walmart when I was 9 because I forgot it was in my hand… and I went sobbing back into the store telling them of my heinous crime.
My boss went on further to claim that I had used over $900 on a company credit card. Now, I know this card. It was issued in my name to purchase supplies for the office, HR supplies, and for the occasional business lunch. This card sat in a locked drawer in my office and had not been touched since we had ordered a file cabinet, maxing out the $500 limit; the card had never been paid off, rendering it useless. This was also the card that had gone missing as I would find out while cleaning out my office.
He rambled off other things regarding my “stealing.” “Can I see that?” I asked. My boss laughed as he tucked it back in the folder and placed it behind him. “This is company property and will remain with me. No one has access to it.” Odd. If you are accusing me of this, I should at least be able to see a copy of such damning evidence.
He moved on to the next topic. “We had an independent auditor come and look at our employee files. They found a file to be missing, >employee name>,” he stated, “so I have noted that on your review as well.” The file in question was the same file he had lost back in March. It was and remains unclear to me as to when an independent auditor had access to my files. However, if it were true, they would have discovered more than one file missing. At any given time, I had seven to ten files that I was currently accessing or working on locked in my desk. I was the only person that knew of this. This was my damning evidence that none of the things being mentioned were true, and just an attempt to scare me. The second document also proved this.
We moved onto the terms of agreement. The terms were simple. I was to admit/agree that I had not been harassed or witnessed any illegal activity; agree to the fact that I was not being terminated for any reason to include whistleblowing; agree to relinquish all of my civil rights; agree that I would not sue, nor would I speak of anything to anyone about this company (the non disclosure attached), and in exchange they would not release my performance review, nor tell anyone I stole from them, pay me $3000, and continue my benefits at their expense for three months.
I questioned the legality of this document. "Surely, this was not legal, nor would it hold up in court," I said. They assured me that it was legal. “Then I would like 24 hours to review with my lawyer,” I stated. My boss flushed red. “You have no right to a lawyer. No, you sign this today before leaving this building, or the offer is off the table.”
“I am not signing this without review,” I said.
“You will sign this today. Either sign now, or walk away with nothing,” laughed my boss. “You cannot leave this room until you sign.”
“I’m not signing this,” I argued, standing up, “ I am leaving.” The door was blocked.
“You can review as long as it takes, but you can’t leave this room until you sign,” my boss half shouted.
Nervously, I sat down and read more through the document. I pointed out various things, such as the sentence that stated “You have a right to seek legal counsel. We highly suggest and encourage you to consult and review with a lawyer prior to signing this document.” My boss ripped the document from my hands and began to write furiously on it. He handed back his revised copy. The sentence was scribbled out and in its place he wrote I “had the right to make one phone,” and that “this offer is revoked if not signed today and prior to leaving company grounds.” He told me “take as long as you would need to review here, now, even if it takes all night, but you will sign this document today.” At this point, it had been a couple of hours. A little unsteady, I chose to use my one phone call. I had never been in this situation before. I was pretty sure what was taking place was illegal. I was followed to another room, and with the door guarded, began to make my call.
Since they had not specified who I could contact, I contacted the only person I could thing of that could help me get out of that building safely. I called my father. Completely terrified, and unsure of what would happen if I chose to try and walk out, I knew he was the best man for the job. In retrospect, the police would have done the same job.
I walked back into the room and stated that I was going to read through the entire agreement and non disclosure prior to signing, and began to read as slowly as I could. Half an hour later, my father arrived on the scene. Chaos ensued.
“You’re not signing anything, especially under duress and held against your will!” My father shouted while grabbing the documents in front of me. “We’ll look at these with a lawyer…”
Simultaneously, my boss had jumped up when my father arrived, grabbing as many papers as he could, as quickly as he could, and shoving them in a folder. “No one is being forced to do anything! There is no duress! She is not being held against her will!” shouted our CEO. “Stop! You’re stealing company property!”
While the two of them argued over “company property,” I made a beeline for my office to collect my things. The commotion spilled into the hallway in front of my office. Claims were being made that the documents given to me to sign were company property. If either my father or I attempted to take any of the documents out of the building, the police would be called. My boss did not want any of the things presented to me to be seen by anybody but the four of us that had been in the room. My father laughed the way you do when something is so messed up, all you can do is laugh at the ridiculousness of it. I was watched as I gathered my things. Every now and then, my boss would throw an insult my way. “Bet you wished you had listened to me now,” I remember him saying. I’m still uncertain of what he meant by that.
After I had everything, I was asked to unpack it so that he could "inspect" each item to ensure it was in fact mine before I was permitted to leave.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t over. After several months of trying to retain a lawyer, I was finding it near impossible without copies of the terms of agreement. This was needed to prove everything. I made the bold attempt to ask for more money in the agreement. I sent an email to my former psycho boss that I would sign if offered one year's worth of salary and benefits. I was amazed that I got a response. However, it was sent through a third party. The response was simply a copy of the terms, with a new offer of $4000. I never signed, but at least got a copy of the agreement.
My next obstacle was the funds to retain a lawyer. No one would take my case with the promise to pay if I won, no matter how much we thought I would win. Being out of a job, I simply could not afford a lawyer.
Shortly thereafter, my downfall continued as I lost my home and was forced to move my son and I home to my parents, tail between my legs. Next came the car, then finally the boy I had begun to fall in love with. Within two months, after five years of hard work, I had lost everything, job, home, boyfriend, car, and subsequently, my life.
To make matters worse, every job I applied for in the next year would turn me down. My boss still held a grudge against me and was slandering my name and destroying my reputation, all because I refused to engage in the way that he hoped I would.
Looking back, I see it all clearly. My boss had had some kind of fantasy in his head and had wanted me to play into it. My non compliance with this, and the fact that in his eyes, I began acting out this fantasy with someone else, infuriated him. I know now that he had discovered my documentation and research, and chose to blackmail me and threaten me into signing an agreement that in his eyes would cover up his actions.
The past year has been a tough one, filled with regret of the choices I made, guilt for not doing what I know I should have done, depression for not supporting my family or living the life I should have been. I have been bitter and angry at the fact that a single man can destroy a life just because she is not showing the level of interest he wants her to. I am angry that I have not been able to seek justice. I am angry that some of the people who have heard my story have basically said, "Yeah, that sucks, but there's nothing you can do about it." Why is that? Why is this man allowed to get away with the things he did, hurt someone, and affect their life the way he did mine, without any thought? Why, in general, do men think that because a woman does not give into what he wants or the way he wants, he has the right to become angry, violent, and act out? So many questions haunt me.
While it remains a valuable lesson to me, it was a difficult one. I stand humbled and with a renewed outlook. Of the things I learned during this, trusting myself and remaining grounded, I think, are the most important ones.