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One HR professional's story of sexual assault explains why coming forward isn't easy

An early morning text message we all need to read

By Todd Humber

On Sept. 29, I woke to the usual combination of grogginess and delight that comprise a Saturday morning where one doesn’t need to rise with the chickens and trudge to work.

That morning was a little bit different, though, because it was my birthday. I reached for my phone and saw the expected stream of texts and somewhat impersonal social media wishes that seem obligatory in this technological age. But one message stood out in a far different matter.

“I didn’t feel brave when it happened to me,” the message began, which is a decidedly unusual way to wish someone a happy birthday.

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I continued reading a 722-word private message sent to me shortly after midnight from a dear friend who I don’t see nearly enough. It took a minute for me to realize what I was reading.

Had her account been hacked?

Was this sent to me in error?

Was it the start of a long and funny story that would end in a creative birthday wish?

Sadly, it was none of this.

Instead, it was the in-depth story of a woman — a friend, a wife, a mother, a daughter, an HR professional — who had been inappropriately touched at a work function. And when I say inappropriately touched, I mean sexually assaulted. Because that’s what it is.

While it is an American story, the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh to be appointed a judge on the United States Supreme Court have stirred emotions far beyond the border. He has been accused of a drunken sexual assault by Christine Blasey-Ford when they were both teenagers. You can read those details elsewhere, and you probably already know them.

You may have also seen the incredible footage of emotional protestors confronting Republican senator Jeff Flake in a Washington, D.C.-elevator on his way to a vote about Kavanaugh.

“I was sexually assaulted and nobody believed me,” Maria Gallagher told him, her voice cracking. “I didn’t tell anyone and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter, that they should just stay quiet because if they tell you what happened to them, you are going to ignore them… that’s what you are telling women in America, that they don’t matter. They should just keep it to themselves because if they have told the truth, you’re just going to help that man to power anyway.”

That confrontation left me speechless. It left my friend in tears.

With her permission, I’m sharing her story. At her request, it is anonymous. And at my choosing, I’ve included a lot of details about what happened to her – because it matters.

“I felt confused, incredulous and really, really angry. I felt stifled, backed into a corner and small,” she wrote. “How can that have just happened? My boss was sitting next to me the whole time. There was a room full of other people. Later that night, he got a service award to recognize his years with the organization. I clapped. I played it over and over and over in my head. How can that have just happened? How can he have done that? How did he know I wouldn’t say anything?”

There were only two women in the room full of men, and she was the most junior person at the table. It was like every other meeting — a formal agenda, data to review, lunch brought in. Boilerplate corporate world stuff.

“At that point would it have been appropriate for me to stand up and say ‘STOP. Don’t touch me. How dare you grope me?’ What words do you use to say, ‘You are groping my ass under the table with your foot?’ And ‘I can’t believe you are doing this. I moved out of the way three times, and you kept doing it,’” she wrote. “The rest of the leadership team and his boss would say what? And the offsite would then dissolve into what? It would either painfully disintegrate or we’d continue as if nothing happened?”

She continued with a stream of questions about when or how it would have been appropriate to come forward:

• “Once I’ve figured out the impact on my career?”

• “When I’ve figured out that if I report it, I won’t be able to work with these individuals again because it would be mortifying?”

• “When I figure out that if I report it to HR, and it’s investigated, there will be no one to back me up?”

• “That all of the people I trust and respect will find out?”

That is a stream of questions that are impossible to answer. It sums up, powerfully and painfully, why coming forward isn’t as easy or black-and-white as some people like to pretend.

She thought about how to respond for weeks — running a gamut of emotions that included anger and disappointment at herself.

“This isn’t the woman I thought I was,” she said.

She made a plan to confront him, spoke to HR off the record – as a protection against retaliation – and called him.

“He apologized immediately. He said he’d hurt his back and had been having trouble getting comfortable,” she said. “I said ‘no.’ I told him I had moved away from him three times and each time his foot returned.”

She warned him that, although she wouldn’t be making a formal complaint, if there was ever a hint of anything similar happening, “he would regret it immediately.”

Immediately, she felt a weight lift from her – “taking my power back felt awesome.”

This is a person I admire more than most, who is stronger than average and, frankly, would be among the last people I would expect to stay silent. And that, to me, says more than anything about the difficulty of women coming forward in the wake of an assault and why they deserve the benefit of the doubt – even if it takes decades to reach a point where they can tell their stories.

“Women dominate HR, yet we can’t get it figured out,” she said. “(Women have) no true power. We are at the table by the generosity of our male leaders. And our success relies on them liking us.”

This is not, as some are now advocating, an era where it is a scary time to be a young man. That, frankly, is bullshit.

It remains what it has always been — something driven home by U.S. President Donald Trump, who turned Blasey-Ford’s hazy recollection of a painful, life-altering event into punchlines at a political rally in Mississippi earlier this week.

Punchlines about sexual assault from a global leader that actually generated laughter from the audience. That’s where we are in 2018.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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