bookmark_borderA Different Kind of #MeToo Story

Workplace abuse doesn’t have to be sexual to be abusive.

“I hired you for your brains.”
It was his mantra. My new boss was so excited to learn that I was a recent graduate of UC Berkeley, just across the bay. His wife, he told me during our interview, was a professor there. He informed me on my first day of work that that was why he’d hired me: he liked smart women. He bragged about my brains to the whole office as he introduced me around.

Soon, all too soon, the unspoken second half of his mantra became painfully clear: “…so why don’t you use them?”

It was a starter job, but a pretty good one; I felt lucky to have landed it so fresh out of college, with a résumé short on work history. The office was on the top floor of a tall building in downtown San Francisco. I would be paid an okay salary, but the benefits were generous even by the standards of the day (the very early 1990s): plenty of vacation and sick leave; the company matched 401(k) contributions dollar-for-dollar; and the free, excellent health insurance even covered psychotherapy, if you can believe it.

I commuted downtown on BART, carrying my high-heeled pumps in my handbag, like the rest of the skirt-suited, sneaker-shod ladies. I even wore panty hose (yes, my young friends, the eighties and nineties were a different time). I enjoyed playing dress-up, even though I couldn’t afford much, rotating my few outfits as best I could.

Things are always so clear in retrospect. There were signs on my very first day: my predecessors — two of them, most recently — were already gone; apparently no one had managed to stay in the job longer than six months. There was nobody to train me, no instructions left behind.

It was an Executive Secretary position, though: how hard could it be? I had those brains, after all.

I went through the desk I’d chosen as mine, then the other one, searching for hints and clues, things left undone. My boss was out much of those first few days, doing business, I supposed. I found a notebook with some information about travel arrangements. There was a Rolodex. I figured out how the phones worked, then waited to be assigned something to do.

I suppose you could say that my boss trained me, but only by making it clear when I’d gotten something wrong. On day three, he dumped a huge pile of mail on my desk on his way back from lunch.

“I found this in the mail room,” he said, his voice dripping with disappointment. “Haven’t you been checking my box?”

“Um…where’s the mail room?” I asked, suddenly sick to my stomach. Of course there would be mail. Why hadn’t I thought to ask about the mail?

He rolled his eyes, took me to the mail room, then repeated his mantra.

On Friday of that first week, though, he stopped by my desk with a big smile. “Come on, I’m taking you to lunch at Postrio.”

I was thrilled and terrified. Postrio was San Francisco’s “it” restaurant just then, and far, far out of my budget, a place I’d only read about in Herb Caen’s column in the newspaper. So oh my goodness yes.

But also: my older married boss wanted to take me, his new secretary, out to lunch in a fancy, trendy restaurant? I may have been only twenty-three, but I wasn’t an idiot. (Brains, you know.) I knew what this would look like, what it might mean.

He drove us there in his luxury car, even though it was only a few blocks from the office. A valet whisked the car away; my boss led me down a sweeping staircase to the most gorgeous dining room I’d ever seen. Lunch was amazing, delicious, incredible. My boss told me stories about all his famous friends, asked me a few perfunctory questions about my studies at Berkeley, and complained about the current trend in upscale restaurants for bringing unsalted butter to the table. “The whole point of butter is the salt,” he said.

(He wasn’t wrong about that.)

At the end of the lunch, he said, “Well, I’m going to the Bohemian Club for a massage; I won’t be back to the office today. Go ahead and take the rest of the day off.”
I got home, still trembling. I’d just been given half a day off. I’d just been taken to lunch at Postrio. What did it all mean? Was I in big trouble here? Was he leading up to making a pass at me?

What was this job all about, anyway?

My boss liked to roll in mid-morning, after calling me from the phone he had installed in his car — something only super-rich people had, in the very early nineties. “Any messages?” he’d ask. “Any interesting mail?” I’d read off what had come in.

He’d tell me in which order we were to make the call-backs. It was my job to already be dialing as he strode into the office and hung his long black cashmere coat on the rack. “Is Mr. Y available?” I’d ask the secretary on the other end. “Mr. X is calling.”

The game is this: these Misters must never be forced to speak to another Mister’s secretary. I was only to transfer the call once Mr. Y was on the line. Of course, Mr. Y’s secretary understood this as well as I did. (She was, no doubt, hired for her brains.) Victory was me telling a clearly annoyed Mr. Y, “I’ll put him on now.”

Defeat was a lecture from my boss, and the shaming mantra.

The job soon settled into, as the old saying about war goes, “…long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.” My boss traveled a lot. When he was gone, I had basically nothing to do. I began bringing novels to read at work, first sneakily, then openly. Nobody could do anything about it — I made friends in the office, but I wasn’t allowed to help anyone with their work. I had to sit by the phone, keep my decks clear, in case the boss needed something. Even from afar. Anyway, Executives don’t share their Executive Secretaries.

Sometimes I would gaze across the room at the other desk, the empty one, wondering what the man could have possibly needed with two secretaries. Maybe they were there to keep each other company, like when you adopt two kittens so they can play together. I wondered if he now felt he’d come down in the world, with only one idle young brainy woman sitting outside his office, playing Spider Solitaire and reading novels.

When he was in town, that’s when things got more interesting. There were more fancy lunches out — he took me to Lulu, and Aqua, and Zuni, so many places I don’t even remember them all; it also amused him to drive us over to the Mission District, to a corner taqueria where he’d slurp down a bowl of menudo, grinning at the incongruity of his bespoke suit and my downtown drag in the humble setting.

There was weirder stuff, too. One day, he informed me that I must rush over at once to Saks Fifth Avenue, where his wife (the Berkeley professor) needed some help. You see, she’d just had a manicure and her nails were still wet, but she had to return a pair of Ferragamos she’d bought in Honolulu and decided she didn’t like. I had to open her wallet and remove her credit card to hand it to the clerk so they could apply the credit; I also had to carry her bags to her car and put them in the trunk, then hand her into the car, behind the wheel.

I got the rest of the day off after that, too.

He never did make a pass at me. So there’s that, I guess. Whatever strange psychological dynamics were going on inside the man, they weren’t about sexually fetishing his young secretary.

Small favors.

I think it was more about the humiliation. He loved to wield that mantra, setting me up to fail, then announcing loudly how smart I wasn’t being.

I learned to go one floor down, when I needed to cry in the bathroom, so that no one from our office would know.

Until this job, I had always thought I was smart. Hadn’t I gone to Berkeley, and graduated with honors — paying the whole way myself, I might add? But now I began to wonder. Was I actually smart, or had I just been…unusually lucky, or something? Was I now being exposed for the horrible fraud I truly was? How did I keep screwing up? How hard could it be, to open mail and answer phones and make travel arrangements?

Oh, travel arrangements. The heart of darkness.

Gather round, my dear young friends, and let me tell you a tale of the olden days. You see, back when the earth’s crusts were cooling and your humble narrator was a girl of twenty-three, there was no internet. There were people called Travel Agents, whom you called on the telephone. You told the Travel Agent what flight times were wanted, along with hotel rooms and rental cars and the like; and she (it was always a she) took down the information and promised to call you back.

She entered all the information you gave her into a magical device that sat on her desk called Sabre, and if she was any good, she knew further magic that she could wield when Sabre didn’t give her the results she wanted; and the upshot was, she called you back an hour or two later with flight times and prices.

Now, my boss didn’t care about prices, of course, because the company paid for all his (first-class) travel; but he cared a lot about flight times.

Flight arrangements were always fraught. Never, ever, ever, in the entire time that I worked for him, was he happy with his flight arrangements. The layovers were too long. The departure time was too early. The return time was too late! The airport was too far from his destination.

For a man who traveled as much as he did, he sure did hate traveling.

There came a day, a fateful day, when he called me into his office to make arrangements for yet another trip. I grabbed my trusty notepad, because I had brains; I stood before his desk, my downtown-drag heels sinking into the deep carpet. “I need to visit the office in Melmac,” he told me. {City names have been changed to protect the Executive Secretary, here; but they did all start with M.} I wrote down, Melmac. He told me the dates and times and other particulars — which specific hotel, what kind of car. I wrote them down.

Dismissed, I went back to my desk and called the Travel Agent. She and I, though we never met in person, were by now very good friends. She made arrangements for my boss’s travel to Melmac.

He was cranky about the times and the connections, but Melmac is a smallish, out-of-the-way city, and that was the best that could be had.

The travel day approached. I received delivery of the tickets (physical tickets, with carbon backs, hand-couriered from the Travel Agent’s office: valuable as gold). I put them in their fancy folder, along with everything else my boss would need for his trip, and put them on the top of the pile to give to him, with his mail, when he came in that day.

He came in. Took the pile. Went into his office.

Then. An explosion. Shouts, a command to present myself At Once.

I rushed into his office in a sick panic. “What? What’s wrong?”

He waved the tickets in my face. “These are tickets to Melmac!” he shouted.

“Yes…?” I replied, trembling.

“I am flying to Montac!”

“But…you said…”

“I! Did! Not!” he thundered. “What in the world made you think I wanted to fly to Melmac? Everything is going swimmingly in Melmac. It’s Montac that needs my presence!”

“I…wrote it down…”

“I don’t care what you wrote down! I need to go to Montac! How could you have gotten this so wrong??! I HIRED YOU FOR YOUR BRAINS!”

I’ll spare you the rest, it doesn’t get prettier.

I think about Mr. X periodically, what could have been going on there. What kind of person needs so badly to prove his power, his superiority, that he hires an endless string of young, powerless, smart women, then randomly rewards and humiliates them until they flee? I didn’t know the term gaslighting then; it feels apropos, but only to a degree. What he did was less focused than that.

Frankly, I don’t think I was even important enough to him for the concerted effort that gaslighting requires.

I don’t think he saw me as a person.

Sure, I was a good accessory, with those brains; and I proved capable of learning how to open the mail and answer the phones; but to him, I was not a human being. I was a device for tending to his demands, and when I broke down, I could be replaced. There was an endless supply of brainy young women he could, and did, hire.

This is gendered, even if it wasn’t #MeToo-level sexual abuse. Yes, women can be executives and men can be secretaries…but even today, that’s so not the norm. In 1991, it was basically unheard of.

I’m glad we’ve made some small progress in breaking down this gendered system, but we’ve got a long way to go.

There is a nice coda to the Melmac story. As I was sobbing in the ladies’ room on the floor below later that afternoon, a kind woman asked me if I was all right; it turned out she ran a temp agency down the hall, and she — and her agency — provided me the rescue I needed from that job. I temped happily for nearly a year, slowly recovering from the psychological abuse I’d suffered, learning to trust myself and my abilities again.

Eventually, a staff version of my Berkeley student job became available. I returned there with undying gratitude, remaining for nearly twenty years. That time had plenty of its own dramas and stories…but it was a department founded and staffed by all women.

What a difference that made. Oh, my goodness, what a difference.

I wish the whole world could be run like that office full of women.

bookmark_borderLawyer Suspended for “Secretary With Benefits” Job Ad

A memo to all employers out there: it’s probably a good idea to try and get your jollies outside of the office, on your personal time. Also, it’s generally illegal to solicit sexual favors in exchange for money. I believe the legal term for this is “prostitution.” Finally, it’s illegal to sexually harass your employees, and this includes making employment contingent on the performance of sexual favors.

And you know who, in particular, should be aware of these facts? Lawyers.

So imagine my surprise and confusion when I read this (with more detail on the Legal Profession Blog). Yes, a lawyer posted a job ad to Craigslist, in the “adult gigs” section, looking for a secretary to work in his law office, and perform traditional secretarial duties, while also performing sexual favors for the lawyer and another lawyer who shared his office.

This has to be one of the most bizarre sexual harassment claims I’ve ever read about (though it’s not even close to the weirdest story about Craigslist I’ve ever read, interestingly enough). Unfortunately, sexual harassment is still fairly common in the workplace. According to LegalMatch.com case data, thousands of people, in a wide range of industries, have sought legal counsel to help in their case against employers who have allegedly harassed them.

And over the last several years, the percentage of sexual harassment claims filed by men has increased, suggesting increased awareness that anybody can be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.

However, I noticed an interesting statistic recently: while the number of sexual harassment claims filed in the U.S. seemed to hold steady from the late 1990s to 2008, they dropped fairly sharply (down from about 13,000 claims to 11,000) in 2009 and 2010.

I’ve wondered why this is, because I seriously doubt that thousands of people all of the sudden had a change of heart and decided overnight to stop engaging in inappropriate behavior at work. And cases like the one I mentioned above show that some employers are still incredibly brazen in the way they engage in this despicable conduct.

So, what’s the explanation for the sudden drop in reported sexual harassment cases? Unfortunately, I think the state of the economy and the job market is partly to blame.

Most employees are probably pretty anxious about their ability to keep their jobs, especially those who occupy lower places in the business hierarchy.

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that some employees are probably afraid to report sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs. Although it’s unlawful for employers to retaliate against employees for filing, in good faith, a claim for sexual harassment (even if the claim ultimately turns out to be without merit), that doesn’t mean that these things don’t happen.

Also, if an employee has filed sexual harassment cases in the past, even if they’re legitimate, future employers might be reluctant to hire that person, out of fear that they might file sexual harassment claims in the future. Again, this is illegal, but it’s usually pretty easy for an employer to come up with a plausible legal reason to not hire an employee, especially when the job market is as competitive as it is, and there are many qualified applicants for a given position.

I’m honestly not sure how we can deal with this problem. I should note that, although the number of sexual harassment claims filed each year is probably much smaller than the actual number of incidents of sexual harassment, the numbers are still tiny compared to the total number of working people in the United States.

This strongly suggests that the vast majority of employers have strong anti-harassment policies, and implement them effectively.

Hopefully, the rest of the employers in the country (especially our former-lawyer friend) get the memo that sexual harassment in the workplace is completely unacceptable.

bookmark_borderWhy Does a Woman Sleep with Her Boss?

The story of a woman sleeping with her boss seldom has a happy ending – so why are some women still willing to do it?

ESPN’s Steve Phillips is off to rehab for sex addiction, his marriage and career destroyed by his steamy affair with a production assistant. On the other hand, Dave Letterman’s popularity and TV ratings have soared since his public confession of past dalliances with female members of his staff. Jimmy Kimmel’s current romance with one of his staffers seems to be no threat to his job or reputation. These are the most recent romances to come to light – but certainly nothing new in the heady world of powerful, successful men.

Every day, in organizations both large and small, there are bosses having sex with women who work for them. It’s not hard to find doctors who are diddling nurses; barristers boinking law clerks; professors enjoying extracurricular activities with research assistants; politicians of both stripes schtupping staffers. And who knows how many producers and directors are canoodling with assistants on their casting couches?

We all know why the bosses do it: Men love sex. Mother Nature hardwired males with a powerful sex drive to ensure that the human species doesn’t die out. (And, you must admit, males are doing a damn good job!)

But many people wonder: Why do women do it? What makes a woman sleep with her boss – especially if he is already married? Everyone knows that men don’t marry the women they have affairs with. And it’s common knowledge that a man makes his reputation the same way a woman loses hers. The story of a woman sleeping with her boss seldom has a happy ending – so why are some women still willing to do it?

Here are a few reasons why a woman may let her boss dip his pen in the company ink well:

1. Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously pointed this out when asked how a fat, ugly man like him always managed to date starlets, models, and other beauties. Power excites women – whether it’s political power, financial power, intellectual power, muscle power, artistic or creative power, or sheer power of personality. Power is like catnip – women go crazy for it.

2. Men achieve status by what they do, while women achieve status by who they’re with. Being married to a powerful man bestows the highest status – being the girlfriend is second-highest. But being the mistress has its own unique panache, intensified by its forbidden fruit dynamic. Being desired by a powerful man gives a woman certain bragging rights among her friends – even if she can’t go public with her relationship. She feels special.

3. People are flattered by the attention of successful and/or powerful figures – women are no different from men in this regard. Who among us hasn’t had a brush with someone famous and were thrilled by it? “Wow, I got to shake hands with the governor,” or “Guess which celeb was on the plane with me?” It’s intoxicating to have a powerful man pay special attention to you. For many women, it’s hard to resist.

4. Enhanced career prospects, perks, and money can entice a woman into a sexual relationship. Exchanging sexual favors for money is known as prostitution in most situations, but it’s called “sleeping your way to the top” when it occurs at work. It’s risky, but some women are willing to run the risk.

5. Women want intimacy and trade sex to get it; men want sex and trade intimacy to get it. This isn’t a bad system, all other things being equal. But when the man is the boss and the woman his employee, all things aren’t equal. It adds a power dimension to the equation that can make the relationship exploitive. However, it never seems that way at the beginning – she just feels good that he finds her attractive.

6. Denial and mind games distort reality perception. A young mistress thinks “It’ll be different with me – he really does love me. I know he does. He’ll divorce his wife and marry me.” She believes what she wants to believe. She can think of other men who married a secretary, assistant, or nanny – so her dream could come true, too.

7. Hormones cloud women’s judgment. If she can resist having sex with her boss, she may be able to keep him at bay and still keep her job. But if she gives in and has sex with him once, she’s toast. Her hormones work against her. With orgasm, her brain is flooded with oxytocin – a powerful hormone that acts like Crazy Glue, bonding her to him. She can no longer see him or her situation clearly.

8. Thousands of years of human history provide the back story to today’s workplace affairs. Alpha males have always had their pick of the females – willing or unwilling. Kings had their consorts; knights and princes enjoyed plentiful fair maidens; the landed gentry had easy access to chambermaids and farm girls. Throughout history – and today – most women “marry up” in terms of class, money, age, and status, while most men “marry down.” It’s part of our collective unconscious – it’s been going on for millennia.

So, what makes a woman choose to sleep with her boss? There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for every workplace romance. A woman’s reasons are as complex as she is. So perhaps we should let each woman speak her own truth about her life and her love.

After all, we’ve come a long way … haven’t we, baby?

bookmark_border6 key traits of a great secretary.

Ask almost any senior executive about their secretary, and most would say they wouldn’t be able to live without him or her. Some may even go as far as to say that their secretaries unofficially run the office behind the scenes. However, with the plethora of different responsibilities that a secretary can undertake, what actually makes a good secretary?
We asked both secretaries and hiring managers what they feel contributes to being a great secretary.
The following key traits list was compiled from all their insightful feedback:
1. Communication skills
Being able to effectively communicate with one’s boss is vital, but in addition, a secretary can often be the first point of contact for clients, stakeholders and business partners. Having professional, clear and effective communication skills not only ensure nothing gets “lost in translation”, but also gives a strong impression of the boss and the company.
2. Organisational knowledge
A deep understanding of the inner-workings of the company, the people in it and their corresponding relationships allow a great secretary to know who to turn to when additional help is required. A good secretary also knows how to make use of this knowledge and her internal networks to maintain diplomatic relationships across the company. An added bonus of this organisational knowledge is the ability to act as the “eyes and ears” for the boss, as he or she is often no longer right in the middle of the hustle-and-bustle of the office floor.
3. Independence
A boss in a very senior position can often be surrounded by “yes people” – which can often lead to the boss being isolated from reality. A great secretary needs to have the courage (and sense) to tell the boss “NO” when it is called for. Bosses can often be travelling or stuck in back-to-back meetings, leaving the secretary to work on their own. Hence, a good secretary is someone who can work independently and has the confidence to make decisions without the constant need to seek approval from his/her boss.
4. Planning skills
Important meetings, last minute flights, off-site team-building activities are just a few of the challenging tasks a secretary will need to organise on a regular basis. Bosses often won’t have time to plan these events so secretaries with excellent planning skills are highly sought-after as these activities, if planned poorly, can have negative repercussions – for both internal and external stakeholders.
5. Detail-oriented
Missing even the smallest detail can often ruin the most well-planned schedule or event. With senior leaders having such high-involvement in the day-to-day operations of their respective businesses, sometimes a minor error or oversight can have a severe impact on the boss’ day, or even on the business itself. As a result, being highly meticulous with a consistent attention to detail are highly rated by many employers and senior executives as some of the most critical traits for a top secretary.
6. Commitment
Commitment can often be overlooked but the best secretaries typically remain fiercely loyal to their bosses, some even to the extent of following their bosses when they have been posted overseas. Bosses are highly appreciative of secretaries who are committed, dedicated and has a strong sense of loyalty.