After witnessing a client behaving inappropriately with her young colleague, she knew the time had come to share her story of a similarly harrowing experience.
Posted in , May 16, 2018
Let me call her Sandy. She was a new sales rep for the food service company I worked for—fresh out of college, smart and ambitious. I was glad to have her on the team I managed. That day I was accompanying her on a sales call as part of her training. “Where are we going?” I asked as I got in her car.
“The country club,” she said. “I’m hoping we can get some business from the new chef.” “Sounds good.” I’d started out as a sales rep. Several years earlier, I’d been a lot like Sandy—young and eager to make my name in sales. There weren’t many women in the field then. I felt I had to work extra hard to prove myself.
We parked in the back, near the employees’ entrance, and let ourselves into the kitchen. The chef greeted us and took us into his office. He was friendly enough. Sandy launched into her sales pitch. I watched our potential customer, gauging his reaction. He made a joke, and something in his tone set off warning bells in my head.
I watched him more closely. When Sandy took out a catalog of our products, he wasn’t looking at the glossy pages. He was checking her out, his eyes raking her body. I suspected Sandy was rattled but she didn’t let on. I knew exactly what was going through her head: I don’t want to lose this sale.
Thank God I was with her. There was a lot Sandy needed to learn. And it wasn’t just about sales. If only someone had told me, if only someone had stood up for me when I’d been in that same position.
“I think you should come back by yourself next time,” the chef said to her. With that, the sales call came to an abrupt end. I suspect the chef would have tried to take things further if I hadn’t been there.
Sandy and I went back to the car. “That guy was a little creepy,” she said.
“I know,” I said, but I wasn’t ready to let it go right there. “Sandy, let me tell you about a call I made when I was your age….”
I liked being a sales rep, and I was good at it. Most of my customers were small, family-run restaurants. But there was one potential client, someone who would have a huge impact on our business, a big hotel with a large, well-staffed kitchen. The gatekeeper was the executive chef, and he was a tough customer. Week after week, I called on him—without success.
Then one day he acted different, more receptive. He even remembered my name. We chatted for a while, and I described some of our products. He nodded. “I’ll order something next week,” the chef said. Then he offered to walk me back to my car in the parking garage. “We can talk more on the way,” he said.
The kitchen was in the basement of the hotel, down a maze of hallways. I followed him, thinking about the potential sales his business would mean. Then I noticed we were headed down a corridor that didn’t look familiar. “This isn’t the way I came in,” I said.
“It’s a shortcut,” the chef said. We were far from the kitchen. No one else was around. He unlocked a door and motioned me ahead. I stepped through the door and into…an empty locker room. It smelled musty. The only light came from a dim fluorescent bulb overhead. “What are we doing here?” I said. As the heavy steel door slammed shut, he kept coming toward me. I backed up. Until there was nowhere else to go. My back was literally against the wall.
He was close enough that I could smell the coffee and cigarettes on his breath. He came even closer and put his hands on the wall on either side of my head. I was trapped. He leaned in to kiss me. I cringed and turned my head.
“Stop!” I shouted. The sound died in the empty room.
He was much bigger than I was and stronger. There was no way I could overpower him.
“Let me go,” I said in my sternest voice. Had he locked the door behind us? Could I even get out?
He paused, then backed off, giving me a surprised look, as if he’d done this to other women and gotten away with it. He sauntered over to the door. He pulled it open—it wasn’t locked—and said, “Go.”
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I darted down the hall, my heels clicking against the concrete. I had no idea where I was going. I ran. Anything to get away from him, from the sense of violation. I finally found the garage. I was shaking violently by the time I got to my car.
How dare he act like that! Why did he think he had the right? I was hurt, angry, confused. Had I given him the impression that I would be interested? Had I done something to invite this? But I always dressed professionally, like any good sales rep. I’d never said anything provocative, never flirted. Didn’t he see my wedding ring?
I had to report the incident to my boss. Surely, he’d defend me. I had an exemplary reputation with our company. The hotel management should be alerted, the chef fired or, at the very least, reprimanded.
I started the car and drove back to the office. I liked my manager. He seemed to be a decent man. I sat down in his office, fumbling for words. I’d never had a sales call end like this. I had to remind myself that I was good at what I did. I was an asset to the company, a successful sales rep. I had to explain. It wasn’t my fault if we didn’t get the account.
My boss listened with steepled fingers. I told him everything, the locker room, the proposition, the escape to my car. He didn’t say anything for the longest time. Finally I asked, “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll need to discuss this with headquarters,” he said. “The hotel is part of a national account.”
I wasn’t up to making any more sales calls that day. I went home. I didn’t even tell my husband. I was too embarrassed. I wanted to be done with the whole thing.
“And that was it,” I told Sandy. “Nothing more was ever done. The company didn’t do anything. My boss didn’t do anything. Nobody did a thing.”
“Did you have to go back to the hotel?” Sandy asked.
“Yes,” I said. “They didn’t even take me off the account. I was so scared. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed as hard as I did that day going back there. I begged God to protect me. I walked into the kitchen. The chef looked at me and then gestured to one of his underlings. He told her to talk to me. I can’t even remember if we got any business from them. It hardly mattered.”
What matters—what I told Sandy that day—is that no woman should ever have to deal with what I faced. And no manager should ever make an employee feel the way I did. Unvalued. Unsupported. As if I were the one who had done something wrong.
That event and its aftermath were 25 years ago. I don’t work for that company anymore. Times have definitely changed. Most employers have policies against sexual harassment. And women are speaking out now, loud and clear. Silence and shame go hand in hand. Until I told Sandy what had happened to me, I didn’t realize that sharing my most humiliating experience would be empowering. I’m glad God put me in a position where I could make a difference to her and to other women.
Sexual harassment can happen anywhere—at work, in volunteer situations, even at church. If you’ve had anything like the experience I did, tell someone about it. Share your story. It can change your life—and theirs.
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