It's Never "Just Words", Especially When They Are Slime

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If "just words" appeared as slime, we'd all see exactly what is going on
If "just words" appeared as slime, we'd all see exactly what is going on
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I’ve never been grabbed or groped, “just” slimed. In hindsight, I wish my former colleague had spewed actual green slime rather than sleazy words. At least there would have been evidence, something to show my boss and the human resources department, rather than the steady but invisible ooze of boorish talk that usually took place when no one else was around.

The sliming happened 15 years ago and I thought I’d put it behind me until I watched Donald Trump spew sleaze, slime, and even threats during the so-called second presidential debate (I avoided the first one). My smaller scale, private disgust-a-thon took place in the life sciences and technology practice of a Boston area management consulting firm. As one of the junior staff, I quickly learned that this man was a rainmaker, someone who could easily land projects so we’d have billable hours. Since ours was a fledgling practice, and my boss was eager if not under pressure to show his superiors strong revenue, he had hired this man and other experienced consultants to bring in business. Initially, some of these projects involved companies unrelated to the industry we were ostensibly hired to work in, a red flag.

For about the first year of my two year tenure, I managed to avoid this character, who was based out of state. Eventually, I was assigned to a project with him. It’s when we shared a ride or walked from one part of a client site to another that his loose lips spilled crud all over me. These included references to female anatomy, remarks about other women, lewd jokes and occasional comments about my clothing and appearance. His slobbery speech and his obliviousness to others’ body language made me think he had some kind of condition. Perhaps he suffered from a variation of coprolalia, the “involuntary utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks”.

In my mind, I took the high road by trying to view him with compassion and not take his words personally. Still, that he usually turned off the spigot of slime in the presence of men, equals and superiors made me wonder if I was being too tolerant. If I couldn’t immediately deflect the conversation, I retreated into silence, even though his words and creepy gaze revolted me. Frankly, I was too shocked to say anything, too afraid to tell my boss that this person, whom he seemed to like and respect, made me uneasy. Still, as the sole generalist hired amongst a crop of MBAs and life sciences PhDs, I didn’t feel I had the clout, track record or specialized expertise to have my complaint be taken seriously. I lacked the nerve to make waves. That none of the other women in the practice, including a senior consultant, seemed to be bothered by this man contributed to my reticence and my wait and see attitude. Maybe this guy would eventually quiet down or get a new job. That others treated him not just as normal but as valuable made me wonder if I inhabited an alternate universe, population one. In my world, it’s never acceptable to talk trash, no matter how much money you make or generate, no matter how impressive or prestigious your résumé (his was). Once “just words” are in the air and under the skin it’s hard to flush them out. Even years later a subtle, energy sapping stain can remain. “Just words” are part of the continuum of scummy behavior that still festers if not flourishes in this culture. “Just words” fertilize the soil in which power imbalances, intimidation and violence thrive. “Just words” are still deplorable even if they don’t involve skin to skin contact or leave bruises.

At one point a high ranking female employee at a client site complained about this man’s aggressive if not harassing sales tactics as he tried to drum up more work. I hoped our boss would do the right thing and fire him, rather than risk another incident and, along with it, the reputation of our practice. If my boss demonstrated that he was in it for the long haul, rather than the short term as I increasingly feared, then perhaps I could manage this temporary nuisance. Instead, he suspended my colleague from visiting that client, giving this fellow a slap on the wrist. At that moment I knew that money mattered more than integrity in this workplace. The longer I stayed, the more slimed I felt, not just by this man but by the frat boy culture that covered for him and my own tacit participation in it. I saved as much of my salary as I could, building my own, far from golden, parachute.

My boss’ strategy of securing short-term projects rather than building long term relationships backfired. The work pipeline dried up. About a year and a half after I started working there, he began laying people off, including staff he’d known a long time. I hoped he’d let me go, too, so I’d have a straightforward explanation for my departure. Since I did not find a pink slip on my desk, I had to find the courage to choose myself. I resigned from the poisoned, puerile playpen of a practice, although I didn’t have the wherewithal then to use those words, nor did I have another job waiting. I learned later that this practice eventually collapsed. My troubling ex-colleague, hired by another company, tried to connect with me on LinkedIn. I ignored him.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that taking the high road does not mean remaining quiet or stoic, turning a blind eye, or detouring along a spiritual bypass by feeling sorry for a person with aberrant or abhorrent behavior. We can have compassion for others even as we call out their behavior and stand up for ourselves. The high road is a long road. These days it seems as if it’s a barely traveled, rocky and lonely path where one’s footing is continually tested. That I’ve written this article does not mean I fearlessly walk the high road let alone the high wire of absolute integrity; if that were true, I would have left that job after two weeks rather than two years or I would have filed a complaint. Today, what pains me most was my silence; I wish I’d had more guts and more faith. If there is anything redemptive about this tumultuous and dispiriting election, it’s that more and more people have been compelled to voice their truths and tell their long buried stories, finally scrubbing the slime from their souls. My hope is that this collective cleansing will continue, and together we’ll turn the high road into a well traveled highway.

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