They say you never forget your first time. Mine was back in Summer 2001.
Fred* was the first person I ever fired for sexual harassment.
I was 25, and a new HR Manager at [Leading Department Store].
Fred was semi-retired from his days in real estate. He sold fine jewelry part-time, mostly for fun and the employee discount. He was at least twice my age, but probably pushing 60.
He took pride in being one of the more professionally dressed employees.
Always adjusting his tie, or primping his hair.
He was a walking Old-Fashioned cocktail in a sport coat, sweater vest, and gabardine slacks that were probably nice in the decade they were originally made.
He kept his gray hair a little long and coiffed, and perpetually on the verge of blooming into a full-grown mullet.
Fred could sell anything, and he loved selling fine jewelry because that’s where the commission was. He was extroverted and gregarious, but he exuded a smarmy, used car salesman-y vibe that I never wanted to have when I worked in sales.
I had only a few friendly chats with him before that day he sat in my office.
Fred seemed more bothered than nervous while sitting across from me. Like it was a burden for him to be talking to HR when he could be at the counter making money instead.
He could probably tell that I was nervous. This was my first case of this nature, and I barely knew what I was doing. I didn’t want to mess up, and possibly make things worse.
At this point I only knew one side of the case, and I needed to hear his.
I was expecting him to deny everything, and we’d end up going back and forth on what actually happened. Classic he-said / she-said.
“Do you know why I asked you here?” I started.
“I think I have an idea.” he said.
“And what’s that?” I asked.
“I think someone came to talk to you about something I said to them.”
This was refreshingly unexpected. I took a quick beat. I wanted to see where he was taking it, so I let him continue.
“I’m listening.” I told him.
He said he gave a compliment to a female coworker, and maybe she took it the wrong way and got offended. And now he’s being called to my office to talk about it.
We agreed on the other employee in question, but not the rest of the story.
I explained to him that yes, I had already spoken to Kayla*.
Kayla was a young woman from Hawaii that worked in the department adjacent to Fred’s counter. She worked part-time while going to college. She was also young enough to be his grand-daughter.
Even though they worked in different departments, whenever things got busy they had to share cash registers.
According to Kayla, that’s when Fred would turn into Super Creep.
He would try to charm her with gems like – “Hey Kayla, I’m planning a trip to Hawaii. You ever been to Come-On-I-Wanna-Lay-Ya?”
He told her he heard it in a movie and thought it was funny. It is from a movie and in context, the scene in the movie is kinda funny!
But it’s not funny when it’s a creepy old dude in a department store saying it to a 19 year-old girl just trying to do a job.
It’s similar to George Bush Sr’s “David Cop-A-Feel” joke that he’d say before grabbing a woman’s butt.
It’s the kind of creeper joke a lot of people simply brush off as “boys will be boys”.
I also explained to Fred that he was being accused of brushing up against Kayla’s butt whenever she was wearing a skirt or tight clothing. It didn’t matter that he tried to make it look “accidental”.
And then I had to ask him about the pinching.
When he would tell her she looked nice, he also half-jokingly warned her that he might “have to pinch her butt.”
And one time he did.
She told him to knock it all off, or she’d report him to HR.
He didn’t, and she stuck to her word.
And there we were.
I’ll never forget his first response.
With a shoulder shrug he said, “I’m Italian. We pinch.”
Then he held up his hands and did a crab pinch like Sebastian in The Little Mermaid, with a look like it was all beyond his control.
I have a pretty good poker face when I need one, but I don’t know how I didn’t laugh in his face and shout ARE YOU FUCKING FOR REAL!?
But I maintained.
I calmly explained that while I appreciated his honesty, what he did was extremely inappropriate, and it had no place at [Leading Department Store], and Kayla had already told him it was inappropriate and asked him to stop.
And because he chose to continue his inappropriate behavior we were now parting ways.
He paused, then let out a sigh with a subtle head shake of disbelief.
“Times changed. Back in the 70’s when I worked in a real estate office we could do whatever and nobody cared. Nobody got mad. We gave compliments. If I saw a gal with nice legs I’d tell her she had nice legs. We’d pat butts, and snap bras. It was all in good fun.”
I know what he wanted me to say. He wanted me to commiserate and be all, “I get it, man. Chicks can’t even take a compliment anymore, amirite?”
“Fun for who though?” I asked. Both of us knowing the answer. “Would you want your wife or daughter to work in a place where she was getting pinched, or brushed up against, or being told creepy jokes? Especially after she asked it to stop?”
He sat there and realized the workplace changed without telling him (or he wasn’t listening), and now he was playing catch up.
This was almost 20 years ago. To this day I can’t watch Ron Burgundy without wondering if Fred helped inspire it.
But let me clarify, I’m not saying I’m some shining example of anything now or back then.
Yes, I cared about creating an equal and safe workplace for women and everyone, but I was being paid to do so. I was still blind and ignorant to the way women are treated by men (including myself) every day outside of where I worked.
I was still part of the problem.
It took me years before I began to understand the ways I also objectified women. And how it stems from what society teaches boys when it’s deep-rooted Patriarchal culture saturated in toxic masculinity.
I had to learn how to stop objectifying women. It’s a type of deprogramming. It takes time. It’s a process.
I could recognize Fred’s patterns easily as I’m sure most people could.
But it took looking inward, and recognizing my own patterns in order to start fixing them. If someone tried to show them to me I was likely to double down trying to justify ignorant behavior.
When you know better, you do better.
Fred was right. Times have changed.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are telling a lot of dudes like Fred that they better wake up and catch up.
But some guys haven’t even started yet.
They’re too busy complaining they have to go to a Sexual Harassment Prevention Training, or how they can’t give compliments anymore, or they don’t know how to act around women without worrying about offending them.
In my experience it’s rarely as simple as “I only gave a compliment” that’ll get you a chat with HR. It’s usually a pattern of behavior.
Too many men still don’t recognize their own creepy behavior patterns whether in or outside of the workplace.
Don’t be the guy feeling nostalgic for the good ole’ days when women didn’t have a voice and you could get away with treating them like shit. Those days are thankfully fading away more and more.
Men, we’re all a bunch of Freds.
We’ve all done or said the stupid shit he did to some degree. He was just stupid enough to do it at work, and he rightfully got fired for it.
But if it’s not okay to do it at work – then why is it okay to do outside of work?
If it’s not okay for someone to do it to your [Daughter, Mother, Sister] – then why do it to another female?
We’re all at different points of learning that we need to become better men because our culture tells us it’s okay to act like Fred sometimes. We see it every day.
Women have been telling us for decades, and they are united now more than ever in still telling us that it’s not okay.
We need to fire our inner Fred and listen.
Let’s all do better. Let’s encourage each other to become better men.
Yes, all men.
*yep, fake names.