Silence Isn’t Always the Best Answer: Here’s my Story

I’ve always wanted to share this story with others. Even before this blog existed, I would spend countless hours daydreaming about what this post would look like and how good it would feel to share my side of what happened that day. But, when it came to finding the right words, it seemed like they didn’t exist. On top of that, I always worried about the repercussions. Would they fire me over a post? Would me exposing a powerful man in the department mean the end of my career before it even started? Well, today I break that silence.

The Background

I graduated college in 2016 with a degree in marketing. I was beyond excited to start my adult life. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I mean how could anybody go a day without seeing a social media post or news article about millennials in the workforce. I knew I had my work cut out for me, but still, I was optimistic about the potential.

I graduated in August and over the summer while I moved back home, I decided to take a full-time operations/customer service role with a large financial institution. The work was easy and the pay was more than I had ever seen before. When you come from working retail, making minimum wage, you don’t hesitate when a position comes along offering you nearly twice that amount an hour. Needless to say, I took the job with hopes that it would only be temporary. Six months is what I told myself. So after graduation, I started the grind of applying, scouring the internet in search of any relevant marketing position I could find. There where plenty of them out there, the problem? They wouldn’t give me a chance. Lack of experience is what it always came down to for the companies that were decent enough to send me a rejection email. Months later it started to become clear that my six month plan wasn’t going to work out.

I began sinking back into a depression, and thanks to social media I’ve found that some people experiencing the same thing refer to it as post-grad or post-graduation depression. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t alone, but I still didn’t know how to get through it. When I got to a final breaking point, I pushed myself to give it one more shot. Instead of looking externally this time, I focused my efforts on positions inside the company. I started “power networking” – meeting with anybody and everybody I could. Then I met him.

The Downfall

Let’s call him Henry. Henry was a smooth talker. He always knew what to say, and that’s what got me. He and I started meeting one on one and I would vent to him about how I was feeling in my career search. Somehow, after a conversation with him I always felt better. Unlike most people I met with, he really seemed to understand what I was going through.

In one of our meetings, he told me he wanted to help me. I was all ears. He asked me to give him 30 days and then he would have another job for me. It wouldn’t be in marketing, but it would be a position that would help me get there. I was a little skeptical. That was a huge promise to make someone, but honestly, that was the most anybody had been willing to do for me so far.

And sure enough, 30 days later, he came through on his promise.

I was eager about the new opportunity, it paid even more than before, but deep down inside it all felt too good to be true, and it was. The department was poorly ran. My co-workers were great, but management was so awful you couldn’t help but question how they even got hired. The worst of all? Henry led the pack in making everybody hate being there. He was the executive director and constantly degraded us, made us feel like we were nothing and that are position in the company was expendable. At any given moment, he could let one of us go.

When it came to my relationship with my direct manager, it was abysmal. No matter how hard I worked, it was never enough. Almost a year into the new position and I could tell management was on a mission to get rid of anybody who wasn’t a yes-man. And if they couldn’t out right fire you, they would push you out by testing your limits. They’d find what makes you tick and keep pushing your buttons until they hit the right one. If you needed proof, just look at the nine people who quit in the months after I joined, each of them citing management as the reason for their departure. So when my manager started getting on me about being 60 seconds late or needing to exceed my already over 100% productivity rate, I knew I was next.

All I wanted was to smile through it until I could find something else.

The Blow-Up

Toward the end of last year, I was in a car accident. It was a minor one, but it did major damage to my back, leaving me with pain I still experience to this day. When I returned to work after a short leave, both Henry and my manager told me that they didn’t think my pain was that serious. They made sure to undermine what I was going through. I wasn’t thrilled to be back, but I couldn’t afford to take any more time off without pay.

My manager had this habit of micromanaging my work. She would constantly ask questions that she had no actual interest in knowing the answers to. In her eyes, we were there to do the work and her only responsibility was to take care of administrative tasks. In her words exactly, she was the manager of a process, not people. How did that make any sense?

One day, I returned from lunch. I only had a couple of hours left in my day and I couldn’t wait to get home. I got back to my desk and noticed that my manager had messaged me while I was away. She wanted to talk to me. I responded, asking her if it was about something specific, making sure that something hadn’t happened while I was out. Well, her response:

Do you ask everybody else who wants to talk to you if it’s about something specific? I don’t think so.

The words took me back. I had never talked to her in this way, so for her to do it to me, I couldn’t understand why. Not to mention, the answer to her question was yes. If you don’t just walk over to my desk on your own and instead take the time to message me beforehand, I would absolutely ask anybody that same question so I could prepare for what seemed to be an important conversation.

To my coworkers, it was like nothing fazed me, but on the inside, I was crumbling.

She came to my desk and asked me to take a walk. Without hesitation, I said no. I didn’t want to take a walk. I didn’t want to be blamed for something I didn’t cause. And I didn’t want to have yet another off-the-books conversation that I couldn’t hold against her. A few minutes later, Henry pulled me into a conference room. I said nothing.

He started talking about millennials and how we “get in the way of ourselves”. We’re the reason why we can’t get ahead. And the reason I hadn’t gotten a marketing job was my own fault, I caused that to happen. He told me that he had taken a chance on me and that I had missed the mark in every way imaginable (despite constantly going above and beyond, with emails, scorecards and reports to prove it). I knew he was lying. He wanted to hurt me. He wanted me to beg him for help so he could feel needed. He wanted me to stroke his ego and make him feel like I couldn’t do this alone, or at least just not without him by my side. I thought I had heard the worst of it until he called me a stereotypical angry black woman. I couldn’t fight the tears, they flooded down my face. Those words constantly replaying in my head, dancing around in my mind, making me feel worthless.

The Lesson

I never went to HR with my story. I never confided in some of the closest people around me about it. I knew if he could so casually say that to me, then imagine what he was saying or had said to others.

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

Alice Walker

I figured that HR would toss my side of the story away, letting it sit in a pile with the number of other allegations they receive a day. I felt like just another painful experience that nobody cared about it. So I stayed silent. I forced a smile when he and my manager would come to my desk. I declined any future meetings with him and eventually I got a new marketing job. Although, for some reason I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt for never going public with what happened to me.

My story could’ve helped somebody. It could’ve prevented him from making someone feel that same pain again. Since that day, I have vowed to myself to never stay silent to discrimination, never to fear the consequences.

Silence may sometimes feel like the best choice, but your words, experience and story mean something. I wouldn’t have just been speaking for me, but the millions of other people in the world who experience discrimination and harassment in the workplace. I can’t go back and change my actions in that moment, but I can choose to make a difference going forward. And I do.