(Who's Brother, Who's Sister)
After four months of beating the bricks, I finally got a job offer. The start-up I'd been working for had vaporized almost overnight, tossing me back into the job market just before Thanksgiving, the worst time of year to look for a job in Silicon Valley. The whole valley essentially shuts down for the holiday season, and in January, everybody's hassling budgets and don't want to commit to new hires. Things don't return to normal-whatever normal may be in the goofiest industry on the face of the earth-until February.
Moreover, the market was tight right then, and, on top of that, I have a pretty heavy-duty resume, so most of the people who were hiring were looking for somebody who'd work cheaper than I was willing to. When DigiHertz decided they wanted me, they moved fast. I got the offer after only a single interview, and had only three days to wrap up my loose ends before I was to report for work. I would have preferred to think things over a bit, but my bank balance was on a rapid collision course with disaster, and, I kept reminding myself, "This is only a living, not a life." I took the job.
DigiHertz, incidentally, has nothing to do with cars. They make digital microwave radios. If you have a digital cellular phone, it's probably a DigiHertz radio that's carrying your call to the phone company. If you see little microwave dish antennas on the corner of a building, there are probably DigiHertz radios behind them, pumping data to a building on the other side of town.
I had to go into the DigiHertz building to sign the offer letter late on a Friday afternoon. When Sarah Nesbitt, the woman from Human Relations who was handling my offer, gave me the letter at the reception desk, she did kind of a double-take and stood off to one side, looking at me closely. As I was reading the letter, I glanced at her out the corner of my eye from time to time, and every time I did, it seemed to me that she was looking at me rather strangely. I was both puzzled by her looks and wondering whether maybe I was misinterpreting something or whether maybe I'd missed a patch under my chin when shaving, but the whole transaction took less than five minutes, and after I was out of the building, I didn't give it any more thought.
My introduction to DigiHertz, the following Monday, was four hours of orientation that focused heavily on company policies and procedures; in essence, 110 pages of reminders of who was boss and what was and what was not permitted, carefully worded in politically correct "you can't blame me" phrasing. There was a heavy emphasis on sexual harassment, which was not surprising.
About a year earlier, DigiHertz had been involved in an ugly lawsuit involving sexual harassment. It had cost them a million dollars in settlement and a whole lot of bad press, and had rocked the company to its foundations. One of the VP's had leaned a little too heavily on his administrative assistant, assuming that there was a "yes" down there somewhere beneath all her "no's." The admin had filed a complaint with the HR department. The director of the HR department, who was an old friend of the VP, had treated the matter lightly, taking the view that "well, that's just Harry." He'd spoken to Harry, but Harry didn't get the message, so the admin got a lawyer. The upshot of it was, aside from the million dollars, that both Harry and the HR director were now working elsewhere, the president managed to hang on by the skin of his teeth, and the company was hyper about sexual harassment. In order to keep his butt covered, the president had hired as the new director of HR "Battleship" Barbara Corrigan, who was known throughout Silicon Valley for her utter intolerance of anything that even hinted of sexual harassment. One of her hallmarks was that, although she was the director of the department, she never assigned sexual harassment complaints out to any of her staff. She handled them herself.
None of which bothered me much. I certainly didn't have any intention of harassing anybody, sexually or otherwise. I was there to work, to try to get back on my financial feet after four months without income, and to be able to relax and enjoy having a steady income again. For the first week, I did nothing but read documentation and experiment with the product I'd be working on. I talked to only three people, Ben, my boss, Mike, the fellow with whom I shared office space, and Suzi, the departmental admin. I went home at night with my head feeling like it was stuffed with oatmeal, ate dinner, watched TV, checked a couple of newsgroups, and hit the sack.
I got around the company only to the extent of going back and forth to the men's room and the coffee pot. It just so happened that, in those few and brief excursions, Sarah's and my paths crossed fairly often. I'd give her a nodded greeting, but nothing more, and it seemed to me, once again, that she looked at me strangely and veered away a little, almost going around me, making more space between us when we passed than people usually do under those circumstances.
Despite its tedium, my nose-to-the-grindstone approach during that first week was worth the effort. DigiHertz's equipment was not remarkably different from a lot of other similar equipment I'd worked on. Sure, they had a few twists and a whole bunch of local lingo I was unfamiliar with, but those were minor details I could pick up as I went along. On Friday, I told my boss that I was ready to go to work seriously, and the following Monday, I attended my first product team meeting.
Tuesday morning, when I went to my desk, I found waiting for me a voicemail message from Barbara Corrigan, asking-directing-me to report to her office immediately. Barbara's imperious tone was a bit off-putting, but I wasn't bothered. I assumed that there was some kind of HR paperwork that had to be completed.
I'll swear that Battleship Barbara could have driven nails with her face. She was about fifty-five. Her salt-and-pepper hair was cut in a short, no-nonsense style, her dress was businesslike and severe, and her rock-solid jaw gave no indication that she ever smiled. Nor did she beat around the bush. After a curt greeting, she said, "Sarah Nesbitt has filed a complaint of sexual harassment, visual harassment, against you. Do you know what visual harassment is?"
My shock must have been visible. I'd scarcely even nodded at Sarah Nesbitt. How on earth could she be accusing me of sexual harassment?
"Yes, I know what visual harassment is," I said.
"And will you tell me, please?" Battleship Barbara asked.
"Visual harassment is when someone displays sexually offensive material in his or her work area, or when someone repeatedly looks at another person in a way that makes him or her uncomfortable."
"That's right," Battleship Barbara said. "You are hereby issued a verbal warning for this infraction. If there's a second instance, you will receive a written warning. If there's a third instance, you will be placed on probation."
"Whoa! Wait a minute," I said. "I think you'd better say that Sarah Nesbitt alleges visual harassment. I don't have any idea what you're talking about. Sarah Nesbitt handled my offer letter. I've never been near her or spoken to her, except when I came in and signed the offer."
"Sarah claims that, on numerous occasions, when you and she passed in hallways, you leered at her," Battleship Barbara said.
"Leered at her!" I exploded. "I nodded to her in passing, just as I have with other DigiHertz employees, both male and female. This doesn't make any sense at all."
Battleship Barbara fixed me with an icy stare. "Ms. Nesbitt has filed her complaint. Unless you can produce evidence to the contrary, I have to assume that her complaint has merit."
Nice. Lovely. HR taking care of its own. I'd seen this tactic in other places and under other conditions. Put somebody instantly on the defensive, then watch them squirm, especially when the accused person has to try to prove a negative, which is damn hard to do. How could I prove that I hadn't leered at Sarah Nesbitt? Sexual harassment laws are written so that if a woman claims to have been sexually harassed, the claim is virtually as good as proof. I knew that the worst thing I could do was start to blather in protest, so I sat quietly, trying to regain control of myself and gather my thoughts. In the process of doing my homework the preceding week, I had read all 110 pages of company policy. I thought back over the lengthy section on sexual harassment. Finally, I spoke.
"Ms. Corrigan, I believe that, according to company policy, and consistent with law, I have a right to confront my accuser."
Battleship Barbara looked at me coldly, but she had to comply. She lived by written policy, and she'd written that one. She picked up her telephone, called Sarah Nesbitt, and asked her to come to her office.
When Sarah walked into Battleship Barbara's office, her chin was thrust forward, and she had a defiant stance. I looked at her closely as she passed by me. She was pretty, not model-pretty, but healthy, girl-next-door pretty-somewhere beneath all her makeup. I hadn't really noticed the makeup before, very dark lipstick, and heavy eyeshadow and eyebrow liner. She didn't need all that makeup, and it seemed inconsistent, made her look older than she probably was, late twenties, I'd guess, a few years younger than I am. She looked lithe, with a figure like a ballerina, almost no chest, long, solid legs, and a muscular, round, high, protruding butt, framed nicely in a pair of very tight slacks. She took a seat at the other corner of Battleship Barbara's desk, sitting on the edge of the chair, her back rigidly straight.
.... There is more of this story ...