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I haven't been fired and I haven't quit...just extremely unhappy. Please read!

by Sonya
(Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

Hopeless in Milwaukee

Hi, Chris. I am a Paralegal at a large foreclosure law firm in Wisconsin. First, I just want thank you for what you are doing. When I came upon your website yesterday, I was so relieved that I burst into tears. (I’ve been doing too much of that lately.) I desperately need advice from a knowledgeable person on this subject. I, too, would like to remain as anonymous as possible. However, I spent a great deal of time reading other people’s stories and studying Wisconsin’s DWD website and I have yet to come across anyone in a situation similar to mine. Maybe I’m just screwed.

My story involves intolerable working conditions, harassment, bullying and I suppose even sexual in nature to some extent. My uncertainty about how to deal with my problem is in part because what is happening to me hasn’t been included in any employment laws, not in my state anyway. Also, the people that harass me are not my superiors at all. They are my co-workers and it is mostly other women and it is a group effort. Also, although I have had to make my superiors and human resources aware of the situation, much of it has been done quietly, secretively. Worse, when confronted, they simply lie. (Although, one woman did stand up for me, she no longer works at the company, but that is a part of my larger story.)

The reason I even include the harassment / sexual harassment aspects in my definition is because more often than not, the comments that are made are about my body/appearance and what I do or don’t do in private. (I am called names, like whore and tramp daily. My boobs and butt are discussed. “Her boobs look fake and I have no ass.” Also, the racial comments come from all sides, as I’m bi-racial, yet could be any number of ethnicities.) It certainly wouldn’t matter, but I can assure you that there is no justification for this. I haven’t dated any of the men at my workplace. (In fact, I never have dated someone at work.) The worse thing that some of the men have done is call me stuck up (one of the attorneys called me stuck up within my first few weeks, although he had never even talked to me) and one of the guys definitely eggs the girls on, so to speak. All-in-all, though, a very small percentage of the 150+ employees are men. (5%)

I have been there almost a year now and I don’t know how much more I can take. It never seems to stop! Yes, this has happened to me before. I suppose the difference now is that I just graduated in May 2009 and what am I supposed to do? This was my dream job and now it’s a nightmare! Recently, I turned down my company’s 401-K plan…stupid, I know, but I just didn’t want to concede that I would have to keep putting myself through this hell. But, I’m terrified to go somewhere else and have it start all over again. What if the next place is worse? It makes me sick to my stomach even thinking about going to work on Monday.

All I can say is that I WISH they would fire me, but that doesn’t seem likely. I’m very productive and reliable and all that. But, I know I can’t quit. Or, at least I thought I knew that, until I came across your site. (For the most part and to be honest, I don’t even really know who my “boss” is. They just sort of stay out of our way and leave us to our own devices. When I tried to go to them…I sensed annoyance, more than anything. But once again, that is all in the details of my story.) Lastly, if your only suggestion is to “not wear mascara” or “attempt to hide my body,” then thanks anyway. Embarrassingly, I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work…it just makes it all slower
to happen!

Please let me know if you believe you can help me!

Hi Sonya,

I would never tell anyone they should alter who they are to stop unwanted, unwelcomed, or unacceptable harassing behavior at work. Did Erin Brockovich?

The Supreme Court has ruled that sexual harassment can occur between those of the same sex.

Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc.

And, don't worry, I read every single question I get.

Clearly, you need to search out an "employment attorney" to advise you, just so you don't make any mistakes or at least to make sure you cover all your bases, but I might be able to get you started thinking in an offensive kind of way.

I realize your situation is unique to you, but trust me, it is much too commonplace. Is it any wonder people end up on meds to control workplace stress?

I'm hoping that you have been documenting everything .. I mean every meeting you have had with HR, the results, and every single untoward comment verbatim, when it was made and by whom.

There's lots of reasons to do this, but when we keep a journal with details it helps us recall dates, time, places, and people. Details always fade with time.

Many "regular" employers have zero tolerance policies when it comes to harassment. They will fire the offenders just to avoid having a problem with the "victim". Ironically, harassers often get unemployment because there is no warning and at an unemployment hearing the victim will usually not be presented as a direct witness to sustain the misconduct. You know .. direct trumps hearsay.

In your situation .. "the authority" which I will assume is HR, since you don't really have a defined person to report to, seems appropriate to have control over this situation. And they should have done something other than "act annoyed"

Once you reported this it should have been made to stop, no ifs, ands, or buts.

The only thing I might know of to do now .. since you have given the employer the chance to make it stop is file a complaint with the EEOC or better still the Wisconsin ERD.

This is what will put you into a protected class, which is where you need to be so you have some operating room.

This also acts as a way to put this employer on notice that you mean business, because all you have to do is file the complaint to be protected for now.

Ironically, this is also what makes an employer want more than ever .. to get rid of you and this is usually done by offering a severance package which you have to sign an agreement not to sue.

If they keep you around and refuse to take action against the co-workers who are harassing you .. further harassment becomes a serious liability to them.

This is also what might make the job improve .. who knows .. after all why should you just give up what was your dream job without a fight to make it what it should be or at least tolerable. I think they call this "efforts to preserve the employment".

I'm more than willing to talk to you about this in a consultation, I could tell you how the unemployment aspect might play out and I'd probably be great moral support, but I think you should use your money to talk to a lawyer ..

There aren't many states as "claimant friendly" as Wisconsin when it comes to unemployment, and other labor laws, but still, it's tough to quit and get unemployment without being able to prove all you did.

You should consider that unemployment may be chump change compared to the possible severance an attorney might be able to negotiate when an employer doesn't mind their P and Q's.

Did I mention unemployment claimants also have the right to subpoena witnesses and documents? You did mention someone else who use to work with you that might be able to help with corroborative testimony.

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