It is said that split-second decisions can change your life. I didn’t understand how true that statement could be until the winter of 2006. I worked for Macy’s in the cosmetic department. I was a unique feature there; I was a heterosexual male. Therefore, I should have been on my guard.
As I squeezed my way past Marie, I impulsively pinched her squishy, 60-year old tushy with my thumb and index finger. I imagined her silent outrage as I walked away without acknowledging the maneuver, a smug smile on my face. I imagined myself quite the little trickster.
I knew Marie quite well, and she knew me. At least I thought so. We both worked in the cosmetic department at Macy’s, she at the Elizabeth Arden counter, and I in the fragrance department. Our areas of responsibility were close by and we would often help each other unpack shipments and deal with customers, if the other needed assistance. Such camaraderie often brings people closer. Friendships are created, not unlike those that serve in combat. Stress brings people together. I felt we were close enough that the pinch would be considered a funny prank. Hell, I had been to her home! We drank wine and she said I could stay over if I didn’t think I could safely drive home. I certainly didn’t think that was a sexual advance, just as I didn’t imagine she would think my innocent pinch could be interpreted any other way. The innocuous squeeze was meant to be a joke, a cute bit of fun during a boring workday at work. I expected she would chalk it up to typical Jan shenanigans. I liked to call them “Jananigans.”
My youthful exuberance was not always interpreted as such.
I had been in the store manager’s office on many occasions. I was, at one time, a night supervisor and reported directly to him on all things related to my duties. These duties included closing the store during the week, as well as the responsibility of supervising all the associates. The other managers and I called him simply “Matt.” He and I would talk casually about associates and fellow managers, sharing details of my previous evening’s shift. Sometimes we would even get off-topic and talk about movies and music. It was a business relationship, but he made the situation seem to be friendly and professional at the same time.
This time I didn’t sit in front of his oak desk that was cluttered with knick-knacks. Instead I sat at the small, round conference table off to the side of that desk. Instead of his smiling, goateed, forty-something face, I looked into the face of a more serious, almost somber, store-manager. Gone was the good-natured boss. Replacing him was the very severe, store manager of a national conglomerate.
To exemplify this, he was not alone. Sitting next to him at the conference table was a woman I had never seen before. I couldn’t guess her age if you put a gun to my head. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail and consequentially the skin on her face appeared to be pulled tight. She could have been twenty five, or seventy-five. She wore a knee-length wool skirt that did not give a hint to her figure. The things I could determine about her was that she was thin, Caucasian, and serious.
“Jan, this is Eileen Scrimshaw. She is from the corporate office in New York,” said Matt, introducing the thin, serious Caucasian.
“Mr. Campbell, have you read the employee handbook?” she asked, getting right to the matter. There would be no back-and-forth in this duel. She was out for blood!
“Not in some time. Not since the turnover,” I said, referring to the Macy’s buy-out out the previous department store Filene’s, the year before.
“Specifically the two pages on sexual harassment,” she said.
My heart began to beat faster. Blood rushed to my face and I was dizzy like I had just been sucker-punched. She had indeed drew first blood.
“I guess,” I confirmed vaguely. I attempted a parry and quick counterstrike. “It’s bad, right?” My attempt at a joke pulled a dry chuckle from Matt but otherwise there was complete silence.
Ms. Scrimshaw cleared her throat signaling that this was not the time for levity. “Mr. Campbell, Macy’s takes very seriously accusations of sexual harassment and must investigate all claims of such activity.”
“Of course,” I agreed sheepishly.
“You work with Marie?” she asked.
I closed my eyes as the confusion I felt withdrew and understanding advanced in its place. “Yes,” I confirmed.
“She has written a complaint that on October, 11th, 2006 you pinched her on the rear-end while on the selling floor. Specifically, behind the Estee Lauder counter,” the details landed on me like a series of well-placed punches to my stomach. I struggled to breathe. “True, so far?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and said “Yup.”
She placed a clean white piece of paper in front of me and said “I want you to write your account of what happened. Just leave it on the table when you are done.” She and Matt stood up and quietly left the room, leaving me to find the words to detail an incident I had not thought of since it happened.
Ms. Scrimshaw poked her head back into the room and said, “Also, you are suspended until a decision is made regarding your employment at Macy’s.” She was gone again, leaving me cut up and wounded. I had lost the duel.
I felt very alone. Suddenly I was very angry! Why did Marie do this to me? We were friends; she knew I was only playing. Did she think I was coming-on to her? I mean, really! My self-righteous indignation was boiling to meltdown proportions!
I struggled to find the words as I detailed the short encounter. I made sure to indicate that I was friends with Marie and in no way was I making a sexual advance. I made a point to indicate how bad I felt about the incident. It was true, that I had not been overtly sexual to Marie, but I was lying when I said I felt bad. In fact, my only remorse was the fact that it had come to this. My excuses took up more room than the description of the incident.
It was a nerve-wracking couple of days, and the powers-that-be decided that I had not committed an egregious enough offence to lose my job. I suspected they thought I had learned my lesson by having to fear for my job for a couple days.
“What did I learn from my experience?” I ask myself. I learned to choose my words carefully. I learned that a single event can have multiple interpretations, and what may seem innocuous to one, may seem hostile to another. I certainly learned to be professional in my actions, while at work. Most of all, I learned to keep my hands to myself.