I was fired in 2015 for reporting my boss for sexual harassment.
As an associate veterinarian at a corporate-owned hospital, I watched my medical director verbally and physically harass support staff and other veterinarians during my 4½ years there.
He first was reported to regional management for telling a receptionist she had “a nice ass.” No action was taken. The second time, it was because he cornered a technician in the ICU, pressed up against her back and squeezed her butt with both hands while telling her how much he liked her body. When she tried to get away, he stood in the doorway of the small room, forcing her to rub against him to escape.
She cried as she told me about this and about another occasion, when he stopped by the hospital after the gym. He grabbed her arm and forced her hand up his shirt to feel his sweaty abdominals. When I asked her why she hadn’t reported him, she told me that she had a history of sexual abuse and felt ashamed. She wondered if it was her fault that these things kept happening to her. I held her hand as she recounted the story to the hospital manager at my insistence.
This time, the regional management team came to the hospital. They had a closed-door meeting with him. Later, he confided to me that he had admitted to “patting her on the ass” and was being forced to retake sexual-harassment training. I had to hide my shock and disgust. After all, this man was my boss.
I reached out to the regional manager by email, expressing concern about their tolerance of his actions and the effects he was having on the staff as a whole. She told me it was none of my business and that I was overstepping my position. She said that maybe this wasn’t the right job for me.
I got the message. Trapped between loving my job and hating my boss, I shut up and stood by as this man continued to prey upon support staff. He moved from one to the next. If they refused to play along with his actions, he would publicly ridicule, yell at, shame and humiliate them. Our support-staff turnover rate was astronomical.
In time, his inappropriate behavior affected women beyond support staff. An associate veterinarian told me that he put his hand on her thigh to “comfort” her while he was euthanizing her personal dog. She quit not long afterward.
I was in the lobby the day he told a client how sexy she looked in her short skirt. I was still there when, after he walked out of the room, she asked for her records to be transferred. I told my manager. Nothing happened.
He found out I was complaining about his conduct. He increased my shifts from nine hours to 12 hours at a time. He scheduled me for 10 weekends in a row. He would pull me into his office and tell me that no one liked me; that I was a decent doctor but had poor interpersonal communication skills; that the technicians all thought I was mean and complained about working with me. My misery grew.
The next female associate hired was a former classmate of mine. I warned my friend about his antics. She was familiar with sexual harassment and put up with his comments, his constant ogling, his distasteful jokes. One day, he came into the doctor’s office and started massaging her shoulders. After that, she told me that she didn’t think she could continue working with him. I called my regional manager to tell her that we would be losing another associate if she didn’t do something to stop this. She agreed to meet with me.
She came with the regional vice president. Walking into that meeting, I felt relief. After years of being begged to take this matter seriously, I thought, finally they were going to listen. They sat me down in the conference room and told me that I was the problem. I was causing a rift between the medical director and the rest of the staff, they said.
I was flabbergasted. Astounded. Angry. I implored them to have a meeting with all the doctors so they could hear the stories firsthand. They refused.
Instead, they said I was to have a one-on-one meeting with the medical director to “hash everything out.” They wanted me to sit in a room alone with a man who had spent the past year berating me, yelling at me, telling me that I was a terrible person. On days I knew I had to work with him, I had actually hoped to be in a car accident on the way to work — anything to avoid having to be around him. I resigned immediately. An hour later, the other female associate resigned, as well.
I cried for days, mourning my resignation the way I would a breakup with a long-time lover. I may have hated my boss, but I loved my work and the other people I worked with, my clients and their animals.
The regional team returned to administer our exit interviews and take all the doctors out to lunch afterward. The regional medical director was there for the first time. I still have the letter I read aloud to him and the other managers. It detailed every indiscretion I had witnessed, that had been reported to me, or that I had experienced. The other associate spoke to them next. I imagine her narrative was even more damning because he had physically put his hands on her. Lunch was cancelled. Finally, someone was listening.
He was transferred that day. Not terminated, not reprimanded, but transferred to another hospital. We were asked if we wanted to rescind our resignations, and we did. We felt triumphant. Technicians and receptionists thanked me, saying they had been afraid to speak up about what this man had been doing to them. I stopped wishing I would get hit by a bus on my way to work. I thought everything was perfect. The hospital was being reborn.
One month later, I was fired. There was no warning. I had no previous write-ups. I’d never had a poor review or counseling session with human resources. The staff wasn’t given an official reason for my departure, but the new medical director told people privately that I was fired for “being a troublemaker.”
The other female associate resigned in protest. They let her. She told our story to a friend of hers who is a lawyer, and that lawyer reached out to me.
I’ve been a member of the Veterinary Information Network since I was in veterinary school. I know we have a code to protect our own. I’ve seen the discussion threads in which posters frown upon veterinarians who consider taking legal action against a fellow veterinarian even when action is warranted. I had little interest in building a reputation for being litigious.
What happened to me, though, was egregious. Not only was I fired for taking a stand against sexual harassment and management complacency, they made an example of me to a staff full of women who had endured a boss’s verbal and physical abuse for years. By firing me, they made sure no one would speak out against their boss again. I asked the lawyer what I could do. The few thousand dollars it cost to retain her services would be worth it, I thought, if it meant I could keep this from happening to others.
The process to sue for wrongful termination starts with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). A person wishing to take legal action against an employer for discrimination including sexual harassment must first file an official complaint with the EEOC. I spent weeks filling out paperwork, typing up statements and giving verbal depositions.
An EEOC investigation has one of three outcomes:
- They find that there is no evidence for the complaint against the employer, and it is dismissed.
- They find there is empirical evidence confirming the complaint, and rule against the employer. Depending on the severity of the offense, the EEOC might sue the employer for damages, require a public apology to the wronged party, or impose any of several lesser punishments. Due to limited resources, the EEOC litigates a very small number of cases. As an example, in 2012 they prosecuted 0.15 percent of the cases filed.
- The EEOC elects not to prosecute the employer but grants the employee the right to sue for damages.
Twenty-two months after I lost my job, the EEOC completed its assessment. In June, the agency granted me the right to sue for damages.
I had 90 days to decide whether to pursue the case. Doing so would require tens of thousands of dollars and more years of my life fighting a multibillion dollar corporation. It did not take long for me to decide not to go further. It’s been two years, and I’m happy in my life again. I love my job, I love my family, and I just want to move on.
I wish I could give you a more exciting ending to the story, but I can’t. I wish I could tell you I feel vindicated, but I don’t. The man still works for the company, and I don’t know that his behavior has changed. The technicians who saw me fired still have the memory of the doctor who stood up for them being escorted out of the building with a box of her belongings in her arms and tears streaming down her face.
It would be nice to think that only politicians and Hollywood executives are guilty of mistreating women, that our profession is immune. The fact is, no profession is above this kind of behavior. It also would be nice to think that this behavior will stop now that a huge spotlight is on sexual harassment, and women everywhere see that they aren’t alone. Sadly, I don’t believe that, either. As long as people in power condone these behaviors, they will continue to happen.
I do hope that as our profession becomes more predominantly female, incidents of sexual harassment will lessen. It will take women supporting each other, finding the courage to speak out about their experiences, and having the bravery to stand up for those who can’t, no matter the price. The price for me was a job I loved, a large chunk of my professional reputation, the knowledge that I’m ineligible for hire at one of the largest corporations in veterinary medicine, thousands of dollars in legal fees, and two years of my life. Yet, I would do it all again.
Still, the damage lingers. I’m afraid of running into the man at veterinary conferences. I’m afraid to publish this article with my name for fear of how it might affect my career in the future. I’m afraid to name the people who were involved, the people who stood by and allowed abuse to happen, because our profession is so small. The backlash could destroy me. And I know women everywhere share my fears. I see you. I hope one day, we won’t have to be afraid anymore.
Editor’s note: The VIN News Service carefully considered whether publishing an account of sexual harassment by an anonymous writer would perpetuate the social stigma associated with speaking publicly on the issue. The news team also discussed whether an anonymous account would give an unfair platform to the writer to make accusations without accountability; and conversely, whether not identifying the alleged harasser would give him a pass. After verifying the report, VIN News decided to publish the commentary not to call out a specific individual or employer but to encourage conversation about this important subject.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.