Financial Independence Let Me Walk Away From Harassment at Work

Anonymous reached out to me about publishing an essay she wrote about a significant recent event. For personal reasons she wanted to remain unidentified, but she still wanted to share her story: one of conflict, betrayal, and redemption. Her story demonstrates how financial independence gives you options and a position of power when it seems like everything is falling apart.

“Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it, because nobody else will.” -Mohandas K. Gandhi

Looking back on 2019 at the dawn of a new decade, I have to say that this year was one of the best years of my life. I became a full-time entrepreneur. I helped others reach their dreams and have supported the community I am a part of. I ran a half marathon. I reached my goals. I did the things.

But 2019 was also one of the worst years I have ever experienced.

The First Message

It all started at the end of 2018. The day after Christmas arrived without much fanfare. My mom packed up and went home after visiting for the holiday. My husband and I put away our decorations and vacuumed. We spent the rest of the morning on our patio reading and sipping coffee. Our cell phones, as a rule during holidays, were still charging far away. We dedicated as much time as we could to enjoying a distraction-free day. After a lunch of delicious leftovers and a walk along the water, we finally agreed to check our phones. I wanted to make sure my mom was well on her way.

But that’s not what was waiting for me on my phone.

Instead I saw the first message. And then the next. And then the next.

BITCH

WHORE

PIECE OF SHIT

And those are the nice things that they sent. 

I read them and dropped my phone on the table, repelling it away from me. My husband picked it up and read what I had just seen. 

We both went into panic mode. I took a screenshot of the messages. The hateful, abusive, harassing messages. They came from an unknown number, but based on their content, it was clear that it came from a coworker. I took a screenshot and sent an email to HR and my boss.

The Early Assurances

My boss called me 5 minutes later. He said it was a punch to the gut. He said none of those things were true and that no one would ever believe those things. He also said that he had clear suspicions of who sent it. I said there wasn’t proof so no names should be thrown out, but I agreed with his suspicions. A recent addition to the team a few months earlier had been a trouble-maker. This person was gossipy and threw people under the bus. But this was hardly the kind of evidence that we needed to prove who had done this.

The next day his boss called me. “You’re very respected here, we will not tolerate this.” He let me know that he had informed the Chief Operating Officer.  My boss’s boss, the Chief Executive over all of Sales and Marketing called me while on vacation in France to apologize and confirm that I was a well respected member of the team.

The following day, the head of our security department called me. He asked questions about whether I had been flirting with anyone at work, or had anyone been flirting with me. Do my friends at work often call each other “whore” as a joke like “hey, whore” or “you’re such a whore.” I politely answered every question despite how irrelevant and offensive they seemed. These messages were not a joke or a prank, they were targeted and terrifying. I was told he would look into what he could do to figure out who sent the messages.

The initial responses seemed to fit, these leaders appeared to be doing their job. But I would soon learn that this was just lip-service.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go

My husband and I rang in the near year under a pall of fear. The platitudes offered were comforting, but I was afraid to look at my phone. I wasn’t sleeping at night. What was I going to see on January 2nd when I showed up at work after the holiday break?

I read and re-read the messages looking for clues. I had memorized these horrible words as I tried to find some piece of information about who they came from at work.

To backtrack, I knew at the end of 2018 that 2019 would be the year that I became a full-time entrepreneur. I loved my job. And I mean that in the truest sense. I loved the company, I loved the team, I loved the work that I did. Things had become more stressful because of a few antagonistic people, but I brushed it off as normal workplace politics. I loved the job enough to look past it.

The idea of leaving this job to go it on my own was terrifying and I had spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could do both. How could I be a full-time entrepreneur and still stay on part time? How could I stretch more time into every day to do it all? My husband and I were well on our way to a Fat-FI lifestyle. We had planned for the day when we would leave our companies to go it on our own, but I had still struggled with the idea of walking away from a great job and company.

“There will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.”

Albus Dumbledore

When the texts arrived, any thought of trying to stay on part time vanished. My love for my job and the company was shaken, the foundation cracked. Soon any positive affiliation would evaporate.

In the days that followed before the holiday break ended, my husband and I discussed if I should even go back. It would mess up our plan a bit, I reasoned. And he reminded me that if I walked, whoever sent the messages would win. They would learn that they could do this, that they would bully more people. They would do it to someone else.

So we decided that I would go back. I would be a thorn in the side of HR, who I had still heard nothing from, to make sure it wouldn’t happen to anyone else.

I No Longer Felt Safe At Work

The holiday ended. It was officially 2019. I drove to work on January 2, 2019 and found myself hesitating in the car before going in. I was usually one of the early birds so I got the same spot every day. I moved to another floor of the parking garage and mustered the courage to walk in.

As people started to filter in I felt my anxiety level rise. With each person who walked by I wondered, “was it them?” They’re usually very friendly and today they just walked by, it must have been them. They’re usually pretty standoffish and today they are being really friendly, was it them?

I hadn’t heard any updates for a few days. I wasn’t sure what would happen. Would whoever sent these messages strike again? Would I get another text? Would they burst through the office doors with a semi-automatic rifle? In 2017, there were 458 fatalities from workplace violence. It seems that every day there is a news story about someone going on a shooting spree. My worries were not unfounded.

I left early that day and told people that I had a migraine.

The next day, more people continued to come in from the holidays. Our CEO stopped by and said he wouldn’t stand for this in his company. He would root out whoever had sent this message. Our COO offered to move my desk. I said that middle school bullies will back down if you don’t give them a reaction and declined the offer to move. But I was still antsy all day, I immediately regretted my decision to not move. I kept checking my exits.

It was a full two weeks after the messages were sent before I heard from HR.

"They Were Just Blowing Off Steam"

I was told by HR that I was not allowed to tell anyone about this because it was an ongoing investigation. I confirmed that I had only told my boss and HR and that the executives were notified by my boss. I was told that whoever sent these messages had taken careful measures to mask their number, nothing could be done to uncover their identity. I was told that they were just blowing off steam, don’t worry about it. (So which is it, they were premeditated and targeted or they were just drunk and angry?)

It was three weeks after the messages were sent that my boss and I met outside of the office and he effectively told me that I needed to do a better job managing my team because it was obvious I was affected. He couldn’t help it if someone on the leadership team dismissed this as ‘drama.” He couldn’t make things happen. I said that if the person who sent these messages wasn’t rooted out that they would keep doing it. He asked for 30 days to find a solution. I told him that in 30 days I would walk in, pack up my things, and head straight for the local news station with a story of a major sports brand ignoring harassment of their female employees. I meant every word of it.

My boss who had been my mentor, who had been my friend, walked the company line. Protecting me and the other women on his team wasn’t the priority, him saving his job was. This person who I had trusted. Who had been my friend. Had been.

Trying To Keep It Together

I had nothing to lose at that point, I was financially independent (FI). My husband stood behind my decision, but we both had times that we just wanted to give up. I was tired and angry at home and at work. I lost weight because I was so anxious and couldn’t eat at work. This one incident was bleeding into everything even though I was trying to push it aside, to keep it together. 

Four weeks after the messages were sent I was called into a conference room and told that a person was no longer with the team. The same person that my boss and I initially suspected. The head of HR told me that the company had no evidence to connect them with the messages, but there were other issues and they considered the matter closed.

I felt a little bit easier, but I still moved my car to a new location every day. I still checked my exits. How could I ever feel safe there again? But I pushed on because I needed to prepare to leave my team in good shape.

Then there was a management training that I wasn’t invited to, even though I managed a team.

Then there were meetings I was cut out from.

Then there was the title bump and pay increase that I was promised that didn’t materialize.

Then there was my boss pushing back our regular meetings over and over.

The Consequences of Speaking Up

The signs were all there. I was being pushed out because I had the audacity to complain about being harassed. How dare I expect a safe work environment? I had worked countless hours for this company that I believed in. How could they do this to me? Hadn’t I been a good little worker? 

I received an “Exceeds Expectations” on my performance review the previous year and in January of 2019. I continually asked where I could improve and was told that I was doing better than those who had higher titles than I did. I was being told one thing to my face, but the actions of the company suggested otherwise. 

This was the hardest blow. The harassing text messages might have hit on the inner part of my psyche that had been traumatized and bullied as a child. But to be held back professionally because of it cut my pride. I worked hard. I put my energy and passion into my work. I mean, I had loved my job. Had loved.

But things were put right, or so I had been told. I returned to my original plan for the year, leaving. I had set things up so my team could pick up without a beat after I left. I was still planning to leave, but the timeline was now “ASAP.”

I put in my notice on a Friday in April. I asked my boss to give me the all clear to tell my team so that they didn’t hear it through the grape-vine.

I was able to tell them on the following Monday.

The next day the messages came again while I was sitting at my desk.

WHORE

BITCH

Again more things that were personal and targeted and scary.

The Power Of Speaking Up

At this point, I figured whoever had sent the first messages had heard the news and was looking to send a final note. I didn’t care about HR telling me to keep quiet anymore. I had put myself through hell to stop this from happening again. 

The company’s only obligation after I reported the initial harassment was to ensure that it didn’t happen again. They didn’t so much as send a memo about acceptable communication between coworkers. So I mentioned off hand to a colleague who had recently quit that I got another message. She said there must be a full-moon because she got a weird text that day too.

That’s odd.

Only the day before one of my previous team members came over and said that a rival bodybuilding team had been cyber-bullying her. Her text messages were full of hateful comments objectifying her and demeaning her. When she initially shared those messages with me, my mind went to thoughts of: ‘how can this world be so messed up? How can grown adults act so childish and mean? Don’t they have better things to do?’

But the following day, once I had received another message and my mind started to turn, I popped over to her desk and asked her if she still had the messages. What number did they come from? 

We compared phones and saw that it was the same number. We asked our previous colleague to send a screenshot as well. Different number, but sent around the same time as the message that I had received. These weren’t coincidences or evidence of a world gone mad.  

It was happening again.

I Wasn't The Only One

14 other women in our company received harassing messages over the next week and a half. Some were lewd and offensive, some were juvenile and punitive. People stayed home from work because they were too stressed to be there. Our phones had become ticking time bombs, we didn’t know when the next attack would happen. The local police were called, nothing came of it. A private investigator was hired, nothing came of it.

I had put myself through the gauntlet to make sure this never happened again. But it did. And I was leaving my team, my all-female team, without a leader. I had failed. I had driven myself crazy pushing for a resolution and it didn’t do anything.

What was worse. Two of the other women who received messages in April also received messages in December on the same day I had been messaged.

They just hadn’t said anything.

I’d be a fearless leader, I’d be the alpha type. When everyone believes you, what’s that like?

Taylor Swift

And why would they? They didn’t have the financial cushion to be able to weather any pushback from our company. They didn’t know anyone else was targeted. HR had made it clear to me that I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t tell people why I was so removed and withdrawn. I couldn’t tell people why I was so angry and afraid. I couldn’t say anything. So we couldn’t put the pieces together any sooner.

This Wasn't How I Planned To Leave Work

I had the confidence of FI to back up my demands for action. I wasn’t afraid of being fired. But these other women didn’t have that luxury. They didn’t know about FI because I hadn’t told them.

I left at the end of my 6 weeks notice feeling defeated. I had tried to stop this from happening again, but it happened. I should have been excited. My moment to live my dream had finally arrived. I planned to leave this job, I planned to leave this company. But I wanted to do it my way. Instead I felt like I was retreating, like I was surrendering.

“Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it, because nobody else will.” -Mohandas K. Gandhi

I felt a burden of loss, grief. My team sent me off with a happy hour and a bottle of champagne. My boss, who had been my mentor for three years, didn’t even say goodbye. Didn’t even say good luck. By speaking up for myself and others, he made it clear that bridge was burned.

I was mad. I was Tyra Banks shouting at Tiffany mad. I had believed that my mentor would pull through. The he and our COO and our CEO would do the right thing. Instead I was pushed out. How dare they push me out? 

I was being penalized for what someone else did? I was the scapegoat for this mess when the company that I had worked tirelessly for did nothing to protect their female employees? I was the one blamed for this?

In my mind I planned the perfect expose. Not only could I sue, I would burn the whole house down. I wanted the person responsible and my previous employer to pay. I lost sleep. I feared for my safety every day. I can’t think about anything related to that company, the people I worked with, the sports involved, any of it, without feeling the anger build up. But that would only keep this wound open. And it wasn’t just my experience anymore, there were over a dozen other women who wanted to forget about it too.

So what’s the point of even sharing my story? My actions felt like they had little to no significance. I share it because maybe your actions won’t have the same result. 

“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”

Luke 12:48 KJV

The Power and Responsibility of Financial Independence

As women in the FI movement, we have been given a great opportunity. We have knowledge and financial means.

When this harassment started I KNEW I could walk because of the financial position I was in. That’s power.

But I also KNEW that I had every reason to fight for others. That’s leadership.

There are several ways that the message of financial independence could have helped this crummy situation:

  • The other women who were targeted could have been empowered to speak up as well.
  • My boss wouldn’t have felt forced to toe the company line and shut down my requests for updates on the investigation.
  • If I knew that the other women involved could walk too, I wouldn’t have felt that I had to stay long past my breaking point. I could have let them take up the fight sooner.

This situation illustrated the power of financial independence, and now I want to shout it from the rooftops: financial independence gives you the power to fight back.

Financial independence gives you the power to fight back.Click To Tweet

Financial Independence Gives You Options

FI gave me the power to stay and fight, and it also gave me the power to leave and fight on my own terms. I spend my time now focused on my business and helping to spread the word about FI. I can’t change what happened, but I can do better moving forward and we as women in the FI space can spread the message of financial empowerment.

You may love your job now. You may love your company now. But one bad hire can change that. You may be working towards your FI number, but aren’t there just yet. Having a solid emergency fund gives you the option to leave a bad situation if that is the case. FI gives you the choice to walk away from a bad situation, or stay and push for others. It gives you back your power when it would otherwise be stripped away.

You may love your job now. You may love your company now. But that could change.Click To Tweet

For me, I am less angry every day. I don’t jump when my phone buzzes anymore. I can park my car in the same spot everyday without worry. I plan to leave the pain from this experience in 2019, but I’ll take the lessons with me into 2020.

“Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it, because nobody else will.” -Mohandas K. Gandhi

I’ve repeated this quote multiple times in this essay. Because it is true. What will be the thing that you will do in 2020, because nobody else will?

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18 Comments

  1. Great read – For those who haven’t experienced it yet, HR at a company solely exists to protect the company’s interest to every extend, even sometimes skirting the law.

    Also never underestimate the lengths an empty corporate suit will go to protect their income if they need it. I’ve been shocked at the way people I thought were genuinely good people would compromise their integrity to maintain their employment at a high level.

    Financial independence is the only way to change the power dynamic between an employee and employer

    1. It’s amazing how many people are 100% dependent on their employer, trapping people in toxic work environments. I hope more people find the value in FI to be able to do work that they enjoy.

    2. Yes, that’s exactly my experience too. I’ve yet to see HR act on behalf of the employee. Their allegiance is to the company, and they will go to any end to defend said company, no matter how wrong the company is. I’ve witnessed some very sad things over the years and it’s basically annihilated any faith I have in HR.

      Thank you for sharing this story, FM! Her voice needs to be heard, even if it’s to remind us powerless we are without financial means.

  2. I’ve seen this kind of thing (in one form or another and one both male/female sides) numerous times. I hate to be a “defeatist”, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon. What I’ve seen is that even when it’s the women in the position of power, the roles are simply reversed. I think the message to “focus on FI” is the key take away. Everything else unfortunately boils down to my favorite line from a Bronx Tale. “Nobody cares kid.”

  3. sad but true.. this kind of stuff happens all the time. There is only one person looking out for you… that person is you !

    1. I want to say not every company tolerates this kind of intolerable and criminal behavior. I’ve had two subordinates at two places, both very high in the company, who were accused of harassment, and upon investigation it was determined they had acted improperly and they were terminated immediately. These were six figure earning executives well liked by management but we had zero tolerance. There has to be proof, because an accusation alone isn’t the same as guilt but we worked hard to find the truth and did not hesitate to act on it even though it removed people who were otherwise top performers. Doesn’t matter, every employee deserves to be treated respectfully at work and nobody gets a pass on abusing another employee. I honestly think most Fortune 500 companies share that as policy and culture, but unfortunately your company did not. It was so good of you to stand up and try to get justice served, and being financially stable does help, but your courage is what really made the difference, you are a hero.

      1. I agree that Anonymous was heroic to stay and fight for her team. I’m happy to hear that the place you worked had a zero tolerance policy, and that investigations were taken seriously.

  4. I am boiling mad at this company. Maybe it time for a glass door review. Or sue them if u have all the proof. Or goto labour court.

  5. I’m so glad you published this! More need to hear this message. I am so grateful that I was also able to walk away from a toxic environment because I was FI. When the boss says, “I’m going to kill you all, I’m going to put you in a room and shoot you” and the company hesitates to address it, well that is too far. I actually hung on after that for my team, hoping things would get better. They did not. I finally totally gave up on the company and left. I’m no longer angry because if the environment was good I’d still be behind a desk. Instead I’m out traveling the world. The importance of FI is the freedom to make the choices that need to be made and not be stuck. Thank you for this article.

    1. That is horrific. I’m glad you were about to walk away from that and have a great life traveling the world rather than being trapped there.

  6. Only a weak and pathetic person would do something like this. I don’t know whether to hate on them or feel sorry for them. Maybe a mix of both. It’s completely awful.

    Folks always talk about the upside of FI; Travel! Hobbies! Volunteering! But protection against the downside is even more valuable. This bullshit that you went through. Sickness. Premature death.

    1. Absolutely the protection from the bad is just as important to remember as the upsides of FI. I agree, what Anonymous went through was completely awful, I’m glad she was able to walk away.

  7. Hi,

    Thank you for sharing your circumstance. This goes to show that FI gives one the options and he/she will not feel trapped within the short constraint. One can show his/her commitments to the organisation which he/she work for. The organisation is unlikely to look after his/her interest over its own interest when it is given the opportunity to make a decison.

    WTK

  8. “We compared phones and saw that it was the same number” Did anyone try ringing it from another phone to see if anyone answered or even if it could be heard ringing in the office?

  9. Powerful post- thanks for sharing that. I’m trying to get this exact idea across to my kids- having money means you have OPTIONS. I’m glad you were able to leave.

    I have also found that HR protects the company and not he employee.

  10. Thank you Financial Mechanic and Anonymous for bravely sharing this story. While I’ve never experienced something as bad as this in the workplace, I deeply resonate with many aspects of the workplace cited in this post. Sad but true, it’s tough finding real friends at work, especially across levels or seniority. I’ve seen many managers whom I used to admire become moral cowards in face of survival at the company. I wrote a post reflecting on how the workplace is structurally set up to penalize the most dedicated and driven employees. Glad I’ve stopped drinking the Kool-Aid eventually, and hope those early in their careers will realize it sooner than I did. Now onto better things!
    https://financeftw.com/dont-like-corporate-job/

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