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Workplace Dynamics and Silent Compliance

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Written By: Stacey Freeman



It was 1998, and New York City reeked from the stench of entitlement. Money was flowing everywhere. Everywhere it seemed except into my husband’s and my joint bank account despite him working as an associate at a top-tier law firm in M&A. Two sets of law school student loans, no family money behind us, and an apartment we couldn’t afford from the time we rented it, we were living for tomorrow. Which, for me, didn’t seem as clear as it was for my husband since I was the one veering off the obvious course of going to work in the field I was trained for and into the unknown: a career in the retail industry.


Making what I believed was a strategic move for my second non-legal job after law school on a trajectory I imagined would one day land me in a corporate role that aligned with my creative side but still, as my soon-to-be-boss would call it, “linear” (aka rules-following) self, I went to work for a privately owned upscale women’s clothing company to do their sales/buying analytics. The company had three locations, two in Manhattan and one in Paris, the latter of which I would later learn was really an apartment.


As I look back on the experience, I was instead destined to become a poor (wo)man’s Andrea Sachs, the fictionalized misplaced fashion assistant rumored to be based on author Lauren Weisberger’s experience working for Vogue magazine’s Anna Wintour in her book, “The Devil Wears Prada.” Like Sachs/Weinberger, it would take me six months to walk out the door, which I did uncharacteristically dressed in an overpriced taupe-colored spandex top, black skin-tight riding pants, and a black feather boa, all courtesy of my employee discount, which I didn’t realize at the time that I was bestowed this privilege that it came with a price. But then again, most perks do.


I had already spent nearly a year as a merchandising assistant and then as an assistant buyer for one of Federated’s now-shuttered department stores. The job was corporate to its hierarchical core, replete with title upon title and cubicle upon cubicle. I realized I didn’t fit in when my boss’s boss pulled me aside to tell me the dumbest people she’d ever met during her lifetime were lawyers. Not knowing how to answer without being disrespectful, I half-smiled and returned to my desk to continue fielding never-ending personal phone calls for my immediate boss from her husband, nanny, and realtor to name a few.


My new position took a naive 26-year-old me to a storefront a block from the Flatiron Building with a much cooler vibe than where I’d been working. Except I wasn’t cool, nor did I aspire to be. My two bosses, one a retail industry veteran in his sixties and the other his second wife, who was in her late forties and had previously been an “other woman,” as I was told, to her husband, thrived on creating a quasi-chic atmosphere by cutting corners, mainly on professional cleaning and pest control.


Apart from multiple dogs who came to work with the owners and urinated and defecated on the floor near the clothing too many times to count, as even the most well-trained animals are prone to do (these weren’t), there were mice in the bathroom and roaches in my basement office I was instructed to ignore even as their hard shells crunched beneath the wheels of my desk chair.


But it was when I felt someone—or, rather, something—looking at me, I began to complain more forcefully.

Not more than five feet away sat an enormous rat who appeared altogether unphased by my discovery. The owners’ on-site handyman/runner/guy in charge of whatever needed to be done soon appeared with a rusty shovel to remove the unwanted intruder, and I was advised to go back to work as if nothing had happened. So, I did.


But the unsanitary working conditions were nothing compared to the uncomfortable morning breakfasts I was forced into alone with my male boss, tarnished by inappropriate remarks and unwanted and demeaning physical interactions. My boss would make me meet him in restaurants far from the store before the noon open, where he would use foul language in the course of our discussions, including the C-word that describes female genitalia, and would discuss colorful topics such as going away for the weekend with his wife, where they’d do “some hugging and kissing.” It was clear the boundaries between professional and personal had been blurred, and it wasn’t just with me.


One of the most cringeworthy aspects of my time there was having to endure my boss’s expectation of exchanging kisses with every female employee on both cheeks whenever he saw us, “like the French do,” despite none of us, including him or his wife, being French or working in France. He explained the protocol to me when I first started so I would get with the program. I did, but after complying for months, I finally had enough and resisted.


My defiance was treated as an anomaly but more so a personal affront. Taken aback, my boss tapped his cheek a few times with his index finger, admonishing me as a parent would a child. “What do we do whenever we come into or leave a room?” he taunted. I already knew the answer, so I kissed him again and continued to do so whenever I saw him. It didn’t matter though; I was damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.


The wife fired me not long after I pulled away, immediately following an uncomfortable conversation I was called into with her husband about whether I was having “discussions” with other employees. I had been. They’d come to me complaining about the poor working conditions, and I’d commiserated. During one of those conversations, I was told the wife would storm around when I was in meetings with her husband during work hours (had she known about the morning meetings, too?), asking, “Is she with him again?”


While I faced the brunt of the wife’s apparent jealousy and was, in part, probably fired for it, it underscored how easily personal dynamics could impact professional decisions and go unchecked.

When I approached an employment lawyer to discuss my options, I was met with another stark reality: The legal system wasn’t ready to recognize or address my concerns. With a blank stare, I was told I had no case.


Forced to move on, I made it to a third interview for my dream job where, if I landed it, I would become part of an incoming class of recent business school grads (I would be the token J.D.) who would be trained as retail consultants. But days before I was to fly to the interview, I discovered I was pregnant and canceled. Miscarrying at 11 weeks, I spent the next seven months grieving before becoming pregnant again. It would be another 14 years before I’d return to work, three kids and one divorce later.


When I did, it was for myself, from home, where I could be more accessible to my children. Not facing potential exploitation from a male employer was an obvious bonus, as I had become less trusting of men’s intentions due to the experience. Once upon a time, I had been trusting, but that was taken from me by my former boss. Today, I am a professional writer, editor, author, and business owner helping individuals and businesses communicate their brands through the stories that matter most to them — and can positively impact others.


My story doesn’t belong to only me. Rather, mine reflects the experiences of countless women of that era, many of whom never received the justice or acknowledgment they deserved. I certainly did not. It’s also a reminder that while we’ve made great strides since then, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.


Only by shining light on the vulnerabilities faced by women in the workplace can we continue sparking candid conversations around professional boundaries and workplace harassment, summon the courage to say no, and hopefully find a legal system should we need it that’s open to supporting us.


 

Meet the Author

Stacey Freeman

Stacey Freeman is a writer, journalist, author, and editor and the founder of Write On Track LLC, a full-service consultancy dedicated to providing high-quality content and strategy to individuals and businesses. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Lily (published by The Washington Post), Forbes, Entrepreneur, MarketWatch, Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, Woman’s Day, Town & Country, InStyle, PBS’ Next Avenue, AARP, SheKnows, Yahoo!, MSN, HuffPost, POPSUGAR, Your Teen, Grown & Flown, Scary Mommy, CafeMom, MariaShriver dot com, and dozens of other well-known platforms worldwide. Her memoir-in-essays, “I Bought My Husband’s Mistress Lingerie,” was published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. Stacey holds a B.A. in English from the University at Albany and a J.D. from Boston University School of Law. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter/X or by email at Stacey.Freeman@WriteOnTrackLLC.com.



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