By Emily Kestel
In 2013, Kirsten Anderson was fired from her job as a communications director of the Iowa Senate Republican caucus seven hours after formally complaining about repeated harassment and retaliatory behavior by colleagues at the Capitol. She then sued the state of Iowa and Iowa Senate Republicans for wrongful termination, harassment and retaliation.
In 2017, following a highly publicized case, a jury awarded her $2.2 million, which was then settled for $1.75 million.
Since then, Anderson has made it her mission to help educate others about the complexities of sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation in the workplace.
Her book, “More Than Words: Turn #MeToo Into #ISaidSomething,” is part memoir, part guidebook. By sharing her story, Anderson hopes to help others who may be experiencing something similar.
The following conversation with her has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me the meaning behind the title of your book and your goal for it.
One thing I’ve said a lot is, “Turn #MeToo into #ISaidSomething.” I’ve been using that phrase for quite a while now. The book title, “More Than Words,” is really meant to invoke action. I really feel strongly that we can’t continue to just talk around the situation and the challenge of workplace harassment, retaliation and bullying, and say, “Well, there’s just bad people in the world.” If you want to see the change, you need to be the change. I want to show others that they’re not alone in experiencing toxic, bad, disrespectful behavior at their workplaces. I felt really alone after my whole situation. Making change is not hard, and it can be as simple as starting a conversation, and it can be so much more. I want to provide solace, support, validation and also take it a step further.
You’ve stated that your mission is to end workplace harassment in your lifetime. What will that take?
It will take a lot more people talking about it. Being action-oriented and leading by example. We need an army of allies. We also need confident employees who are willing to tackle this complex situation.
In the book, you use the word “target” instead of “victim” when talking about those who have experienced sexual harassment and misconduct. Why is that?
I want everyone to change their vernacular. That’s really important. There’s such a negative connotation with the word “victim.” I never felt like a victim. I think it might be safe to say that a lot of people don’t feel like a victim. When you use the word “victim,” it almost feels like something’s taken away, you should be pitied. And I don’t think that we should think in those terms. When you use the word “target,” it’s a more empowering word. People who experience harassment, retaliation, bullying, they are a target for a time, for whatever reason. So I felt using the word “target” is more accurate for the time period that we’re in. It leaves more to that person rather than taking away from them.
During your trial, your attorney asked you, “What was the price of working in the ‘boys club?’” Tell me about some of those unquantifiable effects that you experienced.
The emotional damage, the depression, the induced anxiety. The damage reputationally to someone’s work. My reputational workplace damage followed me due to the fact that my employer made a decision to say that they fired me because I had poor work product. That followed me because it was in the media and I had trouble getting a job. It took me many months to try and get a job. Women are already paid less than men in the workplace. So that type of reputational workplace damage and it following you, I can’t calculate how hard it was and the numbers and the fact that maybe I had to take a job that paid a little bit less but it had benefits.
What would you say to people that believe “She was just in it for the money”?
I would say those people are being too judgmental. That’s one of the reasons why this book is so important. To show that this issue is so layered and so complex and there are so many shades of gray. This is a game of power and control. Those with the power most often win, and those who do not have the power most often lose. I’m really lucky in the fact that for a time, my power was taken away, but I won. And I came out stronger on the other side. I want to share my experiences so that no one else goes through what I went through, because it was a really, really low place. I don’t want anyone to have to experience that. I want to see other strong, confident employees make better workplaces.
There’s a quote in the book that says, “For years, I was yelled at, cussed at, shown porn, laughed at, called names and had my sex life and body parts scrutinized. Now I was being forced to defend myself on the witness stand where I not only had to shine a light on the embarrassing inappropriateness I experienced, but on my own descent into cattiness as a defensive response to the situation.” I think so many people feel as though they’re imperfect victims. What would you say about that?
I think overarching, Americans have a problem with perfection. We strive for it far too often, when instead we should be striving for what is right for us. And I think that’s part of the problem. So what I would say to those people is, “Forget about the perfection.” That’s unachievable, period. Instead, focus on what’s right for you in the moment. People do things they may regret, because in that moment they think it’s right. I fully admit – because I am not perfect, I’m a human, I’m flawed – yes, I participated in it as a defense mechanism. It didn’t work for me. It made me feel worse.
It’s been nine years since you were fired and five years since the judgment in your case was rendered. What has your life been like since then?
Things have calmed down. I had a flurry of activity upon my judgment in the case in that a lot of people wanted to talk with me, have coffee with me or ask for advice. Sometimes they really just wanted to unload and share their situation with me. That got to be pretty heavy. I’m not a licensed therapist. I’m not clinically trained to handle those types of situations. But it made me feel good that people felt comfortable coming to me with those situations. Over the years, those inquiries have slowed down, though I still get them. It got to the point where each time someone reached out to me, it was triggering. They’d ask me to relive and share my situations. Out of that was born this book in that I realized that, No. 1, I can’t continue to be triggered and relive every interaction, but is there a way that I can help people who have been through something similar? Is there a way that I can point them in the right direction of “Read this first and then let’s talk?” There was nothing out there. There was nothing I felt comfortable giving to someone. So I said, “You know what? I need to write it.”
The following are excerpts from a section of Anderson’s book that addresses commonly held and misguided beliefs on dealing with sexual misconduct. These excerpts have been condensed from how they appear in full in the book for the sake of brevity.
How often do we make judgment calls over situations we know nothing about? All the time! “Just tell the abuser to knock it off,” is one of those judgmental phrases that people have no business stating to anyone. Why? Because it’s never that simple. I hear the “Knock it off” statement from people who don’t know much about workplace harassment, people who have never experienced or witnessed it. They certainly have not experienced the confrontation and messiness that results. “Just tell them to knock it off” might only make the situation worse.
Let me help you to peel back the layers on this onion of a topic by debunking some of the commonly held, misguided notions that range from mildly annoying to wildly inaccurate. Too often, they’re used as an easy way out, even though they’re not aligned with the reality of modern-day workplaces.
- Telling the abuser to “knock it off” is never enough to solve the problem. First, confrontation is hard. Unless you are prepared to face your harasser and follow through with bravery and accountability, this action is difficult to execute. What does a person do after telling an abuser to knock it off, to stop, that enough is enough? It’s a slippery slope leading to despair and frustration because telling someone to stop only goads them on.
- Human resource departments aren’t just out to protect the company, the CEO and their reputations. I’m here to defend HR professionals. I know of and have worked with many of them. Human resource pros have a tough job dealing with all things people-related. It can mean anything from handling salary reviews and increases to being the fashion police enforcing a dress code. Dealing with people can be difficult, so HR is arguably one of the toughest jobs in any workplace. Implementing hiring practices is hard. Keeping up with pay scales is hard. Ensuring raises, promotions and benefits are effectively managed is hard. Ensuring company culture, policies and procedures are continually updated is hard. Have there been many documented instances where HR professionals worked to push out or eliminate employees who have been harassed, bullied or worse at work? Yes. Many times, HR workers need to keep their jobs just as much as the employees who have been abused. Is it a terrible disservice to those who lose jobs after coming forward for legitimate reasons? Yes. Is it fair? No. Politics and power imbalances still run rampant in our society and culture. If we want to break the cycle, we must collectively continue the conversation. We need to encourage workplaces to implement best practices and eliminate the harasser for workplace welfare.
- Targets can’t solve the problem by simply leaving their situations and finding another job. An endless number of factors drive employees’ decisions to stay in an abusive or terrible situation. The biggest factor is employment. If a person doesn’t have another job to jump into, they cannot earn money. If there are too few jobs in their community or surrounding area, leaving a bad situation is even trickier. If a person’s background prohibits them from finding new employment, the situation grows even more complex. Finally, community plays a large role. Whether big or small, industry-related or peer-driven, communities impact decisions. Rumors and gossip within those communities are damaging to a person’s reputation and can contribute to a new employer’s decision to hire or not. In addition to the security of an existing job, targets are often reluctant to leave the job-related benefits they receive. There is a reason companies spend lots of money on retaining employees with wellness programs, food and drink provisions at work, and ancillary benefits your grandparents would never have conceived as part of the workplace. It’s always more cost-effective for the organization to keep their employees in place. According to a University of California at Berkeley study, on average, it costs $4,000 above salary and wages to hire a new employee. That figure rises to $7,000 for replacing management-level employees and professionals. A 2017 Training Industry report showed that it costs small companies, on average, $1,886 to train new employees. Those are simply a few examples of cost-driven decision-making.
- Women are NOT out to get men! Unfortunately, the idea that all men should be frightened about accusations of bad behavior is running rampant. It’s so extreme that, in response to the #MeToo movement, some men are refusing to mentor women. To think women are out to get men is a dangerous, destructive idea that should be put to rest. Only 2 percent of accusations of sexual harassment are proven to be false. It’s still okay for men to mentor women. Women want to be treated equally, which includes fair pay so they can provide for their families and be respected. It’s not a tough concept to grasp. This lame excuse to avoid mentoring women arises frequently these days. I call bull each time. If men are good, fair and respectful toward others, they have nothing to worry about. If you are a man who is worried about this, take an honest, humbling look at how you have interacted with your co-workers in the past. Think about those interactions and ask yourself if someone has cause to accuse you of something. What are you afraid of? We must have men in this conversation. We must have men who are willing to mentor women, to be advocates and allies for us until we level the playing field. Allowing men to retreat from these responsibilities is a setback we should continue to address in an open and honest way.
- Top performers who abuse other staff are (generally) protected by their employers. Although this is not universal, it largely remains true. Their productivity, high sales performance or a personal relationship with a board member or business owner gives them the leverage they need to keep their positions. As power imbalances are exposed in various organizations and multiple levels, we see a historical trend to show the harassed employees the door rather than remove that noxious CEO or salesman of the year. There is a legitimate fear among targets that their employers will not believe their accounts. Not ridding an organization of a toxic employee is wrong from moral and financial perspectives. Let’s do a cost-benefit analysis:
- Average salary of a sales executive: $254,000 versus the average salary of an entry level position with a college degree: $51,000.
- Average lawyer fees to litigate a sexual harassment trial: $200 per hour, potentially costing millions.
- Average sexual harassment settlement: $54,651.
- Cost in damaged company reputation: Priceless.
Eliminating an employee who wreaks havoc on the workforce with unacceptable behavior is always a more cost-effective route than keeping a toxic top performer on staff. People who come forward and speak their truth about sexual harassment often have nothing left to lose. The hard realities of speaking out are sometimes outweighed by a target’s desire to simply get their life back. That’s exactly what I wanted when I was fired. I wanted to go to work and just do work. I wanted a sense of comfort and confidence. Of mental well-being and normalcy. As bystanders we must do a better job of helping others create normalcy. Standing up against inappropriate behavior is a good starting point. Resist the urge to look the other way because you feel embarrassed or awkward, and certainly avoid judging anyone at any time. As the saying goes, everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. When people offer grace, understanding and respect to another, the world becomes a better palace. Workplaces are better, and people are better. The harsh realities of speaking out are scary. When we can show a bit more decency toward one another, everyone benefits.