Sexual harassment at my internship

I wasn’t sure where to write this, but I had to write it. I plan on coming up with a more formal list tracking what goes on at my internship later (for the purpose of handing it in to the director if I need to), but right now I’d just like to vent and perhaps attempt to sort out some feelings towards my internship. I welcome any input from the Feministing community. If anyone has similar stories they’d like to share, they’re welcome to. This is just here to tell my story.

I’m currently doing an unpaid internship with a non-profit. This particular non-profit is a 40 minute drive away that costs $20 every week. I earn only a little more than minimum wage at my regular job and give 12 hours of one of my off days to this internship. I work as hard if not harder than any of the other interns (we’re all unpaid) and put in extra time where I can. I have been told that my position was considered their hardest to fill as well as their top priority because the director of this non-profit really loves numbers. I conduct market research and interpret the data and I already improved on the previous intern’s work. I have attended every meeting and jumped at every opportunity to get to know my supervisors and fellow interns better. This has included events the senior staff members organized. This non-profit is staffed by a very hardworking small crew of people. I do this because I take pride in my work. I do this because I am currently desperate for a “real” job. I do it to get a good recommendation and because the senior staff have good connections with other non-profits for which I would like to work.

I’ve volunteered a high level of commitment and delivered quality work, and I’m scared.

My direct supervisor is a creep. He told me a sob story about his ex. He told me how his first girlfriend committed suicide. He told me how much the girl who previously occupied my position wanted him (yuck). He asked for my Facebook identity which I did not give him–said I didn’t have one. Word to the wise: protect your online identity. Even if your employer initially seems cool, you don’t want them on Facebook. Get a fake name–feel free to create a business page with your real one or whatever name you prefer for business–and make your settings strictly private and do NOT let any employer know this page exists. The last employer who added me told me that he looked at my pictures and liked them and then his wife would call me often asking that I advertise her spa on my page.) Back to my supervisor.

He invited everyone for drinks last weekend and I come and he’s the only one there. He has made up reasons for me to travel to their offices (again, I live in another city) for a 2-minute meeting with a staff member then asked me to accompany him on another totally useless task where he drives to another office to help drop off a few things and (no joke) buy wine for the rest of the staff. Apparently we were all supposed to hang out at this point. I left.

I initially made excuses for him and the other staff members (who all seem perfectly aware of the situation, but don’t seem to consider it enough of a concern to actually do anything about). Such as: He means well. He’s just weird/socially awkward. These people must not be communicating very well if they thought I needed to drive over here for something an email or phone call would have solved. Maybe he’s just doing that weird bent out of shape because of the dissolution of his biggest relationship thing and he’s going through something. 

There have also been other weird comments. About women and which ones he finds attractive. Or about how I should pull a prank on a staff member that involved ripping off my shirt to reveal a superman costume underneath because this staff member didn’t recognize me without glasses…er, whatever. At first I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to say anything to anyone. I just wanted to pretend nothing was going on. That my supervisor was just a wacky dude that was definitely NOT a giant creep and creeping on me.

Last weekend after the whole bait and switch, wherein I thought I was meeting everyone for drinks and met only one person for drinks, I feel really guarded. I talked to a female staff member and she amended that story about the last girl in my position to how much my supervisor wanted the previous intern. How he put others in dangerous situations so he could hit on this younger unpaid intern and told other female staff that he would “fuck the shit out of her.” Yuck. I don’t want any of this to escalate.

I already went through a couple traumatic episodes with that poor unfortunate soul guy who over-shares and then offers me a bunch of shit and favors that I really don’t feel comfortable with. They didn’t ever end well.

This supervisor has mentioned that he might be able to offer me a paid position later in the summer. I feel conflicted. My work is good. I want to be able to send it to potential employers and I’ve already put a lot into this internship. I work hard and I deserve the position if it opens. I certainly deserve the experience and good references and the opportunity to complete my work. I enjoy just about everyone else on staff. Obviously, if things reach a level where it’s too much I will walk away. I’m trusting myself to be able to know what that level is. There is no reason to lose my self respect and dignity over an unpaid internship.

On the other hand, it bothers me that other women in the office are entirely aware of how unprofessional and unethical this guy is and haven’t done much about it. I guess they think it’s harmless, but it really isn’t. It makes me uncomfortable and it has already allowed him to attempt to use his position against me (he might not even be able to deliver on this potential job offer, why should I trust him?), make me doubt his motivations for offering the position (what if it wasn’t about my work?), and the worst part is I never want to be alone around this guy ever again or really talk to him, but I have to. He’s my direct supervisor. While other interns report to other staff members, I report to him. He is my correspondent for the rest of the office and he’s a creep.

I’m not going to make anymore excuses. He might be weird. He might be going through a difficult time. He might mean well. However, none of those do anything to change the fact that he has behaved inappropriately towards me and apparently has a history of behaving inappropriately towards young female interns and female staff. Regardless of whatever his personal quirks or problems are, he is abusing his power and behaving unprofessionally. While staff members see this as a creepy but harmless situation, I need to recognize the harm.

I didn’t even think to call this sexual harassment for awhile. For those of you who are going to tell me to go to HR–he is HR. He’s also probably a pretty indispensable part of the nonprofit. As in, the entire thing might not even happen if he were to be fired. And they really couldn’t replace me at this point, but they really really couldn’t replace him. If I left they’d have to live without market research, if he left they’d have to live without management of their volunteers, interns, and a lot of the planning he does.

Finally, unpaid interns can’t sue for sexual harassment so there really isn’t much legal recourse and I’m not sure I’d want to pursue any of that instead of just, say, leaving and notifying the director that she ought to remove him from the team or at least have a stern conversation about professional ethics.

So, I will go and do my job this weekend and I will remain confused and annoyed and I will hope to be hired by someone by the end of the summer using my current work and good references so that if I want to leave my position with this organization I can tell the director why and not be worried about what it’ll mean for my future.


That felt good to write down.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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