Sarah Jackson: The obsessed and manipulative boss whose harassment made my life hell

Our columnist recalls her first charity position and the inappropriate behaviour of the chief executive. Sarah Jackson is not her real name

Photo posed by model
Photo posed by model

Since the Weinstein harassment case broke last month and accuser after accuser came forward, then more men were accused, then more accusers came forward… a rage has built up inside of me.

I started my career in the charity sector nearly 20 years ago working for a small charity. I’d finished a Master’s degree the year before and, unlike those contemporaries of mine who secured consultancy jobs, PhDs and glamorous think-tank or NGO-type jobs, I ended up in a crappy temp job in the NHS that became a crappy permanent job in the NHS.

Desperate to leave and struggling to break into the voluntary sector with no previous experience, I was delighted to secure a short-term contract in a charity.

No matter that it involved taking a pay cut (leaving me with little to live on after debts were paid), this was my chance to get some charity experience.

The first few months of that contract were a bit of a blur, but somewhere along the line the chief executive had, I guess, noticed me. As Christmas and the end of my contract approached, I was pulled aside and singled out to attend a meeting with him to discuss a potential new project. 

There was a chance to deliver an exciting new initiative, and – if we were lucky enough to secure the contract – he wanted me to manage the project.

Of course, I was excited. The opportunity was huge and the chief executive had chosen me to manage it.

I still remember that first meeting, sitting in the steering group surrounded by important and powerful people, feeling lucky and overwhelmed.

I didn’t want to fail or let down the chief executive, and remember working on the project throughout the Christmas break – even on Christmas Day, to my parents’ horror.

You have to understand, I was at project assistant level and pretty much on the lowest rung of the charity. Above me in the charity were officers, managers, heads of, directors, a deputy chief executive, and then him.

I was surrounded by people who had been in the charity for years, and who – with hindsight – deserved this more than me. But, unbeknownst to me, I was now his new favourite.

I worked hard on the project and naturally ended up working alongside him. I confess, I initially thought he was a great boss – personable and warm and supportive.

I noticed his lack of popularity with some staff, and he began to confide in me the various challenges he faced. Convinced he was a victim, I naturally sympathised. 

The big project involved a lot of meetings and, of course, beforehand he’d want to meet for a coffee to discuss how to run the meeting – and then, of course, a coffee after the meeting to debrief.

Increasingly these conversations became more personal and inappropriate, from details about his private and family life to views on other members of staff.

He also started inviting me to more and more meetings outside the key project. He took me to HR meetings to discuss staff he wanted to sack, took me to a meeting with the chair because he didn’t like to be alone with her. 

When a senior employee left, he decided I should share an office with him so that we could work closely together.

Of course, staff noticed and whispered with growing resentment about my favoured position.

Within a year of joining I was now sharing an office with the chief executive, was his right-hand person and confidant and yet still a project assistant. I look back now and hate myself for not seeing how weird all of it was. I was naive, but who – at 23 – goes into a job thinking their much older boss is going to become weirdly obsessed with them?

I started to feel trapped and uncomfortable, but also scared of losing my job (I was broke and had no savings, and my parents are poor so I couldn’t leave without a job to go into). Crucially, he had never put me on a permanent footing and kept me on a six-month contract despite the funding being there for a permanent role.

When I started attempting to withdraw and to avoid him, he began sending numerous text messages and emails to my personal account begging me to talk to him about "our relationship". As I withdrew, he became persistent. On a trip to a conference in another city he insisted we had hotel rooms next to each other so that we could talk first thing. Late at night when we went to bed after a group dinner (the others were on a separate floor) and in our respective rooms he knocked on my door. I ignored it, pretending to sleep. 

Eventually, acting like a jilted lover, he stated in a meeting – with others present – "if you don’t start liking me again and being my friend, I don’t think I can keep you here".

Did my old boss ever touch me inappropriately or do any of the things that Louis CK did? No, he didn’t, and I am conscious how lucky I am because of that. 

However, his stalking, obsessive, manipulative behaviour had a deep impact on me. When I became firm in my attempts to establish boundaries, he turned on me. I was taken off every project and effectively demoted to administrative duties. He chose to hire new staff and put them on permanent contracts, and left me relegated to admin work on a rotating short-term contract. 

There was a non-existent HR function at the charity, but senior staff knew there was something inappropriate going on and I remain bitter at how little support they offered me.

One once pulled me aside to ask in a roundabout way if I had done anything with him (I had not and had no intention or desire to do anything). When I turned to another for support, she snapped back "well, he’s right – if you don’t like him now maybe you should leave".

Both were female, much older and in positions of power. Neither made any attempt to look out for the 20-something being harassed by her boss. 

One even said to me: "He’s always had a thing for young women and would always get new obsessions, but I have never seen him as obsessed as he was with you."

Eventually I left. I had nowhere to turn. He made it clear I would never work on another project again and he had no intention of ever putting me on a permanent contract.

The saddest thing? Kicked out of the office I shared with him, I ended up in an office with a group of girls that to this day remain the best of friends.

I loved that job and I loved that team, and I am bitter that a chief executive could treat me the way he did and about the lack of support I received from senior staff. I left a job I loved because of harassment.

The funny thing is, it is only now that I have realised I can be angry about it. For a long time, I didn’t understand what happened. Now I see a boss who isolated his naive target and slowly and surely pushed boundaries, becoming increasingly inappropriate in behaviour and language. And I see a senior management watch and let it happen. 

It left me with a deep mistrust of HR and senior staff, and an irrational response to bad work situations. The whiff of a slight problem and I want to run, and often have. I’ve clocked up more than a dozen employers since that initial experience nearly 20 years ago.

Why? I never want to feel that way again. That utter powerlessness. The feeling of being trapped and suffocated. I never want to go into work, every day, feeling obliged to listen to things that make me uncomfortable. To be stared at. To be made to have lunch with someone. To have a hotel room next to them. To get texts late at night and emails at all hours. To feel pursued in a romantic way by a person in a position of power who can – and did – affect my working life and my ability to pay rent. 

Now? Thank god I’m self-employed, and how much more empowered I feel.

'Sarah Jackson' is a pseudonym

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