How to Lose Your Job From Sexual Harassment in 33 Easy Steps

The distance between a dream gig and a nightmare can be tiny when you have no power.

Distorted image of a woman at a laptop
inLite Studio / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

1. Land a job. At a new online magazine for approximately the same salary you earned in 1992, but whatever. You have bills to pay, MRIs to undergo, kids to feed, you are doing this solo, and at this point you have no idea that the company’s offer of $34,000 a year is a fraction of the $200,000 a man in your same position later tells you he was making.

2. Have your first story out of the gate, about how hard it is to get a job when you’re a middle-aged woman, go so viral that it gets picked up by others and lands you on TV and on the New York Times online op-ed page while simultaneously, in that same paper, sparking a mean-spirited backlash. Immediately get a raise, to $80,000.

3. Receive a Facebook message out of the blue from Ken Kurson, a Big Important Male Editor at the New York Observer, saying he loves your work and wants you to consider writing for him instead. Push him off for six months, as you’re under contract.

4. Wear a sundress to a lunch meeting with him six months later, because it’s June in New York City and it’s a scorcher. Immediately regret this sartorial choice the minute the Big Important Male Editor says something like Wow, it’s so weird—here we are talking about your story about your breast cancer while I’m staring at your breasts.

5. Ignore this comment and the other comments, questions, and emails that follow about how his marriage might be breaking up, and would he be a hot commodity on the dating market, as simply the awkward ramblings of a Man in a Vulnerable Place. Focus on the job. You want this job. You think he’s offering you $65,000 to jump ship, which is less than you’re earning now, but the new paper has greater reach and is a better opportunity, so maybe you can work hard and prove your mettle, just like at the last job, and get a raise in the future.

6. Go back to your boss at the online magazine and tell them you’ve been offered a new job, and you’re going to take it.

7. Write to the Big Important Male Editor and tell him you’d like to take his job offer.

8. Get a confusing email back that says, “I’m not even sure there IS an offer! I am a slow mover. I have never edited you and I don’t know how you’d fit in here yet. I know you can write like a bastard, and I can see that your work ethic is positively amish [sic]. But I would need to know you better before making an offer. That said, somewhere in the 62,5 range and if I changed Pizza Tuesday to Alpo Tuesday, maybe 65. Benefits are good though.”

9. Be utterly baffled. “Know you better”? Isn’t this about your work? And didn’t he write you out of the blue on Facebook because he liked your work? Write back that he did, in fact, offer you $65,000 a year over lunch.

10. Get another confusing email back that says, “I’d have to work with you a bit first—edit a story or two and discuss story ideas.” Panic. Start looking for a new job.

11. Offer the Big Important Male Editor a 1,500-word essay you were going to give to More magazine for a fraction of the cost—$500 instead of More’s $3,000—just to build goodwill and prove that yes, you do want this job. Deal?

12. Get this email back from the editor: “Deal. But don’t walk around mad that you’re $2,500 short. You’re a single mom and I ain’t looking to take food out of your kids’ mouths. You’re not going to hurt my feelings or cool our fast-growing ardor by taking Meredith’s dough.”

13. Ignore the weird comment about “our fast-growing ardor” and write back simply: “Nope. Promise. Won’t be mad. Like I said, building goodwill is important, I get that.” Deliberately mention in further emails that you are dating someone wonderful right now, so he’ll get the hint that you’re not interested in his “ardor.” You just want the job.

14. The Big Important Male Editor sends an email with the heading “We need a name for column QUICK.” Jump up and down with glee. You have your own column! Yes, you have had to find another job as a VP at a PR firm to pay your bills, since the offer of full-time employment is no longer there, but if you work hard enough, you think, you can land the columnist job full-time.

15. Work hard on your column on weekends, nights, whenever you’re not working at your other job or writing your book or caring for children. Publish many stories, one for free when the Big Important Male Editor claims he’s run out of budget at the end of the year and can’t pay for it. But again: It’s all about building goodwill, right? Proving to him that you can do this job and getting hired full-time to do so. That’s the carrot he’s been dangling.

16. Receive a company-wide email three days after the election from the Big Important Male Editor explaining that the paper will be solely digital from now on. But everything else should stay the same except Pizza Tuesdays, which have now been moved to Mondays.

17. Pizza Tuesdays? Was that actually a thing? You had no idea. You thought it was a budget joke. Write back, “Pizza day? How had I never heard of pizza day? When does the pizza arrive? How would one find their way to said pie? All sounds good and normal to me. Onward!”

18. An hour and a half later, receive the following email from the Big Important Male Editor: “1 p.m. How come you never asked me out?”

19. Stop breathing.

20. Cry.

21. Show the icky email to your new boss and a few colleagues at the PR firm where you now work. They’re horrified, but what can you do? Why would you expect that the paper owned by the son-in-law of your new president-elect—who’s openly bragged of grabbing women “by the pussy”—would help? You haven’t lost your column, yet, and you don’t have the means, time, or emotional wherewithal to sue for sexual harassment.

22. Feel traumatized by this email. It keeps you up at night. It haunts your waking thoughts. Should you keep writing your column and ignore the email? Should you speak with a lawyer? It affects your ability to write, to parent, to concentrate at the PR firm.

23. Choose, via inertia, distress, and anger, not to answer the email or to write any more columns for four months, for fear of further predatory interactions with the Big Important Male Editor.

24. Get downsized from the PR firm the same month you hear from a mutual friend, via email, that the Big Important Male Editor is (a) leaving his job for a Bigger Job; and (b) wants to date you. Explicitly tell this mutual friend that this can never happen, it is wrong, and it makes you really uncomfortable and upset even to hear this. Send the Big Important Male Editor your new column before he leaves to go to his new Bigger Job, so he can pass it on to your new editor, and also ask who your new editor will be. Make a not wholly untrue excuse about why you’ve been AWOL: that you could not fathom being associated with a paper that’s linked in any way with your new president, even obliquely, but you miss the work and the income and are eager to work with your new editor.

25. Ask your mutual friend specifically what the Big Important Male Editor said to him. Hear back: “All he said was ‘She won’t write for me anymore because of the Trump thing, but I wish she would date me.’”

26. After a week or so, remind the Big Important Male Editor to get back to you about your new column and send you the name of your new editor before he leaves the paper.

27. Get an email from him with the name of your new editor and a claim that he cannot publish the essay. Ask why. Get no response.

28. Immediately sell the essay in question to O, The Oprah Magazine, for four times what you would have sold it at the paper. Feel secure in the fact that it’s not about the column not being up to snuff, since it was snapped up so quickly.

29. Write an email to your new editor. Now that the Big Important Male Editor is gone, you say, you’d love to start writing your column again. Are told that the paper is not looking to pick up your column again for the time being. Ask why. Get no response.

30. Forward the “How come you never asked me out?” email to your new editor and write a brief summary of everything leading up to it. Are told, in part, that it doesn’t feel like any of her business.

31. Give up. Just give up.

32. Seven months later, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, write the new editor to ask her for a contact name, number, and email address in human resources to make a formal complaint. Get no response. Write another email asking for the same. Get no response. Check online for this information. It’s not available.

33. This time, do not give up. Write this list to show others that you do not have to be accosted by a Hollywood mogul in a bathrobe to endure the emotional and financial repercussions of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, you would like to tell everyone, is not about sex. It’s about a person in power systematically leveraging that power to lure you into his orbit and either proffer or take away your money, work, health care, and financial stability, depending on your positive or negative response to his sexual overtures. Respond in the affirmative, and you’ve prostituted yourself. Respond negatively, do not respond at all, or get a lawyer involved, and there goes your career.

Editor’s note: When reached for comment, Kurson told The Atlantic, “Deborah is a terrific writer. I published her often and wish her nothing but the best." James Karklins, the president of Observer Media, provided The Atlantic with the following statement: "Observer Media strives hard to provide a safe and comfortable environment for our employees and has a process by which all formal complaints are taken seriously. Our policy is to take corrective action when evidence of misconduct is presented. During Ken Kurson’s employment there were no formal complaints received. Deborah Copaken was a freelance writer and never an employee of the company. As with all freelance writers each story is pitched and accepted on a case-by-case basis." Karklins confirmed to The Atlantic that there is no process for writers who aren’t on staff to file complaints.