Karin Bosman’s workplace nightmare began when her boss gave her a seemingly innocent, possibly accidental kiss on the lips as she left the office for vacation. While she was traveling, he texted her to ask for a photo of herself in a bikini. The conduct clearly crossed a professional line, and Bosman was disturbed, but chose to ignore it. It was a decision she would come to regret over the next two years as the harassment escalated until one day he assaulted her behind closed doors in his office.
Bosman, who was in her early 40s with two children at the time of the assault, was a successful advertising account manager in the Netherlands, and was working as an a personal assistant to a man named Hans. She refers to her old boss by his first name in the book she wrote about her ordeal, “Spitting in Hans’ Tosti.” (A Tosti is a kind of Dutch grilled cheese sandwich.)
Bosman says Hans is still in charge at his former firm. The incident, however, dramatically changed the course of Bosman’s career. Today she is the founder of an organization, About Workplace Harassment, and an advocate for tougher laws against workplace harassment in her home country. She travels the world speaking on the subject and sharing her own story.
Bosman will speak at a meeting of the Princeton Human Resources Management Association on Monday, October 17, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton. Tickets are $50. For more information, visit www.hrma-nj.shrm.org.
Bosman grew up in the Dutch capital, where her father was a construction worker. She went to college at the University of Amsterdam and launched a career in advertising, working for companies like Procter and Gamble, Heineken, and Bavaria Brewery. Over her 20-year career, she had gotten used to vulgar talk among her male colleagues in the industry. “The conversation was always about sex,” she says. “They were always making rude comments, but it didn’t seem to bother me because it was not personally against me. It was more in a group.”
She says that as a strong professional woman, she never expected to be harassed personally and never thought she would ever put up with it if anyone tried. “I always thought I was a strong woman and could speak up for myself if necessary,” she says. But when Hans started making inappropriate remarks it caught her off guard. “I ignored it,” she says. A week later when she returned to the office, he pretended like nothing had happened.
But normalcy never quite returned, and Bosman realized the kiss on the lips was no accident. Hans began discussing his personal life with Bosman, telling her how he had cheated on his wife in the past and that she was jealous. He told her that his in-laws were financing the company and would pull their money out if their marriage fell apart. That would mean the business would collapse and all of her colleagues would be out of work if she told anyone about the inappropriate kiss or text messages.
Reluctantly, Bosman agreed to stay quiet. “When he was sure of my silence, he started to move on in the harassment,” she says. “He texted me more stuff like how he fantasizes about having sex with me, that kind of thing. I couldn’t speak up because I was afraid that people would lose their jobs. He was kind of brainwashing me about my responsibility to shut up about the harassment.”
Verbal assault escalated into groping. “He didn’t rape me, but he came close,” Bosman says.
Bosman later learned, in studying sexual harassment, that the tactics Hans employed are very typical of a certain kind of abuser: he used his power over her to keep her quiet. Because of her silence, she felt isolated both from other people in the company and from her own sense of who she was. “Basically, someone is stealing your identity bit by bit,” she says.
Even Bosman’s home was not a safe refuge from the harassment, since Hans could text her at any time. She worried he would show up at her house one day. It drove her to despair.
The title of the book comes from something that Bosman did to get back at her boss. Every day Hans had Bosman make him a tosti sandwich for lunch. One day Bosman added an extra ingredient to the sandwich — hot chili powder. “I waited for him to take the first bite, and I saw the tears pop up in his eyes, not because he was sad but because the chili was so hot,” Bosman recalls. “I told him it made me happy to see him crying for a change instead of me.”
After two years of harassment, Bosman finally told a counselor at the company about her problem. She says the counselor confronted Hans about the situation, and that he admitted everything that had happened and seemed proud of it. However, the next day he recanted his confession, and Bosman pressed the case in court.
Bosman had saved texts and e-mails that proved her case, and in addition, four coworkers spoke up to confirm her story. The court found in her favor, but in the Dutch legal system, Bosman says, the company, not the person, was held responsible. It had to pay a small judgment that barely covered her legal fees, and Hans was never punished at all. The coworkers who testified were all fired.
The vindication was not enough to make the ordeal worthwhile for Bosman. “I would never advise a victim of sexual harassment in Europe to go to court,” she says. “I gained nothing from it.”
In the aftermath of the case, Bosman began writing a blog about her experiences. Her story hit a nerve with women who had been through similar experiences, and the website was a hit. Her book followed, along with interviews with the major newspapers in the Netherlands. She also traveled to the Dutch Caribbean, where she gave talks on sexual harassment and advised the government there on policy making.
Bosman’s advice for anyone facing a similar situation to the one she went through is to report it as soon as possible. “Harassment will stop in 42 percent of cases if it’s reported,” she says. She also says bystanders need to say something if they see it. Bosman says calling attention to inappropriate behavior early on can stop it from escalating into full-blown harassment.
Bosman points out that even harmless-seeming behaviors can actually constitute unwanted advances. For example, complimenting a coworker’s appearance can be polite small talk (“did you get a haircut? It looks nice.” Or way out of line (“Your body looks great in that dress.”). Holding a door for someone could be completely innocent, but not if the person intentionally stands so it’s impossible to get by them without rubbing against them.
She says everyone in the workplace needs to understand what harassment is and how much damage it can do to the victim.
“I now know that an experience of sexual harassment can drive people to see no other alternative but to end their life,” she says.
Things are better for Bosman since she escaped her toxic work environment. She says she feels she is making a difference by combating a culture in the Netherlands and elsewhere where men feel entitled to use and abuse women.
“I am a happy woman now. I have helped people all over the world. I’m very proud of what I have achieved.”