Pierga: We should be talking about sexual harassment in customer service jobs

Kalina Pierga , Op-Ed Contributor

Content Warning: this story contains explicit language and mentions of sexual harassment.

In 2017, The Chicago Tribune published a piece citing evidence that indicates customer service workers’ chances of experiencing sexual harassment are significantly higher than those in “glitzier” professions.” “Glitzier,” as in white-collar office jobs. The nature of customer service jobs, the Tribune claimed, normalizes sexual harassment to a level that the nature of white-collar office jobs does not.

My experience in a customer service job speaks to the truth in that report. As a front desk staff member at a local gym, my job consisted of answering phones, checking gym members in and enduring a constant barrage of sexualized comments and inappropriate behavior. 

From the old man who would ask invasive questions and call me inappropriate pet names, to the middle-aged townies who would comment on the way my body looked in my work uniform, I felt no shortage of discomfort. A lewd, almost violent message from a manager was the icing on the cake. 

In all of my years of watching sexual harassment education videos, never have I encountered extensive guidance on dealing with harassment in workplaces whose job descriptions stipulate friendliness and tolerance. 

The environment where I worked, one that prioritized “member experience” and congeniality, normalized casual sexual harassment by members. As a result, sexual harassment by coworkers became all the more permissible.

When I was sexualized in the workplace, both by coworkers and by patrons, nobody seemed to identify it as anything out of the ordinary. Patrons would leer, ask me personal and inappropriate questions, physically invade my personal space and solicit dates and other activities, all within earshot of other staff members and patrons. No one batted an eye. It was business as usual. 

“Everyone wants to fuck the front desk girl,” a gym regular told me after witnessing an instance of harassment.

The perception of customer service workers as furniture-like fixtures upon which invasive gaze and lewd speech may be freely imposed gives rise to such harassment. When people do not see you as someone they need to respect, but rather as someone whose purpose is to serve them, their inclination to give you basic respect withers away. When people assume your purpose is to tolerate their behavior, violence against you is rendered invisible.

Further, if employees feel they need to tolerate harassment in order to keep their jobs, or that tolerating harassment is part of the job, harassment goes unaddressed. 

Adequate recognition of this issue requires broader discourse. Instead of limiting our consciousness of workplace sexual harassment to higher education and “glitzier professions,” à la Tribune, we ought to talk more about the casual forms of harassment that occur in places like the gym where I worked. Harassment prevention training does not adequately address sexual comments made in passing, predatory coworker dynamics and inappropriate customer behavior.

We can begin raising awareness by supporting one another and normalizing conversations about customer service-facing workplaces. Existing discourse about workplace sexual harassment especially within university harassment prevention education programscenters prestigious internships, higher-paying professional spaces, and long term career-oriented opportunities. 

This focus conceals less “prestigious” spaces where sexual harassment is more likely to happen and more thoroughly normalized. For people who find themselves in a similar position to mine, whatever your reaction to being harassed is,it is valid. Your experiences are valid. You shouldn’t feel guilty, afraid or bad about yourself for reacting in any particular way. Too often, people blame victims of harassment for their choice to report — or not to report — their experiences. But whatever you choose to do is the right choice.

Kalina Pierga is a Weinberg Junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.