We Are Not Immune: An Open Letter to the Green Industry on Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

Editor’s Note: Last week, Kellee O’Reilly, a member of the green industry, published this open letter to the green industry on social media, and also sent it to the editors of the trade media to consider publishing. This is an important topic that all green industry members and businesses need to think about and address. This letter is not meant to, nor does it, call out any individuals – it is not an expose, but rather an opportunity for our industry to confront and dispel unbecoming conduct. If it doesn’t affect you personally, it could affect your team members and your business – and if you don’t have a sexual harassment policy written in your employee handbook, then your business could be liable if sexual misconduct in the workplace is revealed. Please read the entire letter. Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.

Kellee O'Reilly
Kellee O’Reilly

May I ask a favor, to have three minutes of your time to consider a problem in our industry that no one is talking about? I’d like to ask you to read this through to the end, even if it’s a little uncomfortable. (Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it’s uncomfortable.)

More than 20 years ago, I was on the staff of a national nonprofit organization. A board member – the CEO of a Fortune 500 company – showed up at my hotel room door late at night, under ridiculously flimsy pretenses, seeking sexual gratification. It was neither my first nor last experience with questionable conduct in a professional environment … but it WAS one of the most blatant.

I’ve told that story a lot through the years. It happened shortly before I came to work with the green industry, an industry that felt kinder, gentler, safer: we are good people.

Last week’s news is NBC’s Matt Lauer. (Surely by now, you’ve heard about the “Harvey Weinstein effect?”) We are in a bit of a cultural watershed moment. Daily, fresh stories of sexual harassment, misconduct, rape, assault, and some just plain poor taste are emerging. Stories of men abusing their position of power over women (and sometimes, over other men as well.) These stories are coming from so many industries … politics/government, journalism, entertainment, technology, hospitality, finance, manufacturing.

Here in the green industry, we’re an industry rooted in family values, farming, agriculture, passion for nature, and faith. All of that is true – I’ve seen it: I have seen the VERY BEST OF US through these 20 years. Some of my dearest friends, adopted family, and my husband come from this industry.

Sadly, I have also seen some of the worst of us.

Yes, we are people of faith, people of the land, proud family business owners, self-identified plant geeks, people who are kind and generous and willing to help our fellow businesses in an emergency. We are also an industry made up predominantly of men in positions of leadership. And thus, we are not immune. Looking broadly at the industry, I also know that these are our uncomfortable truths:

  • There are “handsy” guys at pretty much every event that I have ever attended. A too-long hug, a roaming hand when photos are being taken, an uninvited shoulder massage, a blatant groping.
  • There are customers at tradeshow booths or in your sales yard, leering at women with thinly veiled come-ons, trying to cajole favors from your sales reps or office staff, or who linger just a little too long, tell a provocative joke, seem just a little too suggestive, stand just a little too close.
  • There are truck drivers who make inappropriate comments or wolf-whistle to the women on your staff when they deliver.
  • There are people calling women they work with (or the waitress at the restaurant) “baby, honey, sweetie” without thinking: are they coming on to us, or can they just not be bothered to remember our names?
  • There are married men attending events (the tradeshow syndrome) who suddenly flirt shamelessly … making women who they work with professionally all year long uncomfortable.
  • There are open extramarital affairs going on – wink, wink: “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

NOTE: (every one of those examples is a true story, or many true stories, from a woman in this industry.)

Far too often, all of this behavior is brushed off. “Oh, that’s just (INSERT NAME HERE). He doesn’t mean any harm. (Maybe he’s had one too many drinks.) Don’t let it bother you.”

But it SHOULD bother us – all of us – men and women alike. As a society, we need to stop apologizing for the creeps. We need to stop brushing bad behavior under the rug. We – the green industry – need to open our eyes to the fact that we are not immune.

Like so many women, I am usually sufficiently smart/strong/confident enough to get out of a difficult situation – to ease away, to make light of it, to get myself into a safer place. I have always been fortunate enough to feel secure that my job wasn’t in jeopardy for telling (INSERT NAME HERE) “NO.” But I lose sleep at night thinking about the woman making $12 / hour who is too meek to push back, who fears reporting her coworker/supervisor because it might mean losing the job that keeps a roof over her kids’ heads. I write this today for her. Because we can’t fix a problem we can’t discuss.

Back when I managed events for ANLA, there was a pre-meeting before every travel event. At every one, we made it a point (with then-Executive Vice President, Bob Dolibois, leading the charge) to tell our staff team that there was ABSOLUTELY NO POINT at which the organizational ethic of “member service” should be put ahead of your own individual right to safety, comfort, and personal space. We made it clear that the organization “had their back” if they needed to take any measure to step out of an uncomfortable situation. Period. No questions asked. It was our job to create a safe work environment for our team.

Gentlemen of the Green Industry (and yes, the vast majority of you truly are gentlemen): I want to let you in on a secret: we ladies have an unwritten code about these kinds of things. I could walk up to a strange woman in a bar and give her a look, whispering, “This guy is creepy, can I sit with you?” and she will treat me as if we were long–lost sorority sisters. BUT: this industry doesn’t have enough women “on the scene.” So through the years, one of my most effective coping mechanisms was to create a massive “adopted family” for myself: a whole cadre of “uncles” and “big brothers” who I could count on in an instant if I needed support at an event, if I needed a backup, an escape, an escort, a safe place. Which is great… but it would have been far better to have never felt like I needed it.

The commercial horticulture industry is still very much male-dominated. (Translation: Statistically, we have more potential abusers among us, and fewer safer spaces.) But I think we can be different. I’d like to look at that same statistic as having more ALLIES: more “big brothers” and “adopted uncles” looking out for the women around us. (I also believe that the industry would benefit from having more women in leadership positions, but that’s a different topic.)

Maybe you’re all-too-familiar with these stories. Or maybe this is all new to you, and a bit shocking. [Did you see that “(INSERT NAME HERE)” above? While every one of those examples is true, I didn’t write this to name names, or call out any one person or situation specifically. But honestly, I don’t know any woman (in this industry or otherwise) who HASN’T had an uncomfortable experience at some point in her life.]

If you haven’t heard these stories, if you’re struggling to believe me, I encourage you to start a conversation: ask the women around you to share their stories. I’m asking you to pay a little more attention to predatory, tasteless, or just “walking the fine line of inappropriate” behavior going on around you. (Also, while policy manuals and HR aren’t a silver bullet, this is a great time to make sure your company has a robust policy and process around handling sexual harassment and misconduct.)

None of us are completely innocent here: we’re all human: we’ve all laughed at an inappropriate joke, made a comment that could have been misconstrued, said something without thinking and realized, “oh, that probably didn’t come out right.” Times are changing. We keep evolving. And as Maya Angelou famously said, when we know better, we do better.

Women can’t solve this. This is a problem that men are uniquely positioned to fix, and it’s simple: If you see something, say something. Step into the situation. Offer to get someone home (or up in an elevator) safely. Say, “hey – that’s not cool” to the guy getting handsy or with the tasteless jokes. If you’re not part of the problem, you NEED to be part of the solution.

If you’re a man still reading this (thank you) – as we turn the calendar into 2018, I’d ask you simply to think a little bit about how you can be an even better “big brother” or “adopted uncle” in the year ahead. No, we aren’t immune … but I believe we CAN be different.

Thanks for listening. I also hope you’ll be willing to add your voice to the conversation.

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9 comments on “We Are Not Immune: An Open Letter to the Green Industry on Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace

  1. Dear, I understand the letter very well. And Yes it’s a very thin line. I don’t know if you have ever worked with only women together. Or only a few man between a lot of women. I guarantee you that women can be as bad or wors that man. Too each other or others.
    I think, just use come and sense.. know your border’s…


    1. Ludo: I appreciate you taking the time to read and reply. The issue you raise – the fact that women in groups sometimes bully other women (or men) – is certainly a real and concerning issue in society. HOWEVER, it is a completely different discussion than point that I’m making about harassment and sexual misconduct being perpetrated by men in positions of power within a significantly male-dominated industry. I would reiterate the point that this problem is much more pervasive than many of the good men in the commercial horticulture industry have realized. I think conflating the two issues does both subjects a disservice.

  2. Kellee – You did a great job in explaining the sexual harassment issue as it applies to horticulture industry. You are right – everyone has experienced it or know someone who has, even in this industry. The fact that sometimes it may not come across as obvious or blatant makes it difficult – especially for the person being harassed. We have had vendors harass our employees at trade shows in the past and we as owners would not put up with it. It is not necessary and it is hurtful. Getting the word out to everyone, telling them that they need to SAY SOMETHING if they are being harassed or know someone who is being harassed is very important and the only way that it can stopped. This industry is not immune to the problems seen in other industries and we can’t think that it is. Kudos to you for starting the conversation in the horticultural industry.

    1. No, it’s not a thin line.
      It’s a veritable canyon: If you wouldn’t treat your male boss in any given way, then you should not treat anyone that way. *THAT* it is the litmus.

      And yes, women *do* occasionally exert their power for sex… but let’s be a little realistic about those numbers – especially given how few women in our industry are even *in* a position of power. The sexual-power abuses of women are so small, it’s statisticly irrelevant here.

      Which is part of the point – we women exist in a constantly hostile environment because we know (through personal experience), that there is always at least one abuser in the room with us… and we can only pray we have active allies in any given moment.

      This article (an every woman you know) is asking you to choose.
      To choose now
      To choose ahead of time
      To choose in a safe environment (like behind your computer screen) just what kind of person you PLAN to be when the problem comes up
      (because it will)
      Who will you be?
      Will you be an active ally?
      Will you be the blind eye?
      And keep in mind that a really *good* ally is an ally in advance.
      Give your support to the women in your circle BEFORE they need you.
      Because we DO need you.

    2. Jill: your perspective that “you as the owners would not put up with your employees being harassed by vendors” is exactly the kind of allyship that we need to see more of. Thank you for sharing your perspective openly, so that other business owners who may have been less aware of this bad behavior can learn from your example! Evil has an opportunity to flourish when good men – and women – do nothing.

  3. Also: I want to send a THANK YOU to those reaching out personally via email to share your stories; I completely understand that this isn’t a conversation that everyone is comfortable having ‘in the comments section.’ I hear you, and your voice matters – however you are comfortable expressing it. I hope you will keep talking to the people around you, also: it’s only when we can understand another person’s reality that we can all move forward to find meaningful solutions.

  4. Kudos Kellee for not just speaking out but for adding detail to what sexual harassment looks like from a woman’s perspective. There was a telling story on NPR recently where a woman in Australia walked about the town and then interviewed the men who cat/wolf called to her. Astonishingly, they could not believe/understand that women would be put-off, repulsed, scared or anything but flattered by their audible (and sometimes physical) advances. If I may add to your ‘call to action’ by asking that men who ‘get it’ begin to mentor boys, even if not their own, on how to respectfully engage with girls and women. I would ask that men lead by example but also go beyond. Like all perspectives and behaviors, engaging in female disrespect at all levels is a learned behavior that came from home or larger society. Boys and men need to learn where the line is in order not to cross it. And, if they do in the future, the consequence will be a call they don’t want to get themselves.

  5. Thank you for bringing this subject to the attention of all .. Men and women.. I had a prospective customer or a huge company tell me to get a order I needed to go into the company restroom and take a picture of my “tits”.. Then sent a nasty text message comic to my phone .. Implying his he then wanted oral sex for a order I am frustrated because now I now have no opportunity at his company unless I comply .. I will not I have to much respect for myself and find it so offensive in this day and age ,, men can still be so disrespectful. and disgusting ..

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