Workplace Empowerment

Reclaiming your voice and your career

How an attorney-turned-life coach is trying to end workplace sexual harassment

By Kelsey Harnisch, Gina Scalpone and Corrin Avchin

While attorney Meredith Holley represented women in sexual harassment lawsuits, she was being sexually harassed by her boss.

It started with comments about her clothes. Then it escalated.

He would stand close to her, pressing his body against hers, leaning over her shoulder while looking at trial documents.

Holley sought help from her colleagues. “I got a range of feedback,” she said. “But sort of the gist of it was like, ‘You know, that’s just how it is,’ and ‘You just deal with it,’ and ‘Sorry, that’s terrible,’ and ‘Maybe you should quit.’”

But Holley loved the work she was doing and didn’t want to leave her job. So she found another way. By using techniques she learned while listening to the Life Coach School podcast, Holley was able to resolve the conflict.

“I finally found tools that worked, and I was able to encounter the situation in a different way,” Holley said. “The harasser ended up totally apologizing, not touching me anymore and we worked together safely for a number of years after that.”

Holley took the tools that worked for her, became a certified life coach through the Life Coach School, and in November 2018, she opened her life-coaching company, Eris Conflict Resolution, named after the Greek goddess of discord.

At Eris, Holley works with both individual clients and businesses to adjust their thinking around sexual harassment, shift power dynamics within conflict and learn to advocate for themselves. As a life coach, she gives business professionals the practical tools to end the harassment safely before they have to quit their jobs.

Millions of people throughout the country experience sexual harassment in the workplace. According to a survey commissioned by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, 38 percent of women have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.

Workplace sexual harassment can trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality found that individuals who are experiencing sexual harassment can suffer from anxiety, depression and lack of sleep, all of which affect productivity and personal well-being.

There is also a financial burden that comes with workplace sexual harassment, for both employees and businesses. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment cases cost businesses $40.7 million in 2016.

Women who experience sexual harassment are more than six times as likely to leave their jobs than those who aren’t harassed, according to a 2017 study by Sociologists for Women in Society. This leaves businesses with high costs of retraining while the victims of the harassment lose opportunities for promotions or pay raises.

Holley’s goal is to resolve instances of workplace sexual harassment before it costs victims their careers and businesses thousands of dollars.

When clients come to Eris Conflict Resolution, Holley begins the conflict mediation with a consultation.

“At first she assured us,” said Emily Reeves, a former client whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. “She listened. She listened with all of her – with her whole heart.”

If a client decides legal action is the right path for them, Holley either represents them herself or refers them to another attorney. Regardless of legal action, Holley enrolls all of her clients into her life-coaching certification program.

Her conflict resolution certification program includes one-on-one mediation and course modules that help the client adjust their thinking about sexual harassment. These modules teach clients how to better advocate for themselves, which empowers them to confront their harasser, either directly or indirectly.

One strategy Holley uses in her program is called the thought model, which breaks down sexual harassment into five components: circumstance, thought, feeling, action and result.

“The example that I’ll give sometimes is the hand on the shoulder,” Holley said. “It’s just a hand and I’m choosing this thought, I don’t deserve respect, which is creating a feeling of shame. When I feel shame, I withdraw, and I don’t make an impact on the situation.”

The thought model breaks down these events so Holley’s clients learn they have the power to shift their thinking. Her clients learn that they can choose another thought.

“In a different situation, even a different harassing situation, I might choose an empowering thought like, ‘I want this guy to get his hand off my shoulder,’” Holley said. “It’s possible for me to change this situation. I might choose a thought that motivates action.”

Margaret Hager, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, had been sexually harassed at work for three years by the time she contacted Holley.

“I kind of went into a deep, stressful place,” Hager said. “I wasn’t functioning very well.”

She wasn’t sleeping well, and she isolated herself in her office. She chose to cut down on her work hours because of her stress level.

“I had to get on my feet and be able to be confident in myself after feeling like the bottom had fallen out for me,” Hager said.

The thought model helped Hager regain control of her emotions surrounding the sexual harassment.

“Part of the process with [Holley] was getting a real grip on my thoughts and feelings,” she said. “We can look at our thoughts and decide if we want to keep thinking that.”

With Holley’s help, Hager was able to advocate for herself, end the harassment and keep her job at a higher learning institution in Oregon. She is now creating what she describes as her “dream job.”

Holley has had 27 clients since she started working as a life coach. Of those, 19 have gotten the outcome they were seeking, she said. But only three clients have completed the certification process because some end the work when they get their desired results.   

In addition to individual counseling, businesses also hire Eris Conflict Resolution when they’re concerned about workplace sexual harassment.

Holley works individually with both the accuser and the accused while keeping the business owners in the loop. “They clearly understand on both sides what’s going to happen and what the expectations are,” Holley said.

When an employee at Reeves’s business accused two others of sexual harassment, she and her co-owners reached out to lawyers first.

“Faced with a legal issue we were pretty lost,” Reeves said. “These were pretty serious accusations, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it safely and ethically – legally – and we wanted to make sure that our company stayed intact.”

One of the lawyers Reeves contacted referred her to Holley. “‘This is who you call,’” Reeves said she was told.

Holley worked one-on-one with the parties involved to mediate the conflict.

“She just gave them the tools and the skills and the strength, I think, to kind of solve their own – to come to their own conclusions and to solve their own problems,” said Reeves.

After eight weeks, the three employees were able to work together again. All still work for the company today.

The service was expensive, however. Reeves and her co-owners had to pay the $10,000 facilitation fee out of their personal accounts. The business also had to end overtime hours to cover the expense.

Despite the cost, Holley has clients across the country. One reason is that her system of conflict resolution is unique.

“If I’m talking to somebody that isn’t going to work with me, I always want to give them a referral,” Holley said. But she doesn’t know of anyone else using conflict resolution to resolve workplace sexual harassment.

Right now, Eris Conflict Resolution is limited to what Holley can handle by herself. She had to scale back the number of clients she worked with after her workload became too intense. She is planning a training course to teach others how to facilitate workplace sexual harassment mediation.

“What I’m describing is very difficult to master,” Holley said. “I think for people who are willing to engage, you can create something really amazing and beautiful out of the experience that you have.”

Holley named her business after Eris, the goddess of discord, because she wanted to create something beautiful out of conflict.

“We have the opportunity to say, ‘What am I going to create with this?’” Holley said. “‘How am I going to turn this into some growth for myself, some growth for this company, for my career, for my work?’”