Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Importance of Money?

This true story seeks to shed light on one of the many ways in which employers can fail to recognize  that sexual harassment makes for an unsafe workplace and to react accordingly.  

As an associate professor at a top tier research university, I had acquired a healthy dislike for chasing after research funding.  Writing grant proposals often took two to three times the amount of time that was needed to actually do the research and I was often painfully aware of how much more research I could be doing if I didn't have to write all those proposals. Just as frustrating was the sense I often had that the research wasn't really going anywhere. Even though most of my lab's positive results landed somewhere in the vast number of publications in my technical research area, I lacked both the expertise and the time to create a useful commercial product out of any of it. 

Frustration had become my faithful sidekick.  

So when I had an opportunity to work with a small company on an instrument that my lab had developed to deliver environmental monitoring and healthcare diagnostic capability at a fraction of the cost of similar instruments on the market, I was thrilled. As an engineer, it was in my blood to apply the technology I developed into a useful product and working with a small company toward commercialization was far more exciting to me than writing another journal or conference article.  

Commercialization came within even closer reach when my partnership with this small company resulted in a successful small business grant from a federal agency.  I was delighted and quickly lost myself in the process of building a working prototype of the instrument we had proposed. After months of hard work and a few rabbit holes that were inevitable in engineering research and development, my lab produced a working prototype that did not work perfectly but worked well enough for proof-of-concept and demonstration to potential investors.  I handed over the prototypes to my small business partner and began the unpleasant business of completing all the documentation and the patent paperwork.  My business partner told me that he was in the process of securing additional investment to go ahead with commercialization. He had laid out milestones for how this process was going to move forward in the small business grant proposal we had secured and while I supervised my part of the project, I waited for results from his side.  

But then. And then.  Unfortunately however.  Pick your transition into disappointment.
One day, I got an email from him suggesting that I join him on the other side of the country to make a presentation to a group who was interested in the work, its commercialization, and advancing the project to the next level. Funds were short, he said. He then suggested that we simply share a hotel room to save money on this necessary "business" trip.  

My heart sank when I received the email.  I was bitterly disappointed. But, after a day of steaming and getting over the shock of the "invitation", I knew there was no choice but to be direct and simply say no.   I told him just that, in a three-line, matter-of-fact email. 

But then. And then. Unfortunately however.  Pick your next transition into more disappointment.
Months passed and I heard nothing.  The prototype that my team had painstakingly built and tested disappeared into the ether along with my supposed business partner.  And in the process, he also stopped paying bills to the university, leaving me on the hook for paychecks that had already been cut and having no choice but to let research assistants go and disrupt their education. After scrambling to make up for the payments never made, I remained in the red in the project. And the grant management staff in my home department started pressuring me to resolve the deficit, despite my repeated reminders that deficit was not of my own doing.    

But then. And then. Unfortunately however.  Pick your next transition into more disappointment.
Rather than letting the project go and hoping the debt would just vaporize in the thick layers of bureaucracy, I contacted the head of the sponsored projects office at my university.  Luckily, she was a woman and I thought that she would surely understand what had transpired.  I thought that even if she couldn't offer the sympathy I desperately needed at that point, she would understand the sexual harassment that had transpired and work with me to resolve the resulting financial issues.

I made an appointment with her and found myself sitting in her spacious and pleasant office on a sunny spring day.  I was optimistic that I could put this nightmare behind me.  She started the meeting by telling me that the company was not honoring its contract with the university nor paying its bills.  I told her the hotel room story and about the previous time this guy had hit on me.  She remained focused on the money.  I told her about the "stolen" prototype. She remained focused on the money. I told her about the previous time this guy had hit on me and I felt I had to just deal with it in order to keep the peace. She remained focused on the money.

To say that I felt unheard and invisible to her would be an understatement. As my appointment came to a close, she ushered me out of her office with a reminder of the importance of money.  She said "Let's just do what needs to be done to get these invoices paid and the university's money back."  I left feeling that the money meant far more than my well being and also that the expectation was that I would re-engage with this guy in order to persuade him to pay the outstanding invoices from the university that totaled into the thousands of dollars.  I felt sick at the thought of it.  

So I did not re-engage.   I thought about it, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.  In the end, the guy never paid the invoices. I ended up taking the hit on the negative balance on the project as my support staff took the money out of a few other of my accounts that were still showing a positive balance.  

And, I never worked with a company again.  I never met with the sponsored projects office again.  I never forgot the experience.  All of which was likely bad for my career, but I couldn't bring myself to try again. 

If I'd just grown a thicker skin....

Have you had a similar experience to this blog (The Importance of Money?) or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 


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