Workplace sexual harassment has come roaring back into the headlines, thanks in large part to film producer Harvey Weinstein and his behavior. This was quickly followed by the resurgence of the #MeToo campaign which became a, a rallying cry on social media even though it first appeared 10 years ago. . People have been using the hashtag to share personal stories of sexual harassment. Millions of people on Twitter, Facebook, other social media outlets and blogposts have contributed posts, comments, and reactions. And there has been fallout with many senior level people being asked to step down as a result.
I started conducting Sexual Harassment Prevention and Education training programs in the 1980s for three audiences: general population, targets and executive leadership/managers. While the definition can feel a bit fuzzy, these programs focus on defining sexual harassment, creating interpersonal strategies and skills for dealing effectively with it, and understanding the organizational position via policies, procedures, and behaviors.
A QUICK REVIEW – WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT WORK?
Put simply, sexual harassment is unwanted behavior of a sexual nature.
This harassment can be verbal or non-verbal. It makes the Target feel intimidated or uncomfortable. A Target doesn’t need to have objected to a person’s behavior for it to be considered unwanted.
Sexual Harassment can include:
- Sexual comments or jokes – in person, overheard, or via email
- Inappropriate touching, such as a lingering touch, pinching, patting or hugging.
- Unwelcome sexual advances or other forms of sexual assault.
- Staring in a sexually suggestive manner or wolf whistling.
- Displaying images of a sexual nature – for example, a co-worker may put up a sexually explicit calendar or picture which others find offensive.
- Being treated less favorably as a result of rejecting any such conduct.
WHAT IF IT HAPPENS TO YOU?
In some cases, telling someone their behavior is making you uncomfortable can be enough to stop it. Developing a few short, direct statements that can be delivered without smiling (“This makes me feel uncomfortable. I want you to stop.”) may be what is required.
Confiding in another colleague at work could also help you to decide what to do. Sometimes people need to talk through their feelings and options with a trusted confidant before determining the best course of action.
You can also:
- Tell your manager. Put this in writing and keep a copy.
- Keep a diary recording the harassment, when it happens, what was said or done, and who, if anyone, witnessed it. Be as specific and objective as possible. Don’t keep this record at work. Store it in a safe place at home or in the glove compartment of your car, where it is accessible.
- Speak to your HR department or union representative who can offer advice and shepherd you through the process. You may not think they will do anything, but it eliminates the possibility that the organization can claim that they would have done something if only they had known.
- Make a formal complaint. Employers should have a grievance procedure where you can set out in writing the “who” “what” “where” of the harassment and how it made you feel.
If these options don’t work, you can make a claim to the HRC/EEOC (within the legal timeframe).
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE SEXUALLY HARRASSED AT WORK?
I don’t know of a woman who has not been sexually harassed at work. A great deal sexual harassment at work is not assault or rape. While there are some workplaces that seem to foster or ignore a hostile environment where harassment appears to be tolerated or unheeded, most of it takes place where there are no witnesses. It can be a petite infraction (staring at her chest instead of her face when having a conversation), an attempt that was squashed (“I know I’m your boss but how about a date?”), or a clear quid pro quo (“Meet me tonight or you don’t get the raise.”) If we believe only a portion of the anecdotal evidence, it’s still an overwhelming number. And while it’s not only women being harassed, it IS happening to women in the majority of incidents.
Sexual harassment is a form of bullying. And the workplace often tolerates and enables bullies because of their talent, position, or connections. So the comfort of the harasser or the organization take precedence over that of the target.
You probably don’t have a “Workplace Bill of Rights” where you work, but in the future perfect world of my imagination you do. And one of the rights is to be treated with respect.
Just because a “Workplace Bill of Rights” may not exist where you work doesn’t mean you can’t expect it, aspire to it, and ask for it.
If you think a training program or a facilitated conversation about workplace sexual harassment makes sense for your organization, we can provide you with that service or work with your attorney to create a customized program. Contact me so I can help you develop the right approach.