When You’re Sexually Harassed …

What can you do?! Your boss’ boss gropes you, without your consent, at a bar during a company social event. A senior representative in your company corners you during an offsite, making you uncomfortable, and blocks you from leaving. One of your colleagues feels compelled to start every project meeting with stories of his sexual escapades over the prior weekend.

In the last few weeks, I’ve read stories of young women, especially, who have left their jobs because of sexual harassment. Some have reported incidents to their companies, some have not. In some cases, it was the behavior of a single individual, in other cases it was a pattern of behavior within the organization. In some cases, the women have voiced their frustrations within company channels, to the friends of the person who is harassing them, and in some cases publicly; others stayed silent about the harassment. Some companies have responded to reports of harassment, but seldom satisfactorily. Sometimes, the action taken by the organization is detrimental to the woman reporting the harassment, damaging her standing, reputation, and often her career. So the women involved struggled, and in the stories I’ve read, have finally left their jobs, having seen no other way to resolve the situation.

I have tremendous respect for the women who quit their jobs due to harassment. Taking that step requires great courage. But it breaks my heart that these women would be so desperate that they felt leaving their jobs was their best option. So, I wanted to offer a strategy to keep in mind to be used the next time someone behaves inappropriately in the work environment. It may be uncomfortable to execute this strategy, but it gives the person being harassed an opportunity to put more pressure where it belongs: on the jerk and the company he works for. Executing the strategy when called for may also make things better for the person being harassed and possibly for others in the company as well.

So, What’s the Story?

In order for a person or an organization to correct harassing behavior, two things have to happen. First, you have to communicate to the harasser that the behavior is inappropriate, and tell them you hope it will not occur again. Second, you need to report that the incident occurred to someone in the organization, whether management or HR. Really it doesn’t matter which; I’ll explain later.

First: Tell Them Their Behavior is Inappropriate in a Professional Environment

The first requirement: you have to communicate that the behavior was inappropriate. Preferably at the time of the incident, with others present as witnesses. If not immediately, as soon as possible afterwards, and if done after the fact, definitely have someone with you who can corroborate what you’ve said.

There are multiple reasons you need to communicate that you find the behavior inappropriate. What workers consider as sexually inappropriate behavior depends on context and the specific people involved. What you consider offensive, others may not. What might be acceptable among friends from work over lunch may not be acceptable between a boss and junior employee. Communicating that the behavior is inappropriate establishes a standard. Another reason to communicate that the behavior is not appropriate is that it’s a simple courtesy to give them a chance to do better.  In an ideal world of good guys, you give them a chance to recalibrate their behavior. In my experience, I’ve been surprised at how many men in the workplace respond with “Really? That’s offensive?” Their yardstick can be very different from someone on the receiving end of the language and actions. Happily, most really were good guys and once educated did much better being mindful of their language and actions. Informing someone that their behavior is inappropriate can help to prevent an incident from escalating. Finally, another reason to be direct and vocal about the behavior is that it gives your potential allies a chance to support you, whether in the moment or when you’re not there.

Second: Tell Someone in Management or HR about the Incident

So, an incident has occurred, and you’ve told the person involved that their language or behavior is inappropriate. As soon as you can, report the incident to someone representing your organization – your manager, someone from HR, pretty much anyone who represents the company. In addition to describing the inappropriate language or behavior, be sure to communicate that you don’t expect anything further needs to be done: you’ve spoken with the person involved, told them that you found their behavior inappropriate, and expressed your hope and expectation that they would refrain from similar behavior in the future. The first time the organization hears from you about the incident, you’ve handled the situation professionally, provided a positive path forward, and have been respectful of your colleague.

If They Behave Inappropriately Again…

The first time something happens, unless the incident is especially egregious and witnessed by others, it is unlikely that the organization will be able to or choose to do anything about it. The first time something happens, all the excuses come into play:

  • I didn’t know she found it inappropriate.
  • She’s just being overly sensitive.
  • It was a compliment.
  • I thought it was ok since we were at a bar and not in the office.
  • It was a joke.
  • I saw someone else say something similar to her and she laughed.
  • She misunderstood me.
  • That’s her interpretation of what happened, now let me tell you what really happened…

Because there are large differences in what people consider offensive, it is more likely that someone will be able to explain away the incident the first time something happens. By communicating to the person involved that you find their behavior offensive, you have established the standard for what is acceptable. You won’t get any satisfaction as a consequence of the first incident, other than possibly watching them squirm when you call them out, and maybe some support from an ally. However, the second time it happens, or heaven forbid subsequent times, you’ve established that the behavior is intentional. The person who is being offensive has been informed; by continuing to behave in that way, he is choosing to ignore the boundaries that you have set by communicating to him that his behavior is inappropriate in the work environment. None of the first time excuses work anymore.

The second time it happens, you once again tell the person their behavior is unacceptable, and you return to your manager or HR or whoever it was that you told about the behavior the first time. You tell them that the person is choosing to continue to behave badly, despite you having politely asked them not to. You further tell your manager or HR that you hope the organization will do something to address the sexual harassment.

How Does This Strategy Help Keep Me from Having to Quit?

There are important differences now. By reporting both incidents, you’ve established a pattern of behavior by the harasser. You’ve demonstrated that the behavior is intentional. You’ve eliminated many of the excuses that the individual and the organization can use to minimize the incident. You have also set a positive precedent for taking respectful action by having expressed the expectation that the person would not continue in the behavior. Finally, and most importantly,  if the organization takes no action, they are now essentially condoning the behavior. By taking the steps described here, you have made the harassment a corporate problem; it can no longer be dismissed as “he said, she said”; the organization cannot say they were unaware of the problem; they cannot dismiss it as an issue with the individual whose behavior has been called out. If the company still chooses to do nothing about the person who has now demonstrated a pattern of behavior, you may still find that you want to leave the company. But now, you have a substantial ally: the EEOC. You have what you need to make, and quite likely successfully defend, a formal complaint of sexual harassment against the company. Not just the jerk who groped you, but against the company itself for allowing the behavior to continue. The best part about having a strong case for a claim of harassment is that you don’t even need to file the claim. Companies are averse to going to court over labor issues; even if they think they would win, the negative publicity of a suit can be extremely damaging. Companies with smart staff in HR will recognize their vulnerability and realize it is in their interest to address the issue seriously.

Be Brave!

It may be that you will do these things and you’ll still end up leaving the company. Seriously, if the company has people there who behave this way and they choose not to do anything about it, leaving may be the healthiest response. I recognize that speaking up immediately at the time of the behavior can be terrifying, and still involves potential risks to career and standing in the organization. But with a conviction to do these two simple things – telling the person their behavior is unacceptable and reporting to a corporate representative, you have expanded your options for response. If someone harasses you, having a plan can help you deal with the momentary shock and possibly help you avoid reacting in a way that will be problematic later on. Furthermore, it doesn’t always register immediately that the behavior was inappropriate. You may have laughed at the sexist joke too, and then gotten more uncomfortable as the meeting went on. By having a response at the ready, and being prepared to execute it, you may be able to prevent even greater harassment from occurring.

So, be ready to speak up! If no one speaks up, a harasser has every reason to believe they can continue; if you speak up, they continue at their peril – and the peril of the company. Now, practice what you’ll say for when the time comes!

  • “Wow, maybe you didn’t realize it, but that joke was really inappropriate under the circumstances, George.”
  • “Excuse me, Mr. VP, I’d like to leave and it is inappropriate that you would try to prevent me from leaving like this. Good night, sir.”
  • “Hey, Clyde… eyes up here. Staring at my chest is really inappropriate.”
  • “Mike, even though Diane has left the company, she always treated the rest of us with respect. Can you please stop making inappropriate, lewd jokes on email about her?”
  • “Yes, the new guy in the mailroom has Down Syndrome, but it’s not funny and really inappropriate that you keep calling him retard.”

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