Dealing with Sexual Harassment

woman and man coworker

Photo credit:Ottinger Law

How do you deal with sexual harassment at work?

This is an age-old problem and not necessarily as uncommon as you might think. According to one survey of women in Silicon Valley, 60% of women had been sexually harassed at work. 
 
But first, what is the definition of sexual harassment? The answer might surprise you. According to the United States Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC):

Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.

Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.

Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.

We are not attorneys and the above is a rather technical, legal description of sexual harassment. If your situation is so serious that you're considering filing a lawsuit, you've probably already received a free consultation with an attorney and considered many of the things we're about to discuss. 
 
Practically speaking, if something is happening at work that makes you uncomfortable, you will probably want to do something about it. One of the most frequent question we get at Fairygodboss is what to do and unfortunately there is no simple answer because every situation has its own dynamics and every workplace has its own culture and policies. 

It may seem obvious but its very important to acknowledge that every person has different levels of tolerance and a different personality when it comes to making a decision about whether to confront the person making them uncomfortable and reporting the issue to a manager or HR representative. That's why we think there's no simple, one-size-fits all solution to the problem.
 
While most employers have policies and procedures for sexual harassment (which include training for staff), the unfortunate reality is that by the time an issue arises, all the preventative measures have by definition, failed. If you feel that the officially recommended course of action that a company recommends is not appropriate for your situation, its important to listen to your gut and intuition.

The real decision, in our opinion is whether you do more than talk to (or confront) the person who is creating issues for you. We can't offer any specific advice about individual cases, but we do think there are different considerations and options depending on who the perpetrator is:
 
1. Your harasser is your colleague, or someone at the same level as yourself.
 
Simplistically, you have a choice between asking your co-worker to stop behaving in a certain way, or simply avoiding them (if possible). Sometimes you may work very closely with this person and this will be a very delicate conversation that has to be handled with their ego and even potential retaliatory behavior in mind. 
 
One option if you've already spoken to the person or just decided there's no point -- speak to your manager and/or their manager (if different from yours). You can ask the pepetrator's manager to handle this in a discreet or generic way (e.g. "Justin, we have heard that sometimes the jokes you make around the office are making people uncomfortable. You should be aware and more careful with what you say.") You can also talk to someone in HR about doing the same.
 
2. Your harasser is your manager, or on the management team
 
If that person is a manager -- or your own manager -- it's obviously a much trickier situation. Depending on your relationship with the person, you can consider trying to communicate the issue delicately, but more likely you will want to skip right to their manager (if they are not the CEO) or someone very senior in HR. 
 
However, be aware that a third party may simply not respond well or side with your perspective / experience. If you have no evidence beyond a he-said-she-said anecdote, or the behavior is subtle, you may still get all the support in the world. However, you should also be realistic that things may not go your way and instead become quite difficult and awkward for you at work.
 
The potential risk may be worth it -- but only you know whether that's the case and can make that decision in the context of the culture and politics in your specific workplace.
 
This is a very difficult issue and even women who take actions they believe are correct, are not necessarily satisfied with the ultimate outcome.
 
3. Your harasser is a client.
 
In the case that the perpetrator is a client, it's something that's potentially easier to report internally to managers or an HR rep because the offender is outside the company and you may simply be allowed to switch teams or projects. 
 
Ultimately, you need to make a choice about whether you want to work with this client in spite of what you're going through. It's a personal decision but we believe you have every right to try to get out of the situation and you don't have to confront them yourself. Your employer has a moral and legal obligation to protect you.
 
We've heard of very supportive work environments where clients were dropped because of egregious behavior towards a team member at work so don't necessarily assume that someone will not take this seriously at your own firm.
 
Ultimately, it's an unfortunate reality that reporting an incident may not lead to the outcome you want. The probability of this outcome is probably the reason many incidents go unreported and perpetrators go unpunished. As maddening as this is, only you can decide what course of action to take in your situation.
 
Many women unfortunately simply feel unhappy with their options. According to the same study of Silicon Valley women who reported experiencing harassment:
  • 39% did nothing because they thought it would negatively impact their career
  • 30% did not report anything because they wanted to forget
  • 29% signed a non-disparagement agreement with their employer (presumably after reporting the incident)
It's human nature to want to smooth over unpleasant incidents so you're not alone if you simply believe it's best to move on (if possible).
 
Finally, it's worth stating the obvious: experiencing sexual harassment at work is very isolating. If you can confide in a colleague or friend at work who you believe will keep your confidence, it may be a relief to simply unload what is happening to a trusted confidante.
 
You never know -- he or she may be able to help you think through your options in the context of the business, political and cultural context in your job -- and may even be willing to raise the fact that they believe there is a problem to HR or your manager. This doesn't mean you will not have to have any conversations yourself, but the first step may feel a bit easier if you know you have allies who have gone to bat for you. 
 

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