Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Navigating the Mine Field
Harvey Weinstein. Senator Al Franken. Judge Roy Moore. Dustin Hoffman. Representative John Conyers. Matt Lauer. Kevin Spacey. The list of men in powerful positions recently accused of sexual harassment continues to grow.
What is sexual harassment?
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the term "sexual harassment" includes unwelcome sexually-motivated advances, demands or requests for sexually-oriented favors and any other verbal or physical harassment with sexual underpinnings.
Victims are not exclusively women. Harassers can be either men or women, as can victims. Harasser and victim may be of the same sex. What the law does not consider "sexual harassment" is offhand comments, simple teasing or isolated occurrences that are not considered serious.
The behavior becomes illegal when it happens on a frequent basis or is so intense that it creates a work environment that is offensive or hostile. Behaviors fall under the purview of the law when the actions culminate in employment decisions such as demotions or loss of employment.
The costs to business and lives
When sexual harassment charges ring out, everyone loses: the victim, the business and the alleged offender.
Victims pay an incalculable cost in emotional and mental stress. They often face the loss of job opportunities, not to mention the legal bills if they seek resolution in court.
The business, if found liable in a sexual harassment case, may be facing payouts of thousands or even millions of dollars to the victim. Some may take the cynical approach that this is simply an expected "cost of doing business." According to the EEOC, however, U.S. companies have forked over public penalties of more than $295 million in sexual harassment claims. That total doesn't include monies paid out in privately settled cases.
The alleged offender pays whether he or she is guilty of sexually harassing someone or not. Unfortunately, most face trial in the court of public opinion before investigation of the allegations, let alone proving them in a court of law. Alleged offenders have been publicly demonized, forced to resign, or dropped from endorsements and other contract-based employment ventures. Public excoriation following allegations has taken the place of "innocent until proven guilty" and due process of law.
Dealing with sexual harassment on the job
Harassment, whether sexual in nature or not, is a common occurrence in the workplace. It can take on many forms, including verbal, electronic (via email or text,) or physical conduct. It is an intolerable situation, for all entities concerned, including the company or business.
There are steps victims can take, and should take, in a timely fashion.
- Talk to the offender directly when the first incident of sexual harassment takes place. Tell them that you consider their action inappropriate and ask them to stop.
- Talk to co-workers to find other victims or witnesses. Find out if anyone filed complaints in the past. Try to get their stories in writing.
- If the behavior continues, report all the incidents to your supervisor. Make your report in as a formal letter and detail the incident as it took place.
- Notify your human resources (HR) manager.
- File an official complaint with senior management if your immediate supervisor fails to act.
- If senior management refuses to act, file a charge with the EEOC.
Working with the opposite sex
Men and women are growing wary of one-on-one working situations with members of the opposite sex amid the current atmosphere of hypersensitivity to sexual harassment in the workplace. The realities of life, however, tell us that men and women must find a way to work together without the stigma of sexual impropriety hanging over working sessions or business meetings.
Men and women have been working together peacefully for decades, and with the need most families have for two incomes, the situation isn't likely to change. The best solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace is prevention. Toward that end, here are some suggestions to consider.
- Develop your "small talk" skills. When a "chat" opportunity comes up, men tend to see it as an opportunity to exchange information and facts. Women tend to look at it as a personal interaction that contributes to building trust. Develop your ability to carry on an innocuous "chat" for a minute or two.
- Learn to listen. Remember that men and women see the world differently. Learn to listen and answer questions to get clarification on the information you're hearing.
- Engage brain before speaking. When you're at work, remember you're at work. Choose your words, tone and subject matter accordingly. Remember that anything with a potential for misunderstanding probably will be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Stay away from comments that may come across as offensive or biased.
- Temper criticisms. When you must criticize, do it tactfully, constructively and without losing your temper. Going into a conversation while feeling fired up over a situation can easily lead to saying something that you'll regret. Be sure you're criticizing the work and not the worker.
- Separate performance and appearance. Compliment a co-worker's job performance, not his or her appearance. Dressing in a neat, clean, professional manner is not an invitation for a relationship; it is simply a way to convey a professional attitude toward one's employment.
- Stay away from the water cooler. Make certain you are not drawn into office gossip.
- Stay neutral in the office. Keep your private life private. If you get the impression a co-worker may be "interested," it's probably best to remain neutral and professional.
Working with someone of the opposite sex doesn't have to be a stressor. Keep it professional and use a bit of common sense; that's all you have to do.