Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Culture, Psychology and More Complicated Harassment Issues

No does mean no but in different languages and cultures, questions get confusing

Because it’s often in the news, I want to revisit the issue of sexual harassment.

You are probably tired of hearing about it, but some people never seem to get the message. “No” really does mean “no,” and the workplace is not a singles bar. Sexual harassment can also be a form of bullying or predatory behavior. Regardless, the behavior is not acceptable and organizations that fail to deal with it make a mistake in many ways. If nothing else, these mistakes can threaten the life of an organization or business.

But sometimes the issue involves differences in how people view something.

I had a case involving a sexual harassment complaint by a female graduate student against a dean at a large university. I was on retainer with the university, which was fortunate because the law only gives 72 hours to begin a sexual harassment investigation. My role was to understand the situation, assess the severity and make a report.

Sexual harassment allegations are serious, but there is a qualifier. The criterion for determining sexual harassment is this question; “Would a reasonable person find this behavior offensive?” If yes, you probably have sexual harassment. If no, you probably don’t.

In this case, the allegation was that the dean had invited the female student to lunch. He didn’t sexually assault her, discuss or imply anything of a sexual nature; he invited her to lunch. It turned out that he did this with all new grad students—very collegial and aboveboard. Regardless, she filed a complaint.

The woman was Pakistani and married. To her, an invitation from a man who was not her husband, father or son had illicit intentions. In her eyes, it was sexual harassment.

Schools are required to self-report allegations so I advised the provost to hotline the case to the state department even though I felt no harassment would be found. The state investigated and, indeed, did not find any basis for the complaint. They shut down any further opportunities for recourse from the student and she was forced to withdraw from the program.

Although the rules may vary somewhat, this can happen in any business or organization.

Management needs to be aware of cultural differences within the company as much as possible. We all have different thresholds resulting from our upbringing, and these cultural differences exist separately and apart from the laws and rules that apply in the business setting. In hindsight, these differences seem clear. In some cases they are more subtle.

Bullying and harassment is very real, and the future of a business or organization can hinge on eliminated them. If an allegation does occur, go with mediation as it puts the authority to decide in the hands of the disputants, and allows for facilitation instead of arbitration. 

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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