Imagine sitting in a company board meeting feeling as if you are being mentally undressed from across the room by your boss, whose leering gaze has remained steady for the better part of half an hour. Now imagine that on top of that discomfort, you are the Board secretary trying to take the minutes. Any errors caused by your discomfort and distraction might be viewed as incompetence, or blamed on inattentiveness. Talk about pressure.
You look around the room to see if anyone else is witnessing the stare down, but everyone is glued to their devices—allowing your boss to feel empowered to continue his visual assault, unhindered. Even if another Board member happened to come up for air, he or she would be unlikely to appreciate the sexually charged dynamic of intimidation that your boss has created.
And because many workplace harassers are in positions of power, in an economic time where people are grateful to be employed, even those who witness inappropriate behavior by the boss are tempted to downplay what they see, or deny having seen it in the first place. What does that mean for you, suffering under the heat of your bosses´ inappropriate ogling? Possibly that your complaint may stand uncorroborated—an expectation that frequently discourages victims from reporting inappropriate behavior in the first place.
Yet “Boardroom Eyes” and other types of verbal and visual harassment occur in conference rooms around the world every day. Worse yet, some aggressive superiors with an entitlement mentality actually expect to pursue relationships with subordinates from the boardroom to the bedroom, without appreciating the impropriety of such expectations. “What woman wouldn't want to date the boss?” I heard one man ask. Unbelievable.
A Month to Remember
April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. A month to renew our commitment to enhancing the safety and security of potential victims, and increasing our awareness of inappropriate conduct in order to prevent victimization. We consistently strive to increase the safety and awareness of young women in public, on college campuses, and in their homes.
Yet there is one location that is often neglected, although it is an insidious breeding ground of inappropriate conduct. It is a place where many of us spend most of our time during the week. A place where strangers are thrown together and forced to overcome the challenges of personality conflicts, offensive behavior, or worse. I am talking about our home away from home—the workplace.
As a career sex crimes prosecutor I have seen hundreds of cases where sexual assault followed a predictable course of escalation of behavior from harassment to assault. Initiated within a culture of hostility and sexual innuendo, the misconduct often begins with leering, progresses to sexualized language and inappropriate touching, and can lead to sexual assault.
Company Culture: Enabling or Empowering?
Unlike being groped by a stranger on the metro, workplace sexual assault is offensive conduct committed by someone you know—which often makes it even more awkward and potentially traumatic—especially when the perpetrator is your boss. The emotional impact is exacerbated when the assault is committed by someone you trust—which is often the case, as workplace sexual assault is often about exploitation.
For offenders who are so inclined, a workplace culture of enablers facilitates a behavioral progression from visual and verbal assault to physical assault. Fueled by the passivity of coworkers who are financially motivated to ignore, downplay, or normalize the inappropriate behavior of those in power, offensive behavior is allowed to continue, often virtually unchecked.
So how does this begin? How do boundaries become so distorted that employees in positions of power pursue relationships that will facilitate opportunities for abuse? And how in the world do they manage to mischaracterize abusive situations as consensual encounters? The answer is that when employees fail to identify the red flags, sexual misbehavior becomes the new normal.
Recognizing 50 Shades of Red
Sexual harassers do not become workplace sexual predators because employees do not see the red flags, but because they do nothing to address them. Unlike our post 911 instructions to “see something say something,” some modern employees, desperate to keep their jobs, intentionally dull both their senses and their sensibilities in order to avoid, pardon the cliché, indecent exposure. Yet with offenders, the red flags are there—often both visually and audibly. Because when it comes to the insidious progression from sexual harassment to sexual assault, words matter.
Actions Speak Louder than Words, Yet Words Lead to Actions
Despite the age-old adage about “Sticks and Stones,” words can in fact lead to physical damage. Some sexual harassers test the workplace waters by using language in the boardroom that belongs in the locker room, including terminology that is shockingly inappropriate in mixed company. Yet such language may not shock coworkers who have spent time with the offender outside of the workplace, where he or she routinely uses sexualized language or demeaning terminology with servers at happy hour, or other public employees.
Reading red flags in settings that are arguably extensions of the workplace such as cocktail hours or company parties provides warning signs of potential liability on the job and should not be ignored. Yet coworkers concerned about financial stability often mute their perception of even the most blatant misconduct, viewing the actions of the boss as a lighter shade of red. “He is only joking,” they say, defending the conduct. Or they explain dismissively with a wave of their hand, “That´s just Ted. He is harmless.”
Sexual Assault Awareness is Prevention through Education
Becoming aware of the often blatant misconduct that precedes sexual assault in the workplace, we can work together to promote prevention through education and attention.
This month, let us renew our commitment to recognize sexual misbehavior as the insidious workplace issue that it is. By refusing to ignore red flags and encouraging a culture of respect in the workplace, we have the ability to improve morale, boost productivity, and create a safe workplace for everyone.