Does He Harass Her or She Harass Him?

A look at the laws.

Posted May 21, 2014

Every woman and man needs to understand the laws that may affect them in the workplace. These include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that defines sex discrimination; the Pregnancy Discrimination Act included under Title VII; the Equal Pay Act requiring equal pay for essentially the same work done by men and woman at a particular company; the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 that looks at unfair pay and the time frame for filing a discrimination charge; and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Guidelines on Sexual Harassment. Refer to the website to learn about these federal laws and others (discrimination, harassment, related retaliation, and a hostile work environment based on race, sex, age, religion, national origin, disabilities, veteran status, and color) that may impact you or your colleagues. Check your individual state’s laws for similar regulations that protect your rights. Some state laws also prevent discrimination based on marital status and sexual orientation.

The EEOC defines sexual harassment as this:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature can be verbal (jokes, innuendos, suggestive comments) or nonverbal (inappropriate touching, ogling, posters, e-mails, stares at body parts, leering, whistles, brushes against another’s body, and behaviors up to and including sexual assault or rape).

Does He Harass Her or She Harass Him?

Both women and men can be sexual harassers or recipients of harassment. In 2008, 16 percent of the 13,867 sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC were submitted by men. The remaining 84 percent were complaints filed by women. While there are a few cases of men harassing other men, women harassing other women, and women harassing men, the overwhelming majority of the EEOC cases filed involve men harassing women.

Still, the number of sexual harassment cases being filed by men has been steadily increasing during the past 16 years. In 1992, nine percent of the cases reported to the EEOC were filed by men, seven percentage points lower than five years later. This increase may indicate that as women have started obtaining positions with power, they, too, have fallen into abusing that power by sexually harassing those around them.

But because most sexual harassers are men and most of those harassed are women, we focus on that. It would be great if we could say that all male sexual harassers were six feet tall, Caucasian, and muscular, with brown wavy hair and a mustache. Then we’d know what to watch out for. But we can’t. Sexual harassers come in all colors, sizes, and shapes. We knew of one man in a wheelchair who had the habit of rolling up behind women and caressing their butts to get their attention.

One characteristic that sexual harassers tend to have in common is power. Either they have assigned power (your boss, director, CEO) or they perceive that they have power over you. Even if you are colleagues at the same work level, they feel that they can exert their views over you. And harassers tend to look for the most vulnerable member in the group. It could be a woman who is a new employee, an isolated employee, someone who goes along with the group or never speaks up, or someone the harasser feels won’t stand up for herself.

The harasser could be the vendor who comes into the office once a month and provides an array of sexual jokes to the receptionist, who is always alone in the front office. She doesn’t like the jokes and thinks the guy is slimy. It could be the 80-year-old part-time volunteer who likes to tell all the “girls” (the 55- to 65-year-olds) how pretty they are and what he’d do with them if he was 20 years younger. Some of the women ignore him, others shoot down a different hallway when they see him heading their way, some feel sorry for him, and others want the creepy guy to leave them alone. It could be your sales director at the vendor conference in Toledo. After a few drinks, he takes you aside and expresses his deep longings for you. You say you’re not interested and head back to your hotel room. A few hours later, at 2 a.m., you hear loud banging at your door. It’s him and a buddy, and they want to see how good you look in your nightgown.

Are these situations exaggerations? Hardly. These are situations in which you need to take some action. Don’t sit there and let the behavior happen to you.

Be assertive. Let the harasser know that his behavior is not wanted, is not appropriate for the workplace, and has to stop. Both men and women have a responsibility to step up and stop harassment.

Case Study:

Christine was new to the office, and Dan sat nearby. He was known for his off-color jokes and uncomfortable comments, but no one stood up to him. It’s not that he was particularly powerful. He had a sort of default power by having worked at the office for years longer than most others. He was a hard worker. No one wanted to upset him because he did get a lot done.

Then one day, Christine was eating a peach at her desk when she noticed Dan staring at her. She tried to ignore him, but he continued leering. Then he made a perverted comment about how she was eating the peach. Instead of laughing it off or ignoring him, she stood up and matter-of-factly said in front of everyone, “I do not want you talking to me that way.” He was so upset and shocked that he quit one week later. The other women in the office later told Christine thanks and said that they felt so relieved not having to deal with him anymore.

*Adapted from Audrey's book (co-author), Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen.