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Sexual Harassment

What to do if it happens to you.

Washington County Commissioner Accused of Sexual Harassment.  Portage County Sheriff’s Major Accused of Sexual Harassment, ResignsUC Berkeley Fires Assistant Professor Blake Wentworth After Sexual Harassment Probe. These are just a sample of news headlines over the past week.  Sexual harassment is obviously alive and well in America.

But why? Ninety-eight organizations in the U.S. have a sexual harassment policy, so why does sexual harassment continue to be such a persistent problem in the American workplace? After conducting over 200 independent harassment investigations, one thing is clear to me; sexual harassment looks a whole lot different from the inside looking out than from the outside looking in. For example, let’s say you went out at lunchtime and asked random workers on the street, “What would you do if you were being sexually harassed at work?” Most people would answer, “I’d tell him or her to knock it off.” “I’d go straight to my boss.” “I’d report it to right away to human resources.” 

However, people who’ve actually been sexual harassed tell a different story. “I tried to ignore it.” “I tried to avoid him.” “I just quit and got a different job.”  

When you ask them why they didn’t speak up, here’s what they say. “It was my word against his; I didn’t think anyone would believe me.” "I was afraid of retaliation." "I didn’t want to cause any trouble.” 

There’s obviously a disconnect between what we think we would do and what we actually would do. That disconnect, among other factors, leaves most of us ill-prepared to deal with a real-life situation. 

Also because of this, victims sometimes unwittingly shoot themselves in the foot because they don’t know how to handle the demeaning behavior they’re were experiencing. It’s not their fault; no one should be subjected to unwelcome sexual behavior at work and few of us are skilled at holding uncomfortable conversations, particularly if the other party is our boss or supervisor.

However, while the ultimate onus is on employees to avoid engaging in offensive behavior, there are good reasons why it’s in our best interest to do something about it should we be on the receiving end of unwelcome sexual attention; the longer it goes on, the harder it is to speak up, the more likely it is to adversely impact our own job performance, and the more likely it is to cause stress-related psychological symptoms. 

Here’s my best advice if you are facing workplace harassment:

Talk to the offending person. This one can be scary, especially if the harasser is a boss or a supervisor. However, not only is it fair to give the other party a chance to change his/her behavior, Title VII law—which covers all types of employee discrimination—requires the victim to notify the harasser of the offending incident(s). The affected employee must also directly express that the harasser should stop the unlawful conduct. And, most of the time it works; 65 percent of the time, just saying “knock it off” gets the message across and it doesn’t happen again. 

Here’s one way to get the conversation started.  “You know, Joe, yesterday when you _______ (made a comment about my breasts, gave met a shoulder massage, etc.), I felt ______________ (uncomfortable, offended, etc.).  I would like you to   ___________ (avoid touching me, keep your thoughts to yourself, limit our conversations to work, etc.).” That’s all you have to say. And if the person responds with the “I was just joking" defense? Look them right in the eye, smile and say, “That’s why I wanted to talk to you about it. I knew you wouldn’t want to act like that if you knew how I felt about it.”

If you can’t bring yourself to talk to the person one-on-one and/or if you want to make sure the message is clear, write the person an email. The electronic notification will serve two purposes—to inform the offending party of his or her actions, and document the incident. Make sure the email thoroughly explains any unwelcome verbal or physical conduct, as well as the dates and times of any incidents. Close the email by asking that your work colleague discontinue similar actions.

Avoid giving “mixed signals.”  Most recipients of unwelcome sexual conduct are very clear about how they feel about it. However, they’re not always clear in how they respond. For a number of reasons—it’s the boss, not wanting to seem like a prude or as being “hypersensitive,” being caught off guard and not knowing what to say—some sexual harassment victims initially pretend to play along. Then, when the behavior escalates to the point where the victim can’t take it anymore, the offender argues she “gave as good as she got.”      

Under no circumstances should you pretend to like unwanted advances. No matter how tempted, don’t fire back your own off-color comments or “jokingly” put the harasser down. If you’re not sure how to respond, don’t say anything. I’ve seen women respond in a friendly manner to an email come-on, ignoring the sexual invitation but attempting, via a nice response, to communicate that there were no hard feelings; these friendly, or even neutral, responses to offensive behavior were then used against them. Too often, pleasant emails and texts meant as a brush-off, are unfairly used to argue the conduct was welcome.

So, what if, out of embarrassment or fear, you’ve already made that mistake? It’s never too late to tell someone to stop what they’re doing. Via email or in person, tell the person you haven’t known how to effectively respond to their behavior in the past (being very clear about what that behavior is) but going forward, you don’t want it to continue. Then, document, document, document.     

Another way employees can unintentionally muddy the waters goes something like this: Henry the Harasser begins making sexual comments to Ellie the Employee over a period of months. Ellie is increasingly uncomfortable but keeps her mouth shut because she is terrified of losing her job. Emboldened, Harry the Harasser ups the ante, gradually moving from sexual comments to outright requests for sex and then groping. Ellie has a harder and harder time focusing on her job because she spends so much time worrying about what Harry the Harasser will do next and plotting ways she can avoid him. Her motivation, and her work performance, start to slip. One day, Harry crosses the line so badly that Ellie can’t keep silent and she unloads on Harry who, with no witnesses to any of his behavior, fires Ellie  When Ellie finally contacts an attorney, Harry the Harasser says Ellie was fired because of her poor work performance (trust me; they can always find something), that her complaints are just sour grapes because she was let go, and, if she was really being harassed, why didn’t she complain sooner? Jurors will wonder the same thing. This is why it’s important to speak up sooner rather than later.

Back yourself up. Few sexual harassers act in front of witnesses, which is why it is important to write down incidences of offensive behavior as soon as possible.  Include as much detail as possible; the facts, dates, times, and any witnesses to the event. Leave out the emotion or judgment. Keep this document in a safe place outside of the office. Preserve any written evidence that supports you; phone records, emails, photos, etc. You’d be surprised how many people still feel safe putting things in writing. 

Do your own homework. Know what your organization’s complaint procedures are and, if the behavior continues or you are fear (or experience) retaliation, follow them. After talking to the appropriate person as outlined in your policy, put up in writing, “this will confirm our conversation on June 1, 2017 in which I reported sexual harassment by VP of Operations John Doe. Specifically, I reported the following instances of offensive conduct to you: [list them]. Please take prompt action to investigate this matter and address this situation.” Even if you have no interest in filing a lawsuit, it’s often a good idea to talk to an employment attorney. He or she can help you understand how the law works, how to best protect yourself, and help coach you on how to find an internal resolution, if possible.

Get support. Talk to friends or family outside of work about what is going on; not only can they provide much-needed emotional comfort, they can also serve as contemporaneous witnesses to what is going on (from your perspective) and how it’s impacting you. As an independent investigator trying to get to the truth behind a complaint, I’ve interviewed, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, and priests. If you have a sympathetic coworker or suspect that someone else is also on the receiving end of offensive conduct, talk to him/her; other employees experiencing the same conduct or witnessing inappropriate behavior changes the “he said, she said” dynamic. Have those conversations off the work premises and not on company time. Confide only in people you know for certain you can trust.    

The bottom line

Nobody enjoys complaining about an offensive boss, a lecherous customer, or even an obnoxious co-worker; in fact, 70 percent of us don’t.  Whether to speak up about offensive behavior is a personal decision that should not be made impulsively or lightly; just as there are consequences for remaining silent, there can be consequences for anyone who doesn’t take the time or spend the energy to investigate their rights, plan their response, and document what happens. However, by following those steps, you can not only maximize the odds that you can get the situation successfully resolved, you can make the corporate world better for the workforce of tomorrow.