Sexual harassment exists everywhere people come into contact, including at work. Workplace sexual harassment creates a disruptive and harmful environment that hurts the target of the act in the first place, but also damages work ethics, morale, productivity and communication, thereby impacting a company far beyond the immediate circle of the harasser and the harassed.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, defines sexual harassment at work as behavior that includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Broadly, there are two types of sexual harassment situations:
- Hostile Work Environment: this pertains to a situation where a person experiences a workplace environment that is offensive and creates an inappropriate atmosphere that is not conducive to the proper conduct of work activities.
- “Quid Pro Quo” Sexual Harassment: This pertains to a situation where a work colleague or a supervisor requests/demands sexual favors in exchange for work-related benefits (e.g., raise, promotion).
What determines the level of unlawfulness of a sexual harassment situation is its frequency and severity. Many times, sexual harassment starts as what may appear to be harmless “racy” banter, but evolves over time to create a hostile and offensive work environment that impacts the victim and the company in a number of ways.
Signs of sexual harassment in the workplace are not always clear. Many times we do not understand what exactly has taken place, or the most appropriate way to respond if we think we are being sexually harassed or we witness or have knowledge of such behavior.
A colleague/superior may be sexually harassing you at work when they:
- Stand next to you in a way that makes you feel they are invading your personal space in a deliberate and aggressive way.
- Try to set up work-like situations where you meet alone outside work or after working hours.
- Share with you unsolicited intimate and sexual details about his/her life.
- Solicit intimate details about your life or your romantic and sexual experiences.
- Brag about sexual exploits and experiences.
- Send you or show you unsolicited photographic or video material of a sexual nature.
- Persist in a behavior described above despite being told that it is unwanted and you are uncomfortable with it.
Workplace sexual harassment is particularly difficult to deal with because in many cases, the harassed individual feels uncomfortable about complaining, and may even be afraid to raise the issue, for fear of immediate or long-term repercussions. They may feel a sense of shame and even guilt for what takes place.
Dealing With Sexual Harassment At Work
There are several escalating measures that can be taken to deal with sexual harassment at work:
- Confront the harasser – This is easier said than done, and can usually be effective only in response to a behavior that has just taken place and has not repeated itself several times.
- Document and identify potential witnesses and victims– With today’s technologies (e.g., smartphones) and where it is legal to do so, it is relatively easy to get audio and sometimes even video evidence of sexual harassment instances. It also helps if you can keep a record of similar instances of harassment by the same person against other people.
- Report to your supervisor and/or senior managers – If the harasser fails to immediately stop his/her offensive behavior, prepare a detailed report and present it to your supervisor and/or other senior managers. The report should include evidence and examples of the behavior, and any other supporting information.
- Inform your HR manager – Regardless of your supervisor’s reaction, it is recommended to bring the HR manager into the loop as well. That will help the supervisor and mitigate against possible stonewalling.
- Contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – If you feel that your complaint does not receive proper handling, then file a formal complaint with the EEOC.
- Filling a civil lawsuit – If you feel that none of the steps listed above resulted in an appropriate response to your complaint, you can file a civil lawsuit, asking for damages, particularly if you feel that your work prospects were impacted by the situation (e.g., you were fired, demoted).
Employers can save themselves, their organizations and their employees much personal and financial grief if they become proactive about mitigating against sexual harassment in the workplace. Such activities can include:
- Preparing and publicizing a clear and concise anti sexual harassment policy.
- Exposing management, supervisors and employees to periodic workshops and refreshers to prevent policies from going “stale” and forgotten/ignored.
- Act immediately and in accordance to the company’s policy on employee complaints.
- Encourage a climate of transparency and free discussion on sexual harassment issues.
- Make sure employees are aware of complaints and the manner in which they are resolved.
- Survey employees periodically (using a third party surveyor) to learn about employee opinions and attitudes to sexual harassment at work.
Sexual harassment at work is not going to disappear, but serious, professional and consistent handling of its causes and aftermaths can surely help reduce its frequency, and its damage to employees and workplaces alike.
Contact TAL Global at 408-993-1300 to learn how we can help.
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