Sexual Harassment at Work

What a difficult topic to consider! Everyone has an opinion on sexual harassment. These vary from, “It’s about time it was addressed!” to “What’s the big deal?” As with most extreme positions, the reality is probably some where in the middle for most of us. But the fact that makes this such a difficult topic is that there are people at those far ends of the spectrum as well as on the more common middle ground.

What spectrum? Does this mean we can’t define “sexual harassment” because everyone thinks of it at some different place on the spectrum? Not exactly. Sort of. Sexual harassment exists in the eye of the beholder. This is actually easier to understand than it initially sounds. If I am a 50 year-old woman who has always lived in a small town in the South, who attends church regularly, and who has been married for 30 years to my high-school sweet-heart, there will be a range of behaviors, language, jokes, web sites, and other forms of human interaction which genuinely offend me. And there will be others that do not. If I am a 30-year old woman who went to college in New York City or California or Chicago, who is single, who is a runner, and who has a long-term live in partner, I will almost certainly react differently to the SAME exposures as my 50-year-old co-worker. So who is right? Which standards prevail? Help! (By the way, how does the dynamic change if the “partner” is another woman?)

The generally accepted definition of what constitutes sexual harassment is exposure which would make the average person in the community feel uncomfortable or feel offended. If our 50-year old lady is NOT average, does that mean she has to put up with off-color jokes that the rest of the office enjoys? It does not. The “community” is much bigger than your department. Regardless of whether “everyone” seems to be appreciative of the jokes, there may well be a person who is uncomfortable, but is also uncomfortable saying so. So the standard is basically, when in doubt, don’t say it, and don’t do it!

What about the classic situation men bring up about a woman with an impressive command of very colorful language? Doesn’t matter. She may well be offending someone, even if not you. Don’t participate in the inappropriate language or behavior with her, even if you see it as harmless. It isn’t harmless to someone around you—I can almost guarantee it.

What if you are in an office or work environment with only your own gender? Be careful here! I know an older man who is profoundly offended by any off-color language and genuinely embarrassed and uncomfortable around such conversation. The same is true with women. Simply being in a single-gender environment does not excuse inconsiderate behavior.

There are many, many people who express privately (and some express publicly!) that they think this whole “harassment” issue is over-blown. Consider for a moment who you work around, and who is in and out of your office as customers or suppliers. If the statistics are to believed, one in 10 of those people may be gay or lesbian. Several may have gay or lesbian family members. Some may have been victims of violent crimes. Some may have children who have been victimized. Now think about how painfully uncomfortable these people will be listening to the “harmless” jokes told about gays, about sexual behavior in general. And they may be simply unable to handle the “harmless” touching or leering that goes on in some work places.

Let’s assume that there are people in your workplace who have issues of the kind mentioned above. How do you imagine their work performance could be impacted by having to put up with behaviors, jokes, actions, and attitudes which make them so profoundly uncomfortable? Obviously, they cannot contribute fully when they are embarrassed, scared, feeling intimidated, or threatened. If your workplace is anything like the norm, you have downsized at least once during your tenure there. This very common business trend makes it even more critical that EVERY person in the workplace can contribute at the top of his or her potential, every day.

No wonder business has taken such a serious interest in sexual harassment and in diversity issues in general. There is simply not time to put up with behaviors which adversely impact business performance. And don’t kid yourself. These kinds of behaviors do impact business performance. They are disrespectful. They are time-consuming. They are illegal. They are wrong.

So take a look at yourself and your workplace. If you are uncomfortable with what’s going on around you, what should you do? As difficult as it sounds at first, stand up for yourself. If the language around you makes you cringe, your co-workers need to know it. Respectfully and directly ask at least one other person to help you tone it down because you find that it makes you uncomfortable. If that doesn’t work, please go to your management or to Human Resources with the issue. Virtually every work place will take this very seriously. Frankly, no business wants the distraction and dysfunction that comes with this behavior. They don’t want the law-suits, either. Many, many times, those who are perpetuating this behavior really are not aware of the impact it has on others. This really is true! You may be quite surprised at the respectful cooperation you may well receive after expressing your discomfort.

But what if this does not work? I have two grown daughters, both of whom have dealt with inappropriate behavior at work, as I have. I have to say that they are both far more comfortable with confronting it than I am! I guess the point I’m trying to make is that you actually contribute to the problem if you say nothing. The more people who speak up, the less stigmatizing speaking up will become. Once you realize this, it does make that initial sweaty-palm confrontation a lot easier. Don’t put it off. You deserve to work in a place in which you are comfortable — and so do the people you work with.

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