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What To Do If You're Sexually Harassed

(al nik/Unsplash)
(al nik/Unsplash)
This article is more than 2 years old.

It seems like nearly every woman has been sexually harassed at some point in her life, from the prevalence of  #MeToo across Facebook and Twitter this week. The response followed an onslaught of news stories about the long history of sexual harassment and assault complaints against the film producer Harvey Weinstein.

In reporting on and studying workplace issues over the years, I have been struck by how frequently victims feel startled by sexual harassers and are left sputtering, trying to think of an appropriate response. But women and men can swiftly end some interactions — and know how to proceed in others — if they know what motivates abusers and consider, ahead of time, how they could react.

Most organizations are required to have an anti-harassment policy — but most states don’t require employers to educate their workforce about it. As a result, young employees entering the workplace are sometimes exposed to a threatening new world without adequate preparation.

While headlines focus on famous men who lead prominent organizations, the majority of sexual harassment happens in ordinary office buildings by nobodies who are insecure about their status in life, feel a need to rattle or dominate others to make themselves feel better, or see their colleague as a potential sexual gratifier. They aren’t in love with their victims. In fact, they may want to hurt them through embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation.

Most harassers are men, although women also have been reported. The targets are usually women. However, men filed 16.6 percent of the sexual harassment charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016. Homosexual men are the second-most highly targeted group, after women.

Young employees entering the workplace are sometimes exposed to a threatening new world without adequate preparation.

The key to understanding sexual harassment rules in the workplace is that the target must indicate that the activity is “unwelcome” and report it to managers so the company can investigate. Most incidents are handled by the people who experience them and the companies in which they occur. Few go to court. The purpose of anti-harassment policies is to grapple with the occasional potholes of working life and get the workers back on the road again. In a perfect world, the goal is not to ruin people’s careers.

A hostile environment is the easiest kind of sexual harassment to spot. It can happen when a colleague makes a worker uncomfortable by posting a pornographic photograph on his wall, his screensaver or on a company vehicle. Or he may tell sexual jokes or call his colleagues derogatory names.

A new employee may try to ignore the behavior, waiting to see if it will go away. Some experts advise the recipient to clearly ask the person to stop. Giggling or playing along, even out of nervousness, could send mixed signals or even encourage the perpetrator. If the inappropriate behavior continues, it should be reported to a supervisor or head of human resources. A responsible employer will listen to the description of the events and then speak to the instigator. It’s wise to keep a written record in case the harassment continues and, if possible, get witnesses to record the event. It’s even more helpful if witnesses call out the perpetrator at the time or afterward.

[Harassers] aren’t in love with their victims. In fact, they may want to hurt them through embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation.

Sexting at work has become a big problem. The recipient should keep the offensive text, photo or video as evidence, notify a supervisor or head of human resources and ask them how to proceed properly. Be aware that organizations can monitor their employees’ company email. So, if the adult recipient has been flirting with or sexting the perpetrator, investigators may find out about it and conclude that the interaction was consensual.

If a colleague asks a coworker to take a shower or engage in some other private or sexual act with him, it’s helpful to respond with a sobering comment that clearly indicates she is not interested. It could be anything from “not in my lifetime,” to “no, thanks. I’m not into sexual harassment.”  The point is not to insult the perpetrator, but to matter-of-factly turn him down. The same goes for unwanted touching such as shoulder massaging, hair ruffling or hugging; calmly ask the person to stop.

Responding to a boss who asks you out or makes a pass, involves more individual reactions. Young people are often unable to summon the courage to outright reject an older person of stature. Instead, they may say they have a rule that they don’t date people with whom they work, or that they can’t be involved with someone who is married, or that they have a boyfriend. Such statements give a supervisor the opportunity to back off and apologize, enabling both boss and employee to save face. "No," "Stop," and "Get off of me," are essential words if he disregards your wishes.

The most serious sexual harassment cases are quid pro quo, where a supervisor promises the victim advantages in exchange for sex or disadvantages for not cooperating. In essence, it amounts to sexual blackmail. Again, it’s best to decline the offer, keep a record and report it. Tell a trusted friend who could later serve as a witness.

The quality of human resource departments varies across firms. Some will respond quickly to a complaint, others will drag their heels or even suggest that the victim is the problem. If an organization fails to remedy just one incident of quid pro quo harassment or several incidents of hostile environment harassment, victims are encouraged to file a charge with the EEOC within 180 days. Harassment cases are seldom identical and nearly always deeply upsetting to the victim, so it may be helpful to consult a lawyer.

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Susan E. Reed Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Susan E. Reed is a columnist who has won several awards for her international reporting and her book, "The Diversity Index."

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