Ask The HR Lady: How To Handle Sexual Harassment At Work
Marcelo Gomes. Charles Dutoit. Mario Batali. Ryan Lizza. Alex Kozinski. Matt Lauer. Charlie Rose. Tavis Smiley. John Conyers Jr. Al Franken. David Sweeney. Russell Simmons. Roy Moore. Louis C.K. Hamilton Fish. Kevin Spacey. Mark Halperin. Rick Najera. Terry Richardson. John Bush. Lockhart Steele. Roy Price. Donovan McNabb. James Levine. Jeffrey Tambor. Brett Ratner. Harvey Weinstein. Bill Cosby. United States President, Donald Trump.
This list is not exhaustive; it is growing every day. The range of the allegations are wide, but the underlying problem is the same---there are those who use power to abuse those who have less relative power than they do. Sex crimes and misbehavior are almost always about power. While this list is all male and almost exclusively white, sexual harassment is not exclusive to white men. Yet, because white men have historically maintained the overwhelming balance of power in their favor it is unsurprising that they are also the overwhelming perpetrators named in these allegations. Still, this isn't new nor is it exclusive to one race or gender.
As a leader, a manager or entrepreneur, it is imperative that you allow your worldview to expand beyond your experiences and in some cases personal belief systems. You should not compromise your morals or values, but you must accept that what you view as the totality of the world may not be the experience of others. Such is the case with the current moment we find ourselves. This list does tell another story, which is equally important, and ultimately more relevant to you: Thus far, if you are not a fair-haired, light-eyed, maiden of means and celebrity your cause most likely will be overlooked. The #MeToo moment that sparked this current deluge of comeuppance for these men was started by a black woman, Tarana Burke, approximately a decade ago. Yet, it took a famous white woman in Hollywood to give it traction. There have been multiple cases of rampant sexual harassment violations against some famous Fortune 500 companies, such as Ford Motor Company, and yet those instances were swept under the rug because the victims tended to be minority, poor, and unskilled laborers. We can only imagine that as the world keeps changing and workplaces become more diversified if those with different sexual orientations and identifications then what we currently deem as the norm will be afforded parity or if they too will be ignored like so many others?
It is incumbent on leadership at all levels to remain impartial and make room for the aggrieved to make their complaints in a safe space while allowing for the accused to vigorously defend themselves. As a leader, your job is to maintain the safety of all of your employees. Regardless of whether you believe they are at fault, "asked for it", or not appealing enough to be harassed. As the workplace becomes more diverse, you must be prepared for shifts in power dynamics and the potential abuse of those dynamics but seemingly unlikely sources. But, most importantly, you must remain vigilant and diligent about handling bad actors and restoring a culture of fairness, equality, and camaraderie amongst all of your staff.
With that in mind, I recently received an anonymous question about sexual harassment. The inquiry was from a young woman who is experiencing harassment in her workplace. She is unsure of how to handle the situation because she is concerned about the potential fallout. Yet, she does not want to continue to be harassed just to excel. Find her question and the appropriate response to the situation below. Use the response as you reflect on how you would handle such situations. If you have faced such a situation like this before, please share how you handled it.
Sexual harassment has become a big issue recently. It’s all over the news. People are talking about Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, President Trump, and all these other celebrities that we’re finding out have sexually harassed women. And I think it’s great that people are finally talking about it, but those women are famous. I still don’t feel like it’s safe for me to come forward about sexual harassment at my office.
I mean I remember Anita Hill. That became a big scandal and Clarence Thomas was still confirmed. I think that’s more likely what will happen. My concern is that I am being sexually harassed by someone in my office, but I’m scared to say anything. I don’t think of myself as a punk and I tell people to stand up for themselves and “Lean In.” That’s how I’ve gotten this far ahead—I don’t hide in the shadows, I speak up. I’m one of the guys. But, about this, I don’t know. I’m worried that if I do it will affect my advancement and how people perceive me at the office. But, I’d really like for it to stop.
The other problem is that I know that there are women here who have sexual relationships with men in the office and it works in their favor (until it doesn’t, but that’s another saga).
I guess my question is what are my options and how do I appropriately handle this situation without losing my credibility or political cache in the office? Help!
Standing Tall Because I’m Shutting Up
Dear Standing Tall,
No doubt about it--the stories that are playing out in the public sphere have an impact on victims/survivors of sexual assault and harassment. The range of reactions you see on the news or social media can include support, indifference, denial, or outright hostility--it definitely makes the idea of coming forward more terrifying than it already is. I’m not going to pretend that there are any easy answers here, but I do think there are ways to move forward with a little more confidence than you’re feeling right now.
1. The first thing you can do is to let the harasser know that their conduct is unwelcome.
This is difficult, and I imagine even more so considering the consensual (but highly ill-advised, in my opinion) relationships that are a part of your workplace culture. However, this behavior being unwelcome is a key part of what defines sexual harassment and will be helpful later if the situation needs to be escalated.
2. Document. Document. Document.
There’s no getting around this- you should write down any incidents that you feel were inappropriate, including the Who, What, When, and Where. In most cases, the burden will rest on you to prove the harassment. If there’s a pattern of continued unwelcome behavior, documentation will help show that.
3. Take a moment to review your company’s sexual harassment policy.
It should outline what the process looks like. When you’re ready, you can have a conversation with your HR representative. They have a responsibility to uphold the law and to help make the workplace safe for everyone.
Keep in mind that it’s unlawful for your supervisor or employer to retaliate against you for bringing a complaint. You can pursue a complaint of retaliation regardless of the outcome of the harassment case.
Finally, your point about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas is well taken--yes, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court, despite the complaints that were brought against him. At the same time, her coming forward had (and continues to have) an undeniable impact on our national understanding of Sexual Harassment. More importantly, it did not stop her from being respected and successful as an attorney, author, professor, and advocate. Whatever you decide, know that no one is going to stop you from being all you can in the long run.
Hopefully, this shed some light for you on how to address claims of sexual impropriety if they occur in your workplace.
FYI, in case you didn't know...
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*Note: Some details in the account may have been changed or omitted to maintain the confidentiality of all parties involved.