Sexual Harassment: What to Know And What To Do About It

This is NEVER OK.

This is NEVER OK.

Guest blogger Carlynne McDonnell is here to answer all your questions about sexual harassment at work—and how to deal with it.

Sexual harassment effects women’s ability to perform and excel. It places women at a disadvantage and can leave us feeling under-appreciated, under-valued and disillusioned.  Companies ask women to be exceptional employees. In turn, women need to be treated as exceptional corporate resources.

It is difficult to work in a situation where you are achieving your work goals but have to navigate inappropriate behavior and comments.  Feeling under attack can affect your work performance, corporate commitment, which can then translate into lower raises, lack of promotion and project opportunities.

Through no fault of your own, harassment definitely place you at a risk and you need to do something.  Not taking any action will only guarantee that the behavior will continue with you or someone else.

What is Sexual Harassment? Sexual harassment is inappropriate, unwanted, unwelcome and uninvited behavior (language or action) that is sexual in content. This includes comments about parts of your body, your attractiveness, your attire, requests for sex, (by anyone), or any sexual behavior that makes you feel uncomfortable in your work environment. Touching may cross the boundary to sexual assault.  Sexual harassment creates an intimidating and often hostile work environment.

There is a very clear line between poor joking and sexual harassment. It is not flirtation or someone “just kidding.” It is not you misreading the behavior or comments (especially if you ask the person to stop).  It is a violation of your boundaries, corporate policy and federal law. (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 backs you up on this.)

What Should You Know? By following a few simple guidelines at work, you can do much to prevent much inappropriate behavior, before it starts. But there are never any guarantees that another person will understand, acknowledge or cease unacceptable behavior.

1) Women always have to prove themselves twice over. Always keep in mind that you are paving the way for other women.

2) Behavior matters; yours and others. Don’t bully, intimidate, or play games with people at work—it reflects poorly on you and other women.

3) Know exactly what message you are sending. Is there ever a need to be overly friendly at work? Professional and pleasant, considerate and courteous are great interpersonal skills for work. Many times men misread overly friendly behavior for romantic behavior. And the key word here is misread! It doesn’t mean you’re “asking for it.” That’s just the excuse they’ll use.

4) Lead by example. Be the role model, mentor, and trailblazer.

Sometimes our best behavior is not enough, and you will have to take action. Action can be as simple as telling the other person that you do not like how you are being spoken to or treated. That should be enough, but sometimes it isn’t.  Then stronger steps are needed.

What Should You Do?

1) If you are being harassed or are experiencing any inappropriate behavior, read your company’s employee manual for instruction on how to proceed.

2) Keep a work diary.  It really helps to remember details about assignments, projects, resources and deadlines.  It is invaluable to keep track of conversations, especially those that are problematic.  (Also, keep hard copies of your performance reviews. Respond to any negative comments or ratings in performance reviews in writing and keep a copy of your response).

3) Keep meticulous detail of times, dates and names.  Be as exact as possible in the recounting of the conversations or behavior and what you have said. Who, what, when, where and why are great questions to answer in detail.

4) Try asking your harasser to stop—once. Once is enough unless it is extremely overt.  (Extremely overt behavior requires immediate action). This will tell you whether you are misreading the situation and also gives the person a chance to stop. It doesn’t seem fair, but I am guessing that if you take the issue further up the corporate chain, you will be asked if you asked your harasser to stop.

5) Follow corporate procedures and seek help from your supervisor, their supervisor and the corporate Human Resources Department. If it is really bad or there is no recourse or help from HR, elevate your complaint to the President’s office and consult a lawyer.  Make sure you have built a case with documentation, including dates, times, and places. “He said, she said” always seems to end up working against women.

It is always beyond unfortunate that people have to face harassment in the workplace (or any place).  Encourage your company to hold sexual harassment trainings and awareness, and role playing conversations so that people can understand the difference in joking and harassment.  And always make sure that you are holding yourself to the highest possible standards of conduct and have clearly defined boundaries. Then, no one will ever be able to misread your behavior.

Carlynne McDonnell is the author of “The Every Woman’s Guide To Equality”, lecturer and columnist for Huffington Post and McDonnell has a Master’s in Public Policy and has been working in the corporate, education and non-profit worlds for over 30 years. She has presented workshops and keynotes on women’s equality, leadership development, organizational strategy on the national and local level with women’s organizations, college and universities and for the United States Marine Corps.


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