Ask any number of people if they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace and, although it may sound disturbingly high, it’s actually about 25%. However, if you describe behavior that constitutes harassment and ask the same people if their experiences were unwelcomed or offensive, the number goes up to as much as 85%. That’s a more accurate percentage of its prevalence in today’s workplace.
How can you navigate these muddy waters in your workplace? What steps should you take if you are a victim, become aware of, or witness any act of sexual harassment in your office? Here are four insights and recommendations from Tucker Miller, ELI’s VP of Client Development Consulting.
1. Categories of sexual harassment
From a legal perspective, there are two categories of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and a hostile work environment.
Quid pro quo, or tangible employment action, is an instance where a person in a position of authority or power engages in the practice of either positively or negatively affecting the employee’s advancement as a result of satisfying a sexual demand. Even the mere hint qualifies as sexual harassment.
The second form addresses a broad range of harassing behaviors, which creates a hostile work environment. It can apply to other behaviors that would target people for reasons other than for sexual demands but also includes sexual harassment. This instance includes any behavior that, regardless of whether it’s initiated by a leader, customer, co-worker, or member of the public, targets an individual who views it as offensive or unwelcomed, and singles them out on the basis of a protected class. In the case of sexual harassment, it’s the basis of gender.
2. The importance of filing a complaint
Once the organization is aware of a complaint, they have a responsibility to take prompt and effective action to stop the behavior. If a person experiences this behavior, it’s critical that they must raise the issue to an appropriate agent of the company. Otherwise, the company may not have an independent obligation to address it. Ideally, your direct manager would be the first avenue, but depending upon the claim, alternate agents include Human Resources, another manager, a company-sponsored hotline, or any other option designed to hear your concern.
3. Consensual office relationships
Plenty of people have met their spouse at work, but relationships in the workplace are becoming more of a risk. Consensual romantic relationships may begin with good intentions, but if the relationship doesn’t last, it could be perceived as a form of sexual harassment at some point.
There are many examples of successful dating and marriage stories within an organization. There are, however, other situations where one of the two people believed they were both in a consensual relationship, only to find out that, after a break-up, the other claimed they were involved under duress.
Although you may miss out on a few potential relationships, the best way to plan for a successful career is to keep your romantic relationships separate from the office. Even if the company’s official policy doesn’t prohibit it, you should be mindful of the risks.
If you find yourself in a position where a serious relationship could develop, one or both of you might consider joining a different company or possibly changing career paths. That’s a difficult decision and one that might be a smart step to take some time during a progressing relationship. In the meantime, however, if you take the dive into workplace couplehood, it’s essential to have a trusted relationship with your leader or someone in Human Resources. Take the opportunity to disclose your relationship so they can help you establish boundaries that protect you against questions of undue influence. To be clear, though, a clandestine relationship where there is a reporting relationship is risky for everyone involved.
4. Overcoming the fear of retaliation
Retaliation is a legitimate fear when exposing someone for wrongdoing. We’ve seen it in the past where people were blamed, fired, ostracized, or some other way penalized for speaking up. Today, however, in the current dialogue of our nation, there’s no better time to come forward.
There are some best practices for raising your concern, however. Be sure to focus on the behavior, not your emotions. Objectively as possible, describe the behavior. Research any company policies that may be in effect that addresses the reported behavior. It will signal that you’ve done your homework and you want to help resolve the problem.
It’s also important that you acknowledge there are very clear restrictions around retaliation. Verbalize your understanding that you cannot be retaliated against for having brought your concern forward. Ask for and set the expectation for HR’s support in not allowing any level of retribution. Come in educated and directive, and you’ll be viewed as someone who is not necessarily a victim, but genuinely wants to be part of the solution.
It’s also not just you as a victim of the behavior that empowers you to speak up as forthrightly about acceptable behavior. If you are aware of a situation, have seen it, heard it, or know about it, conspiring to keep secrets only hurts us all. Being able to step forward, even if you aren’t the recipient of the behavior, and helping correct it is also very powerful.