Corinne works in the same office as Randy. They're assigned to different departments but have the same status in the company. When they first met, Randy frequently said how great Corinne looked, and that was flattering. She even thanked him. From then on, Randy has continued to comment on Corinne's face, her nice clothes and how her body moves.
The more Randy talks, the more uneasy Corinne becomes. After trying to avoid him, Corinne finally realized she had to say something. She asked Randy to curb his comments. Everything seemed okay and she thought her problem was solved. But a few days later, during lunch in the employee break room, Randy announced to a room full of their associates that they should be careful what they say to Corinne.
Corinne was humiliated. She regretted confronting Randy. Corinne even believed she was wrong to have done it. Even though the thought made her uncomfortable, she wondered if it would have been best to have just continued to thank Randy for his compliments.
As a private investigative agency, we've helped a variety of clients-computer operators, waitresses, secretaries, bartenders, doctors, salespeople, even lawyers-determine if they've been victimized by on-the-job harassment.
In simple terms, harassment is any type of verbal or physical contact that is first unwanted and then continues, despite your protests. Although we usually think of it as sexual, harassment can involve any type of derogatory or offensive comments or actions that are either directed at you or are made in your presence and inhibit your work environment or affect your productivity. Basically, harassment consists of language or action that has crossed the boundary from tolerable to offensive.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Federal agency that looks into workplace sexual harassment complaints, has outlined two categories:
With most of our cases, we've found that the harassment is usually not about sex but rather about dominating a person. The aggressor gains control by placing the individual in a humiliating situation. The victim turns the humiliation inward, feeling a loss of control, which relinquishes even more power to the harasser.
What could sexual harassment entail? A comprehensive definition is difficult, especially since professor Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. That event brought new scenarios into the spotlight, expanded the definition and continues to result in new legislation and court rulings.
We do know this: sexual harassment can include, but is not necessarily limited to:
Sometimes our clients don't believe they're the victims of sexual harassment, especially if the harasser is not their boss. However, co-workers and even those under your supervision can be harassers, creating a hostile work environment. Actually, these are the majority of cases filed with the EEOC.
And women aren't the only targets. Although all of our sexual harassment cases have been for female clients, the EEOC reports that fifteen percent of its cases are filed by men.
First, recognize that this is not your fault. It's the harasser's problem. Laws are clear that everyone has the right to be free of such treatment while working.
Next, decide if you're being harassed. Trust your intuition. Most women who are experiencing an "uncomfortable feeling" are receiving sexual or other unwanted attention. Someone who tosses off an occasional off-color joke can't be fingered as a harasser, according to court precedent, but one who is consistently lurid can be sued.
Your reaction to his behavior is an important factor when considering the legitimacy of a claim. Did you welcome the teasing comments or rebuff them? Even if you enjoyed the advances initially, but told him firmly to stop and he refused to, you still may have a case of sexual harassment.
If you decide that you are being victimized, proceed cautiously. The courts have allowed some men-and women-to sue for defamation once sexual harassment charges against them were dropped.
If you are certain, there are strong steps you can take:
The ability to project confidence and show that you can take care of yourself will indicate to everyone that you respect yourself. This is your best defense against harassment. If he doesn't understand "No" and a second incident occurs, it's time to put your "No" in writing.
Barbara found a subtle-yet effective-way to handle an offensive remark: She looks the man in the eye and asks, "Would you want someone to say that to your sister?" This allows the non-hostile, non-sexist guy who blundered with a rough remark to recover his dignity. This is good business etiquette that men and women can share.
“With most of our cases, we've found that harassment is usually not about sex, but rather about dominating a person.”
But if a persistent and forceful "No" doesn't work, let him know you're prepared to take formal action. Don't be intimidated and don't let annoying or harassing behavior continue.
Write down each incident in great detail, no matter how slight. This log will support your position, whether your case goes through management channels or progresses into the legal system.
Make note of any witness or evidential accounts that can support your claim.
Seek counsel from co-workers, family and friends. A sexual harassment support group in your community may also provide you with a network for advice and information.
Frequently, our female clients feel as if they're the only woman in the office who's experiencing harassment. Usually, however, the harasser is a repeat offender. Find witnesses or evidence of similar incidents. Maybe the harasser has a history of such behavior in his personnel file.
Document your work schedule and compile official records documenting your work performance. If you must make a claim, a log of your work schedule verifies where you were and may provide more witnesses.
Keep copies of performance evaluations or any other job documentation you receive. During a harassment claim, you may need to defend your work or refute a harasser's false claims.
Try to handle any complaints through your company first. Most companies have written policies about what is welcome and unwelcome behavior, as well as each employee's right to work in a hassle-free environment. Many also have proper investigation and discipline measures in place to handle situations. Report any incident to the Human Resources manager, your manager, your manager's manager, or another manager whom you trust.
What if there's no one you can trust in your office and/or your company isn't doing enough to resolve the situation? Then consider turning to an outside agency, such as your city, county or state Equal Employment Opportunity office.
This agency can provide additional information, counseling and, often, a solution. By filing a complaint, you may be rewarded not only with a swift resolution but also ensure that the proper policies and procedures are in place to prevent future claims in your office.
Seek an attorney who is aggressive, specializes in employment discrimination and has experience representing plaintiffs. One of the most frustrating aspects of harassment may be finding a lawyer who is comfortable with the subject matter. Your attorney should be vigilant in supporting your claim and sensitive to the legal process that you are about to enter.
You can't control another person's actions, but you can control the messages you may be sending. This is not to say that women ask for it; harassment is never acceptable. But to ensure that you've done all you can, look at these suggestions we've gathered from many of our female clients:
Final thought: At a recent seminar, a female president of a major corporation spoke at great length about being responsible for the image you project. The way you carry yourself is a bold sign proclaiming how you respect yourself and, consequently, how others show their respect for you.
“Class is how you treat people who can do nothing for you.” Geof Greenleaf