Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re probably aware of the many cases of sexual harassment and assault that have dominated the news recently. From the #MeToo movement to Matt Lauer being fired, these stories have led to many people revealing their own horrifying experiences in the workplace.
It feels as if each one is worse than the last, but as we all know, these incidents aren’t just happening to the rich and famous. They’re happening in every single workplace. But one detail has seemingly been left out: What should you do if it happens to you?
First, let’s discuss what constitutes sexual harassment. Any unwanted sexual advance or obscene remark is considered sexual harassment. The key word here is “unwanted,” but in the workplace, that can be murky. If you aren’t sure, you should probably keep the act or remark to yourself. As a matter of fact, it’s probably always best to keep your hands to yourself at work. This means you, Mr. and Ms. Where’s My Hug? If you see people abruptly turning when you approach, they probably don’t want to hear what you have to say, and they certainly don’t want to smell your Jean Naté or Cool Water.
Does that mean you can’t tell a woman she looks nice? No, it means that when you do it, you shouldn’t refer to her body or what you want to do to her body or put your hands on her. Does this mean you can’t compliment a man’s outfit? No, but you probably shouldn’t mention how well he’s hanging his suit or anything about shoe size while wiggling your eyebrows. It really isn’t that difficult.
I would suggest that you use your discernment, but then again, some of you think warming up tilapia in the community microwave is a good idea. So let’s make it a little simpler and follow the cues. If you say something and you aren’t sure how it went over, pay attention to the reaction. A person’s reaction will usually indicate whether you’ve been offensive. If you feel you may have offended someone, apologize immediately. Admitting fault, especially when you weren’t intending to be offensive, can go a long way. This doesn’t mean you can do or say anything and offer an apology. It’s not a “Get out of jail free” card.
Now let’s say that someone did cross the line and you feel you have been harassed. Document it. Write down the incident, date and time. Don’t trust your memory, because you’ll likely omit details. Report the incident to your manager and to human resources. Ask to meet with both of them to discuss the issue. This could (and should) trigger an investigation. At that point, human resources will run the investigation and will need to talk to the person as well as any witnesses. Depending on the severity of the issue, inside counsel may be consulted.
Yes, an investigation sounds scary, and maybe you’re thinking the company is just trying to protect itself. The reality is, you don’t want anyone just walking into an office and accusing you of something without checking, and your harasser deserves the same. When the investigation is completed, HR will circle back and let you know what they’ve done and, if appropriate, will discuss any disciplinary action that has been taken.
If you aren’t comfortable speaking with your manager or human resources, find a leader in your organization whom you trust and confide in that person. If you still aren’t comfortable, find out whether your company has a confidential 800 number or email to report incidents. If none of those avenues seems palatable, send an anonymous email to your HR department.
If you don’t want to do any of these things, why on earth do you work there? No, seriously, why do you work in a place where you would let harassment go rather than tell someone about it? You need an exit strategy.
What about false accusations?
If no one did anything wrong, that will come out in the investigation conducted by human resources. In fact, that is the entire point of the investigation. If the person made a false accusation, he or she will be subject to the disciplinary process of the organization. But let’s be honest here: Yes, there are people who make false accusations, but that number is very small. If that’s your takeaway from what is happening in the world today, then you probably need to take a step back and do some evaluating.
We are experiencing a change in the workplace. Now is a time when accusers are being believed and harassers are being punished. The most important thing to do if you experience or witness sexual harassment or abuse in your workplace is to report it. It does not matter who the person is or what role he or she occupies; no one has a right to harass or abuse you or anyone else. We must hold our co-workers accountable, no matter their title.
Back in the day, there used to be a public service announcement for kids when they felt they were being touched in the wrong way by adults. The PSAs warned children to run and tell someone they trust. Nowadays, many adults need to heed that advice, too.