How to Deal With Sexual Harassment at Work

Following the Harvey Weinstein case, a survey was conducted in the UK into sexual harassment, and the results were shocking. Over half the women questioned had endured sexual harassment at work along with a fifth of the men. Even more shocking, 63% of the women and 79% of the men had not reported it.


What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can take many forms. For example, someone keeps pestering his colleague for a date in spite of her refusals. Threats and blackmail are also common. In the most extreme cases, someone touches or grabs a colleague in an intimate place. Another moves his desk in front of a younger woman, winks at his friends and says “I prefer the view from here.” Or maybe he stands too close in the elevator, or during a meeting. Indeed, colleagues are often oblivious (just as school bullies can hurt their victim without the teachers even noticing).

No matter what form it takes, whether groping, passing crude comments, or simply standing too close, it amounts to the same thing: repulsing or upsetting someone for a sexual thrill. And it isn’t always a man sexually harassing a woman. Women can and do sexually harass men. Again, this may involve groping or blackmailing, or it may take the form of humiliation (asking a shy young man about his sex life in front of other people, for example). Sometimes, men sexually harass other men and women sexually harass other women.

Acknowledging the Problem

The first step is to recognize that something is wrong. That may seem obvious, but victims often ignore what is happening or live in denial. The individual whose boss makes creepy comments may fear the consequences if she complains. Indeed, the sexually harassed are in a similar position to the bullied schoolchild. Others can advise them to report it, but they are the ones who must face the bully the next day (and the day after). In both cases, complaining may turn their tormentor into a bitter enemy. Time and again people think “it just isn’t worth the trouble; eventually he’ll get bored” and put up with his (or her) revolting behavior. After all, even if the harassment stops they can make life hard in other ways.

But why should they get away with it? Sexual harassment isn’t a bit of harmless fun, and it should never be confused with flirting. By allowing it to happen, or even pretending to find it funny, you encourage them. The same is true when people fail to report a sexual assault. It has taken humanity a long time to establish the principle of basic rights, and everyone has a duty to maintain them. Sexual harassment, like bullying or domestic violence, is an attack. One individual is trying to establish power over another, and that is not acceptable.

Of course, sexual harassment isn’t always obvious, certainly not from the outside. Two people could say precisely the same thing and mean it in completely different ways. For example, when one man says “morning sexy,” his female colleague just laughs. They are friends, and this is a joke between them, meant in the most innocent and affectionate way. Six months later a new colleague says exactly the same thing, however, and she feels uncomfortable. And yet she feels she cannot complain because her other colleague once said the same. Unfortunately, many people are aware of this and never go too far. Instead, they make their victim uncomfortable without ever saying or doing anything obviously wrong.

A toxic “macho” culture can also make things difficult. The other men need not join in, but they may laugh, smile, or simply ignore what is happening. This kind of atmosphere can be hard to resist, and your colleagues may even convince you that such behavior is normal. For a young woman to stand up to a male-dominated office demands immense courage, especially when they close ranks.

And it isn’t only men who validate such behavior. Sometimes, women resent other women who complain. They may think “I had to put up with that kind of harassment when I started – what makes you so special?” Others despise her for reinforcing the stereotype of women as weak and emotional. Or maybe her female colleagues hope to gain acceptance by laughing along. Men aren’t the only ones to side with a bully. You may complain to a female colleague who replies, “dear old Tony. He’s always been a bit of a flirt. He wouldn’t leave me alone when I first started! Don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to him.” Someone young and naive then wonders if she is overreacting.

How to Cope

When facing down this kind of behavior, strive for three things: dignity, clarity and assertiveness. Though people despise a bully, they also despise his victim. When you cry, run from the room, or beg someone to leave you alone, you lose sympathy. Seeing someone lose their dignity makes onlookers uncomfortable, even a little repulsed. So remain distant and quietly contemptuous. Like all bullies, they want to break you. Once you break someone’s self-esteem, you have power over them.

But maintaining dignity does not mean acceptance. Make it clear from the start that you hate these crude jokes and comments. If the harassment is physical or explicit, report it immediately. If you do not, and the problem escalates, people will ask why you kept quiet so long. The fact that you did will count against you and even make others doubt you. If the harassment is subtle, do not laugh out of awkward politeness. This person needs to know how you feel right from the start.

Always keep a record. Note down every comment and spiteful act in detail, including the precise time and place. If the person concerned sends you emails, photos or text messages, keep them all. And find out if anyone else in your workplace has experienced harassment from this individual. It is now easy to purchase small cameras or voice recorders as well. Such evidence would be priceless.

Remember, not everyone knows where the boundaries lie. Some men believe they are making harmless jokes, or even that they are being charming. When you explain that in fact they are upsetting or intimidating you, they may be sincerely shocked and sorry. Others know they are doing wrong but push as far as they can. If they meet no resistance, their behavior will only grow worse.

If you are a woman surrounded by men, your dignity may shame one of them into interfering. That does not mean a woman is too weak to handle things on her own, nor that she needs a man to defend her. But no matter how strong you are, if the men close ranks your life may soon become intolerable – and it never hurts to have an ally.

You may not feel very assertive, but assertiveness is a skill, one that can be learnt like any other. First, a distinction must be made between assertiveness and aggression. Essentially, there are three ways you can respond: passively, aggressively, or assertively.

A hypothetical example may help. Imagine a 20-year-old college dropout starts working in an insurance office in London. She works in a small room with three other men. On her first day, as they walk down to a meeting, one of her colleagues makes a remark about the size of her breasts. The passive individual would blush, shrink back, look at the ground and pretend nothing had happened. Not only has she let him get away with it, she has encouraged him to make future comments. The aggressive individual would clench her fists, shout and even threaten violence. Behave like that, however, and you may find he reports you!

The assertive response is best. Keep your chin up and look him full in the face (as you do this, he may avert his eyes). Do not flinch. Then, in a clear, firm voice say “Don’t speak to me like that. You might think it’s funny, but I don’t. If you ever say anything like that to me again I’ll report you.” Say it loud and clear, without fear. If the other men laugh, ignore them. Put your chin up and your shoulders back, but don’t move.

Finally, do not worry how other people will react. The person who victimizes you may be popular (unfortunately, such obnoxious loudmouths are often considered “colorful characters”). And you may worry how others will respond if he gets into trouble. Will they blame you? Again, assertiveness is all-important. If you are too passive and apologetic, your colleagues will feel justified in victimizing you. After you make your complaint, keep your head up. So long as you believe you were right, this will be reflected in your voice and body language.

Remember, sexual harassment is wrong. People may try to convince you otherwise, but don’t let them. Fight back! And remember one more thing – each time someone does stand up, they make life harder for every other bully and abuser.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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