When sexual harassment isn’t obvious
  • leadership
  • Blog post

When sexual harassment isn’t obvious

You know what sexual harassment is, right?

Sure. It’s when somebody creates a hostile work environment based on sex – like pestering an unwilling co-worker for a date or, worse, touching the person inappropriately. Or it’s when a supervisor makes promises or threats to pressure a subordinate to see him or her socially.

If only it were that clear…

What they don’t know CAN hurt
Fact is, there are several kinds of potentially harassing behavior that supervisors often don’t know to look for, and that rank-and-file employees may not know ARE harassment.

Here’s an example:

A female employee willingly joins in the spicy talk when her male colleagues discuss their sexual conquests. She volunteers information about her latest adventures, and her co-workers think she’s pretty good at being “one of the boys.” One day, though, one of those “boys” says something crude to her, and – to everyone’s surprise – she takes offense. She storms into her manager’s office and demands that he do something. “I’m being sexually harassed,” she says.

Oh, come on, the manager thinks. He’s heard her talk, and he can’t believe she really feels harassed. “If you don’t want people to talk to you that way, don’t talk to them the way you do,” he says.

‘Reasonable person’
WRONG ANSWER! This employee may indeed be able to prove that she was sexually harassed. It doesn’t depend, at least not entirely, on what she’s said in the past. It does depend on what’s known as the “reasonable person” standard. This means that if she sues, the court will decide whether a reasonable person would have felt harassed under the circumstances.

So in this case the manager (who was wrong to allow so much talk to begin with) shouldn’t have brushed the complaining employee off.

Takeaway: When an employee complains of harassment — even a badly behaved employee — managers should take it seriously and ask both the alleged victim and the alleged harasser what happened. Then they should communicate their findings to HR or upper management.

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