Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

by Stephanie Kay, M.A., L.C.P.C.

Sexual Harassment at the Workplace“I'm so afraid to report him—I could lose my job and my family depends on my income to make ends meet.” This statement was made by a young woman working for an international organization in Bangladesh, where there was a strict policy against sexual harassment. She was first encouraged to inform the harasser that his behavior was unwelcome and must stop. He paid no attention and became even more harassing. Finally, she reported him and an investigation took place. She was threatened by his friends, as was her family. He was fired and she was forced to move out of the country to the organization’s headquarters. This situation was highly traumatic for her and she had a difficult time adjusting. While situations such as these are rare in the U.S., they are a common occurrence in developing countries. Many victims are afraid to come forward because of economic or societal pressures.

Sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature, consisting of verbal or physical conduct that makes someone feel uncomfortable by focusing attention on their gender instead of their qualifications. The victim as well as the harasser can be a woman or man and the victim doesn’t have to be of the opposite sex. Sexual harassment is usually thought of as behavior by someone higher in power toward someone lower in power. Yet, harassment by co-workers is also recognized as part of sexual harassment. Victims include not only the person harassed but anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Examples of sexually harassing behavior include, but are not limited to, the following: sexual innuendos, pressure for dating, sexually explicit gestures, uninvited touching or hugging, public humiliation, inappropriate gifts, sexist jokes, and hostile put-downs.

Sexual Harassment at the OfficeIf you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment, there are several steps you can take. First, let the harasser know his/her behavior is offensive. Practice saying “no” firmly and decisively, without smiling. If you're too gentle, the harasser may think you don't mean what you say. It is helpful to document all incidences that occur, including the date, time, place and details of what happened. You can also write a letter to the harasser, detailing the offensive behavior and asking that it be stopped. If you don't detail it, the person may not be aware of what they're doing that's offensive to you.

Find out what policies and procedures are in place in your organization for dealing with sexual harassment. The Equal Economic Opportunity Commission is a federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws. It requires all organizations with more than 15 employees to have a plan in place to contend with sexual harassment. If the harassing behavior doesn't stop, you may want to speak to your company's ombudsman or human resources counselor.

The best way to handle sexual harassment in the workplace is to prevent it. Managers and supervisors can communicate that sexual harassment won't be tolerated. Mandatory training programs increasing staff awareness can be an effective tool in eradicating sexual harassment. Everyone has the right to feel safe and unthreatened in their work environment. With effort on the part of staff and managers, this can be achieved.

Stephanie Kay, M.A., L.C.P.C.

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