Healthy Conversations About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Over the last year, national news headlines have been dominated by one story after the next about allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other types of inappropriate sexual behavior. While they have different names depending on the jurisdiction, sexual assault and other types of unwelcome sexual contact are criminal acts. Sexual harassment, however, is a different story. By law, sexual harassment is a form of sex-based employment discrimination. While it is still illegal, it is a matter that is handled through state and federal agencies, as well as the civil court system.
Because it is an employment-related matter, sexual harassment is also somewhat easier to recognize and address than acts of sexual violence often are. Sexual harassment can even be prevented and avoided if those who work together are willing to have open and honest conversations about the topic. Depending on where you work, management may be willing to facilitate such discussion. If a formal meeting is not feasible, consider opening lines of communication with your coworkers on your own—regardless of your gender or your previous experience with sexual harassment.
Men and Women Must Communicate
In many cases, sexual harassment is the manifestation of a power struggle. For example, men who have worked with only other men for many years may feel threatened—even subconsciously—by the introduction of a female coworker. Similarly, a person in a managerial position may get a thrill out of flirting or making sexual advances toward a subordinate as a result of the power differential. However, sexual harassment can also occur due to the differences in the perspectives of men and women.
Consider a situation in which a worker asks for help from the company’s IT department. When the IT employee—a man—arrives, he leans past the worker to see the error message displayed on the computer screen and there is bodily contact. If the worker needing help is also male, he may be uncomfortable by the contact, but he may also be likely to forget about it in just a few seconds. If the worker needing help is female, the contact may feel much more threatening. There may not have been any ill intent on the part of the IT employee, but no person should feel threatened or violated at work. (Disclaimer: Both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment, and both can be harassers. This example was meant to show how perspectives can be different between men and women.)
Give Each Other the Benefit of the Doubt
Conversations about work-appropriate behavior and sexual harassment can be difficult, but they should be held before problems arise. This is especially true if you work with the same people regularly. Of course, this does not mean that you should openly discuss sexually explicit topics at work, but there is nothing wrong with establishing boundaries and trying to understand other people’s feelings or concerns. It is also important to keep in mind that your co-workers are people too, not just professionals.
For example, if you are a female and you express to your male colleague—who considers you a friend—that you are having a tough time with something, he may not know the appropriate way to respond to you. If you were his close friend outside of work, he might put a reassuring—and non-threatening—hand on your shoulder to express empathy. At work, though, such a gesture might not be appropriate. Open discussion about boundaries could put everyone’s mind more at ease.
Call an Illinois Sexual Harassment Attorney
If you have been a victim of sexual harassment at work, a simple discussion may not be enough to solve the problem. Contact an experienced workplace discrimination lawyer to discuss your available options. Call 630-665-7300 for a confidential consultation today.