When a boss or co-worker makes a pass at you or says something sexually suggestive, it can be distressing or make you feel powerless. You might feel stuck, not wanting to stir up trouble over something that seems like no big deal. These feelings are not just a “you problem”; sexual harassment in the workplace is a real issue that should be taken very seriously.
Know Your Boundaries
The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person's job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
But as Steve, Hiring Expert at Caterpillar Inc., points out, “Whether or not your boss' conduct meets the definition of sexual harassment is not important. What is important is that you find their conduct inappropriate or offensive.”1 Anything that a boss or co-worker does that makes you feel uncomfortable can qualify as sexual harassment–from lewd jokes to inappropriate remarks about the way you dress to unwelcome shoulder rubs.
Ask for Help
Perhaps your boss or co-worker is unaware that his actions are offensive. If you are comfortable doing so, you can talk to him about how his acts make you feel, but such an experience can be very awkward and might even leave you open to repercussions.
An alternative suggestion is to meet with a superior rather than the offending party. That person can then speak with the offending party about the inappropriate actions without mentioning your name, hopefully leading to a change that will better the work environment.
Change Your Environment
If you don’t have someone in your work space with whom you can express your concerns or if several weeks have gone by with no change, it might be time to talk to a representative of the Human Resources department. Mike, Hiring Expert at Avery Dennison, explains, “HR should be capable of managing the situation and preventing this from happening in the future. Also, HR can keep a record of the situation, so if it happens again, or if there is any retaliation, they can move to further disciplinary action for your boss as needed.”3
Harassment laws vary from state to state, but there is federal legal protection against it. Human Resources agents are trained in these laws and are aware of the best course of action to take based upon the situation. In the rare event that legal recourse is needed, be sure to document every action you take, which can be used as evidence in the eye of the law.
Although sexual harassment is typically thought of as a male boss harassing a female, in actuality it can be any combination: a male harassing a male, a female harassing a male, etc. Regardless of who is being harassed, the claim is no less valid or distressing. But while sexual harassment is a problem, it can be stopped. By speaking out, you have the power to end the offense, for yourself and others.