Although laws exist to protect our basic human rights in the workplace and it is reasonable for every working person to expect to be treated with respect and dignity while at work, hostile work environments can still cause personal turmoil for the employee and many lost hours of production time for the company. The law defines workplace harassment as unwelcome behavior by a person that makes the recipient or even a witness feel uncomfortable, offended, intimidated or oppressed.
Classic workplace sexual harassment is when someone in a position of authority attempts to coerce a co-worker into performing sexual favors in exchange for maintaining employment or gaining a promotion. But it can also be blatant disrespect with the clear intent to demean another human being. This type of harassment is more difficult to prove and while an emotional attack may not be taken as seriously as a physical assault or sexual propositioning, it is no less devastating to the victim.
Sarah describes the discrepancy between the professional façade her supervisor created for the rest of the world and the unprofessional behavior he subjected her to in private, the most disturbing of which was his continual denigration of women in the most contemptible language possible. He clearly found pleasure in her embarrassment. But because she was the only one who reported directly to this man, others either didn’t witness or weren’t as concerned by what were serious red flags for her.
She knew she would not be able to effectively discourage the behavior on her own by simply asking him to stop. She was hesitant to report his behavior to his superiors because she also knew that there would be uncomfortable consequences. He was her supervisor; he held her career in the palm of his hand. The most worrisome was that she had no way of proving what he had done. It was her word against his.
When, in a conversation in his office, he twisted her responses to have a sexual connotation obviously intended to belittle and insult her, she made the decision to file a report with HR. She felt relief but braced herself for the possibility of revenge toward her or her family.
After she was thanked for having the courage to come forward, she was informed that the issue had not been pervasive enough, and she would need to continue reporting to him. They then attempted to placate her by explaining that he had been required to complete some training, and that she needn’t worry about any future issues.
Sarah was incredulous. This man was well-educated and experienced enough to know better, so she couldn’t grasp how training was going to solve his problem. Also, she knew that training wouldn’t remedy the anger he now had for her because she had reported him. She was devastated by their decision to put her in the position of continuing to report to this individual. He hadn’t raped her, but his words and actions had made it impossible for them to have the type of mutually respectful relationship that should exist between supervisor and supervisee. As time went on, not only did he attempt retaliation on several occasions but he also played the part of the victim by broadcasting to some of his colleagues that he was being accused of sexual harassment which created an even more uncomfortable work environment.
Eventually both parties left the organization.
Sarah does not regret reporting even though she felt inadequately protected by her employer. Holding a perpetrator accountable sends a message to everyone that harassment is not acceptable. If victims or bystanders don’t speak up, the harasser is encouraged to continue. If your workplace HR department is complacent about harassment or bullying, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) can provide guidelines. In extreme cases, contact an attorney who specializes in employment law.
OUR TURN is a public service series made available by Turning Points Network in celebration of its 40th anniversary of providing violence-prevention education programs in our schools, services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and helping people move from the darkness of abuse toward the light of respect, healing and hope. For information contact 1.800.639.3130 or www.turningpointsnetwork.org or find us on Facebook.