Steps to Identify and Prove Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sometimes you know you're being harassed. Your boss asks you to perform certain sexual favors in exchange for a promotion — or to avoid a pink slip. Other times, sexual harassment isn't as easy to identify. How do you know if you're a victim, for example, of a hostile work environment?
Identifying sexual harassment begins with your gut instinct that something seems off. Even if you're not the target, addressing workplace problems can improve office relationships by weeding out negative individuals. However, more often, it ends in the victim losing a promising career if she doesn't understand her legal rights. Here's what you need to know about how to prove sexual harassment if you're a victim.
Different Types of Sexual Harassment
Two different types of sexual harassment exist — quid pro quo harassment and a hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment translates to "this for that." This occurs when a supervisor or other authority figure demands sexual favors in exchange for positive career advancement or to avoid professional consequences.
This doesn't mean all quid pro quo harassment proves as clear cut as, "sleep with me and you'll get a promotion" or "perform oral sex on me or I'll fire you." Those in managerial positions know such blatant acts can result in disciplinary action and generally choose more subtle approaches.
For example, a friend of mine - a married woman - reported her boss sent her sexually suggestive text messages inquiring if she ever fantasized about the two of them together. When she refused to engage in the conversation, he slashed her salary by a third, claiming budgetary factors indicated a choice between decreased pay or the unemployment line.
Sexual harassment occurs at all levels of an organization and isn't confined to management. Although rare, quid pro quo harassment can occur between co-workers. For example, if a woman confides in a male colleague about her struggles with drug addiction, he may threaten to reveal her condition to the boss if she doesn't perform sexual favors.
Another type of harassment occurs when innuendos, jokes, and even unjust rule enforcement create a hostile work environment. Offensive jokes, physical assaults or threats thereof, insults, put-downs, name-calling, slurs, or offensive pictures and objects that interfere with work performance can all be considered to create a hostile work environment.
To meet the standard, these acts must go beyond being simply annoying or irritating. They must occur on a persistent basis and be pervasive enough that a reasonable person finds them offensive.
A hostile work environment might also be at play when patterns of unwanted attention result in negative action.
For example, if one co-worker asks another out and gets rejected, they may retaliate by spreading sexual rumors about the object of their affection, or retaliating in more subtle but equally professionally damaging ways: refusing to provide the victim with beneficial projects, refusing to assist the victim with otherwise typical work tasks, etc. Many companies prohibit co-workers from dating one another to minimize such incidents.
However, such policies are difficult to enforce pragmatically. Additionally, ongoing gender discrimination leads many male managers to believe women welcome such unwanted advances.
In a hostile work environment, the targeted victim need not file a complaint themselves. Those who witness the harassment occurring can also intervene.
For example, 30 states lack equal protections for sexual orientation or gender identity per statute. This means many lesbians who experience harassment pass on reporting such incidents to HR. They fear retaliatory actions for doing so. Allies of the LGBTQ+ community should report hostile work environments for those who may fear losing their jobs.
How to Identify Sexual Harassment
If you're the target of sexual harassment, chances are, you instinctively feel something is wrong. However, keeping an eye out for certain behaviors in the workplace can help you become a better ally to women and members of the LGBTQ+ community alike.
- Inappropriate touching. Some people are touchier than others. Certain folks like to greet everyone with big hugs and air kisses. However, in a professional setting, respecting individual boundaries is critical. If a particular co-worker or supervisor continues to get touchy even after you've asked them to stop, consult HR for recommendations.
- Jokes of a sexual nature. Is the banter around your office not work-appropriate? If so, this could create a hostile work environment. Jokes regarding other people's physical characteristics are never OK, especially if they center on breasts or genitals.
- Overly intrusive conversations. Asking, "how was your romantic weekend with your new beau," is acceptable. Inquiring about how hot and heavy things got between the sheets is not. In interview situations — including ones for promotions — asking about your plans for getting married or having children is not OK.
- Forwarding inappropriate materials. You may find the joke your friend shared on Facebook hilarious. However, if anything smacks of an off-color hue, take a hard pass on forwarding the meme around the office. If you're shooting naughty boudoir pics on your iPhone, think carefully before texting them. If they accidentally end up in a boss's or co-worker's hands, you could find yourself on the losing end of a harassment suit.
Who to Contact About a Harassment Claim
If you witness sexual harassment in the workplace, who do you report it to? The decision ultimately depends on the size of your organization, your level of trust, and alternate reporting options.
In general, beginning by reporting in-house proves most effective, especially in cases of a hostile work environment. This allows HR representatives to work privately with offending individuals to modify their behavior. Proceeding in this manner can ease interoffice relationships, as the party need not lose their job if they display genuine remorse and a commitment to change.
However, if you work for a small firm, things may be more difficult. There may not be anyone dedicated to processing such claims. In this case, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You must do so before commencing a lawsuit against your employer for damages. The agency will give you a "right to sue" letter to present to attorneys. As many state statute of limitations for sexual harassment run out after only a few months following the last reported incident, filing in a timely manner is critical.
Finally, you'll want to contact a licensed employment attorney. Ultimately, the company you work for is liable for harassment if it knew of the offense and did nothing or little to stop it. That's another reason why reporting to HR first in many cases proves critical.
How to Prove Sexual Harassment Occurred
Many sexual harassment cases boil down to he-said-she-said debates, so documenting the incidents proves critical. When you first suspect harassment, start collecting evidence.
Create a journal indicating the dates, times, and descriptions of harassing incidents. Due to the malleable nature of handwritten documents, keep an electronic record if possible. While rare, if forensic computer scientists need to pinpoint the exact date an event occurred, they can verify it.
If others witness the events, ask them to verify your account. Write down the names of any parties who can confirm when and where specific things occurred.
Save copies of all text messages. For example, you can use apps to transfer text messages and Messenger notifications to your computer for printing. Recording phone calls remains illegal in many cases without notice, but if you can verify you were a party, such evidence may prove admissible.
Finally, document any adverse actions your harasser took against you. Include information such as dates you heard about specific rumors circulating, especially if the offender is a co-worker, not a superior. You may encounter difficulty proving these rumors impacted your ability to get a raise or led to your dismissal. However, the more evidence you amass, the better your chances of receiving financial compensation for injuries suffered.
Stopping Sexual Harassment
While many critics feel we can no more eliminate sexual harassment than we can stop murder, current laws enforce the values we as a society hold dear. By holding harassers liable for their behavior, we can create a more inclusive, positive, and productive workforce.
It's been six years since Sarah Cooper graced us with her 10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings. But how on earth can we appear smart in our new virtual world, in which for many of us, going to work is just sitting in one long series of probably-not-necessary Zoom meetings?
1. Dial in.<p>Dialing in rather than joining via the link instantly boosts your credibility. Who calls into Zoom meetings? People who are still busy and important enough to be leaving their houses! But you needn't actually be one of those people, or even more than a foot away from your computer to pull off this maneuver. (Remember, this article is called *seeming* smart, not being smart.)</p><p><strong></strong><em>Bonus: </em>If it's a large meeting at which attendance will be taken, the person running the meeting will inevitably ask, "Who's calling in from 443-322-2121?" That's when you raise your metaphorical hand, jump off mute, and say "[Your name] here. Really looking forward to hearing your perspective on [meeting topic]." And voila! You've stolen the meeting spotlight.</p>
2. Don't come on camera—ever.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODU5OS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjMwNjI3OX0.4fLyq2CvkZAJ7n_03esZepY37mOdyGdDdTEUYt5XEU0/img.png?width=980" id="bc7e6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fbbf21cc5d8c863b30654ae6993b04f5" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>Much like the "dial in," this technique works because it makes you appear aloof. If <em>The Crown has </em>taught me anything, it's that the key to maintaining a sense of mystique and prestige is to keep people at arm's length—and if you absolutely <em>must</em> touch them, wear a glove.</p>
3. Only communicate via chat.<p>Once you've mastered the art of staying off camera, you can level up by communicating exclusively via the chat box. Don't come off mute at all, even if the speaker asks your opinion. You are the elusive chatter and you will not be forced into actually participating in said meeting.</p>
4. Ask to share your screen.<p>Being aloof is great, but it's all about balance. Sprinkling in some active participation will really shock and impress your colleagues if you catch them off guard, so save this technique for when you've strategically <em>not </em>participated in a string of meetings.</p><p>Spend a few minutes prior to the meeting prepping a few inspirational slides with words like "synergy," "optimization," and "redefining 'culture'", or spend a few minutes poking around in Google Analytics. </p><p>Then wait for the opportune moment to say, "Can I just share my screen for a moment? I have some really interesting data I'd like to share...." and BAM — brilliance established.</p>
5. Show off your Zoom-saviness.<p>Try saying, "You know you can mute people, right?" to the host when they beg whoever's got the lawn mower and crying baby in the background to put themselves on mute for the nth time.<br></p>
6. Create an alter ego.<p>This tactic requires commitment, but the pay off is certainly worth it. Join the Zoom meeting from your normal account + name, and then join it again on a second device from an alias. Have your alter-ego ask some probing or stat-based questions in the chat and have the answers ready ahead of time. It should work something like this:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Your alter ego Charlene</strong><strong>:</strong> "Does anyone know what percentage conversion rates increased by in Q2?"</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><strong>Real you</strong>: *doesn't miss a beat* "It looks like Charlene has a question in the chat. That would be 36%."</p><div>Never mind that no one on your team knows who Charlene is or why she's at this meeting, they'll be too blown away by your brilliance to notice. (Bonus points if you use this strategy in conjunction with techniques 1, 2, 3 or 4!)</div>
7. Place an obscure object in your background that exudes intelligence.<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0ODYxOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwNzk5Njg2Mn0.V9_-3Ij3v_QndseqlrXRt5Nn39EJ97-itjls5zzYPf8/img.png?width=980" id="a369d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="604a2f04b53c2e3bc801bfa5256f367b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" /><p><br></p><p>We're talking a telescope, or perhaps a hardcover copy of <em>War & Peace </em>(no one need know that its only purpose in your life is as a makeshift yoga block).</p><p>If you don't have any suitable props at your disposal, do not despair: download some screenshots of Sheldon's apartment from <em>Big Bang Theory </em>or the chalkboard in <em>Good Will Hunting </em>and use those as a virtual background.</p>
8. Ask "Is this really the best course of action given the current climate?"<p>Economic collapse, COVID, racism… No need to specify whether you're referring to one or all of the above; just sit back and watch your boss squirm amidst the ambiguity.</p><p>This strategy pairs very well with techniques 2 and 3. You can prep additional vague-but-probing questions ahead of time and pepper them into the chat box throughout the meeting:</p><ul><li>How will this scale?</li><li>Do we really have the bandwidth for this right now?</li><li>What's the value-add here?</li></ul>
9. Remind everyone that you have a paid Zoom account.<p>"Oh, it looks like we're getting the 40-minute warning. I have a paid account, do you want to switch to my room?" It's helpful, with just a touch of condescension. Everyone knows condescending people are smart. And everyone knows that people with paid Zoom accounts are super important.</p>
10. Tell everyone you have a hard stop.<p>When pressed for details, share your philosophy on "work-from-home" balance and how committed you are to getting up once an hour to walk to your refrigerator.</p>
11. Ask the screensharer/host to "pull something up" for everyone.<p>Ask the presenter to navigate to a screen that only you know how to navigate well. Laugh maniacally while they suffer from crippling performance anxiety. Let them struggle for as long as is tolerable before saying, "Oh you know what? I can just share my screen if you want. That would probably be easier." BAM you're the hero. Don't worry, no one will even pause to consider that you could have proposed this course of action from the start.</p>
12. Say Zoom fatigue as many times as possible.<p>If you're too tired to employ any of the other strategies, just say "I know everyone is experiencing a lot of Zoom fatigue, so we can keep this meeting short." Then hang up as quickly as possible. Meeting averted! </p><p>After all, there's no better way to demonstrate your intelligence in a virtual meeting than to demonstrate why it wasn't really necessary in the first place. </p>
I sat in front of my CEO to discuss several complaints of racism. I was new to my role as a Culture Director. I was nervous about his reaction to the complaints. But I also knew he strongly supported developing this new department; I knew that he would take the right steps. So I was shocked when I heard him say sheepishly, "I don't know, Noelle...all of this stuff about racism. I just don't see it. I don't even see color. I'm pretty much color blind."
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