Handling Sexual Harassment

sexhara.jpgby Liz O’Donnell (Boston)

A female vice president was attending a leadership retreat for her company’s top executives. During the retreat, coworkers carpooled to and from a team building dinner; the VP was the only woman in her carpool. On the way home from the restaurant, one of her coworkers made a sexually explicit suggestion about how she could please him.

A female director at a large mutual fund company was meeting with her male superior, a senior vice president. When the meeting ended, he hugged the director and grabbed her breasts.

A well-respected female employee at a non-profit was paired up on a project with a man from the organization’s board of trustees. The trustee continually made comments about the woman’s appearance and body and compared her favorably to his wife. He also hugged her frequently.

On its website, The Sexual Harassment Prevention Institute, a corporate training company in Texas, describes sexual harassment in the workplace as a “behavior that is bothersome, irritating, demeaning, and annoying.”

But the three women mentioned above would disagree. Listening to voicemail on speakerphone is annoying. Sexually harassing a coworker can be devastating. All three of the women said their performance suffered as a result of the harassment. They were distracted at work and uncomfortable participating in group meetings and projects. One of them received her first negative performance review just months after the experience. Yet none of the women reported the incidents.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 12,510 charges of sexual harassment last year and resolved 11,592 charges. The commission recovered $49.9 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation). If the EEOC can resolve more than ninety percent of its cases, why are women, and men, still reluctant to speak out against their harassers?

The primary reason may be humiliation. The harassment itself is often humiliating, and retelling the situation to a boss, especially a male boss, can be awkward and embarrassing. Even self-assured, outspoken women may opt to deal with the situation on their own, or not at all, instead of having to retell and document the situation.

Another unfortunate reason is that the conventional corporate wisdom exists that if a victim of sexual harassment comes forward, she better be prepared to end her career. Even if she sues and wins, she will become a persona non grata in the corporate world.

Furthermore, statistics can be misleading. It is more common to read about a women who receives a settlement for wrongful termination after complaining about sexual harassment, than it is to read about women who receive settlements based on the initial complaint.

So how can a women deal with harassment if she is not open to filing a formal complaint? Sometimes, going right to the source can stop the unwanted behavior. Plus it can help the woman to step out of the victim role and assert her power without the unwanted side effects of filing a formal complaint.

Many experts suggest confronting the harasser and letting them know the behavior is unacceptable. By naming the behavior, clearly stating it is unwelcome and inappropriate, holding the offender accountable for their actions, and ending the conversation on her own terms, she can take some power away from the offender and challenge any outdated, illegal and inappropriate behaviors in the workplace. Of course a woman needs to know that she will be safe in this situation. If she fears the harasser may be violent, this course of action could be dangerous.

Responding to sexual harassment is an individual choice; a woman needs to determine her own best response. Hopefully, she will be able to react in a way that empowers her and keeps her safe –whether that is confronting the offender, filing a formal complaint or choosing to change jobs. Ideally, the corporate world will recognize that sexual harassment is still rampant in the workforce, that the consequences can be devastating to its victims and to a company’s bottom line, and that it must be addressed from the top down with a zero-tolerance approach.