Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: 7 actions to start now for resistance and resilience

Ready or not, the egregious media stories of sexual misconduct in the workplace hit us smack dab in the face. Many of us were not prepared to hear the disgusting details of how influential people we admired and trusted were behaving when not being watched.

This very public exposure of inappropriate sexual behavior by powerful and influential individuals got our attention and quickly advanced the #MeToo movement. The mounting stories that followed revealed an undeniable ongoing problem of people misbehaving in the workplace. However, is that knowledge enough? On the one hand, the exposure can be seen as the hopeful catalyst for change to stop such behavior, while on the other hand, the depicted stories in varying degrees have left many confused about what sexual harassment is, and how it can be prevented.

Sexual harassment has been against the law for decades and is described under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a behavior of a sexual nature that is so “severe or pervasive” that it affects the victim’s employment. The harassment can be a supervisor to subordinate, peer to peer, or third-party (vendor, customer, or patient to an employee).

Obviously, there is nothing simple about the law or definition. The law has always been about protecting workers from “unwelcome” advances of a sexual nature from people of power whose influence could affect their careers and livelihood. In the meantime, while the debate continues, I’ve listed seven things leaders and team members can start doing now to build respectful and harassment-free workplaces where everyone can feel appreciated.

#1 Don’t be afraid to have uncomfortable conversations. Sexual harassment can certainly fit into the category of uncomfortable conversations. The discomfort is understandable. Who wants to open the can of worms–particularly when you risk hearing more than you are prepared to address. With all the public attention to this topic, now is not the time to shy away, but to seize the opportunity and lean in.

#2 Provide workplace training for all employees. We’re all pretty much on board about EEOC training that includes Sexual Harassment prevention as well as other categories protected under EEO laws. This training is recommended every 2-3 years for leaders and some states make this training mandatory. I recommend that such practices continue.

If we really want to see measurable change, however, I recommend adding a few other training topics. Teaching communication skills for navigating difficult conversations and a common understanding of respect and appreciation can pay huge dividends.

Consider topics like:

  • Understanding thinking and behavior preferences
  • Navigating difficult conversations
  • Building courage
  • Civility in the workplace
  • Understanding the power of appreciation
  • The power of an apology
  • Building trust
  • Creating a motivating environment

#3 Gain an understanding of human touch and personal space. Having clarity on appropriate and inappropriate touch is big. If you’ve gone through some of the training mentioned above or simply self-educated yourself on the topics, you get this. Many of the photos accompanying articles on sexual harassment often depict a person inappropriately touching someone else. Human beings are complex and understanding when it is appropriate to touch and when not can be tough to decipher.

#4 Ask permission and respect the answer. If you’re a hugger and come from a family of huggers, it might be an unconscious act to spread your anticipating arms for a hug. Keep in mind, not all people are huggers all the time, in all situations, or with all people. If there is ever any doubt as to whether your hug might be welcomed, ask permission before you advance. If it is okay, —proceed, if not, —retreat.

The reality is that we are not iRobots in the workplace. We are human beings embracing all sorts of emotions. We are complex with many facets that define us. The truth is that friends hug each other, people compliments each other, they tease each other, and they even flirt with each other –all in the workplace. Nothing is wrong until one party starts to feel uncomfortable and does want the attention –even if at one point they did.

#5 Be upfront and give an honest answer when asked, “Do you mind?” If you mind, say so. If they don’t ask permission, be candidly forthright and let them know their action or behavior makes you uncomfortable.

#6 Lead by example. Realize that people are always watching your actions, even when you think no one notices. They watch for patterns in your behavior to determine how they will engage with you. Give them a clue.

#7 Take timely action to remove or counsel the harassing offender. Follow due process and stay open and objective to the evidence while considering the nature of the offense. Some behaviors require immediate removal, while others require clarity in understanding the inappropriateness.

If you feel your organization is facing paralysis from the overbearing news of sexual harassment, try the tips listed above. Disengagement is not the answer for safe travels, but building a resilient workforce can keep you on your journey.

This blog post is an excerpt taken from a pending book by Sharon Harrington. She assists organizations in navigating conflict by helping to build skills that embrace prevention measures and create empowering environments that support self-mediation. She is a learning professional who has spent over 25 years tackling tough issues surrounding charges of unfair treatment in the workplace that reach the attention EEOC.