Sexual Harassment Is Not Your Fault

Unless you are the harasser, of course. Sexual harassment runs rampant in the workplace and in some cases, the restaurant industry for example, it is even considered a normal part of the workday. When I was in college, I worked full-time at a restaurant. I regularly had male co-workers hugging me, massaging my shoulders, “accidentally” bumping into me, and slapping my butt, not to mention the filthy commentary about females. One time, I even had a co-worker go so far as to kiss me on the mouth. My gut reaction was to punch him in his mouth (which I don’t recommend) but I never complained. That’s just how it was and I thought I had to put up with it or risk losing my job for causing a “scene.”

It wasn’t until one co-worker, who I had known for a whole 2 days, began saying totally inappropriate and crass comments to me, slapped me on the butt and then followed me out to my car in the dark, that I had finally had enough. I went to my manager and told him what happened, which by the way, was as awkward as you would expect, albeit necessary. What I didn’t expect was his reaction. He walked out of his office, tracked down my harasser and fired him on the spot. I barely remember if he asked any questions but I do know I was relieved. I felt safe and protected at work, as everyone should. After that, I never let anyone harass me again. When I didn’t want someone touching me, I told them to their face. Lucky for me, that usually worked out just fine.

Unfortunately, standing up for yourself and letting someone know when their conduct is unwelcome and makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t always work out the way you plan. Frequently, the harasser is someone who holds power over you and knows how to work the system to avoid suspicion. When a supervisor conditions your employment on engaging in any kind of sexual conduct with him or her, that is what we call quid pro quo harassment. The harasser uses his power over your job to force you to do things that you don’t want to do. Doing these things to save your job does not mean you consent! You’ve told him that you are uncomfortable with his behavior but he won’t stop. Complaining to your boss won’t help. The harasser IS your boss. But you can do the next best thing. Complain to your boss’s supervisor and the human resources department, if your company has one. ALWAYS put your complaints in writing and email them whenever possible to leave a trail.

A supervisor or co-worker does not have to threaten your job to create an abusive workplace. Often employees will experience what is referred to as a “hostile work environment.” When you are unwillingly exposed to severe or persistent  sexually charged comments, conduct or gestures, you are a victim of workplace abuse. Be aware, sexual harassment does not need to be motivated by sexual desire. This means that if you are subject to harassment but your harasser is not attracted to you or directing comments toward you specifically, the conduct is still illegal. For instance, if a male employee makes sexually offensive gestures to another male employee but neither of them are gay, the harassment is a violation of workplace rights. Along the same lines, if a co-worker makes really offensive sexual comments to you about what he does with the women he dates, you are still being harassed.

As with quid pro quo harassment, so long as you are not in danger, you should always approach your harasser and voice your discomfort with the hostile work environment he or she has created. You should also lodge a complaint with your employer to put them on notice that you have been the victim of sexual harassment. However, there are no magic words. At the end of the day, it is your employer’s responsibility to make sure that you are not victimized in the workplace and are able to perform your job without being harassed. If, as a result of your complaints, anyone at work retaliates against you in any way, report that as well. If your employer fails to take action, it may be time to seek legal counsel.