Have I Sexually Harassed a coworker? When “boys will be boys” behavior crosses the line

Posted in Sexual Harassment on November 9, 2017

By John D. Winer

A tidal wave of sexual harassment claims involving high profile men in positions of power has revealed a cultural shift towards recognizing the harmful impact of sexually predatory behavior. For victims on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior, this moment is liberating. For those who may have perpetrated a culture of harassment in the workplace, the recent flood of complaints is causing them to panic about whether they’ve ever crossed the line with a colleague. And, although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 clearly lays out what constitutes sexual harassment, many still knowingly or unknowingly cross the line on a daily basis.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the average productivity per American worker has increased 400% since 1950. However, that has come at great expense to the average person. The growing demands of the corporate culture are forcing employees to work longer hours, which means most people spend more time with coworkers than their own families. The walls of professionalism can erode, and without strong leadership, the workplace can turn into a bastion of boorish behavior.

Some of the less obvious forms of harassment can start with name calling. Using terms like “Babe,” “Sweetheart,” “Sugar” or “Beautiful” are highly inappropriate in a professional setting. If a supervisor consistently calls a subordinate by a pet name which belittles or berates, that’s illegal harassment.

 Workplace romances between employees considered “equals” are fairly common. Flirting is okay if it’s mutual but unwanted advances and propositions are a form of sexual harassment. It’s even more problematic if you’re a supervisor trying to date a subordinate. If you are in a position to fire, promote or demote your romantic interest, the imbalance of power makes it impossible to have a consensual relationship. Most companies have policies against this behavior, which could end in termination. If your advances towards a coworker are rebuffed, you must take “no” for an answer and not pursue further.

As a general rule, keep your hands to yourself. No matter how well you think you know your office mate, bear hugs, shoulder rubs or pats on the butt are never okay. Making sexualized jokes, sending inappropriate emails, or bragging about sexual exploits all constitute harassment and are not “boys will be boys” behavior.

Technology has allowed people to become more intrusive and can violate a coworker’s sense of privacy and safety. Using a cell phone camera to take inappropriate photos, viewing sexual images or content on a work computer or cyberstalking an employee through social media are all sexual harassment violations.

While this sexualized behavior may seem harmless, funny or charming to the person committing these acts, it’s extremely damaging to the emotional and psychological well-being of the recipient. Though either sex can be a victim of harassment, statistically, women still remain the greatest victims.

A person who experiences sexual harassment can fear losing their job or missing an opportunity for promotion if they rebuff advances or refuses to give into the demands of the supervisor. Unwelcomed sexual misconduct can contribute to a hostile work environment causing debilitating stress, anxiety and depression.

Sexual harassment has a demoralizing effect on the workplace culture which can discourage people from standing up for themselves and reinforces sexist behaviors by perpetrators who feel emboldened to treat their colleagues as sexual objects instead as equals.

John Winer is plaintiff attorney who specializes in discrimination and workplace sexual harassment cases. He is a sexual harassment attorney in California and founded Winer, Mckenna & Burritt a personal injury law firm in Oakland.