What should your first response be to potential sexual harassment?

Posted in Sexual Harassment on February 21, 2014

There comes a point at which sexual harassment and other inappropriate office behaviors become so pervasive that corrective action must be taken. Most of us would like to believe that we would have the courage to take such actions if they became necessary.

But what should you do if you are uncomfortable with the actions of a co-worker or boss but aren’t sure if their behavior constitutes sexual harassment? You may be worried about potentially overreacting, but you might also worry that saying nothing will only encourage the behavior. How do you address potential sexual harassment without burning bridges or allowing it to get worse?

This was recently asked by a young man in a newspaper advice column. The man self-identifies as gay and says he works with a boss who is “decades older” and is also gay. The employee feels uncomfortable by his boss’s seemingly sexual stares and unwelcome comments about his appearance. He knows that others have experienced similar comments and behaviors from the boss. But since this behavior has not yet become “overt” toward him, the young man believes a sexual harassment complaint might be premature.

Advice columnist Amy Dickinson told the young man to start by talking to his boss and documenting all incidents that occur after that point. When experiencing comments and behavior that may be sexual harassment, it is important to first tell the potential harasser that his/her actions make you feel uncomfortable and that you want them to stop.

Write down when you had this conversation, what you said and what the other person said in response. After that, you should write down any and all interactions or behaviors that you believe are inappropriate. If the behavior continues and/or appears to escalate, schedule a meeting with a human resources representative and show the HR rep your documented evidence.

These types of conversations with co-workers or bosses can be difficult to have. And if you are worried about being fired or retaliated against, you might have to take your concerns directly to HR first. If not, however, having a direct conversation with the potential harasser and documenting any incidents afterward can help you build a solid legal case if one becomes necessary.

Source: San Jose Mercury News, “Ask Amy: Sexual harassment not overt,” Amy Dickinson, Feb. 7, 2014