What is Sexual Harassment? An HR Perspective

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If you’re asking for sexual favors in exchange for a promotion, subjecting people to clearly unwanted sexual contact/behavior, or telling someone they’ll be fired if they don’t sleep with you (**Ahem, every famous transgressor that's been outed lately), then the videotaped sexual harassment training you viewed upon hiring probably told you that’s sexual harassment. But it’s more complicated than that, and the legal definition of sexual harassment contains a lot of gray areas:

Here is part of the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment, which can include:

…unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Being on the right side of the legal line doesn’t necessarily mean you should pat yourself on the back that you have a high functioning, gender-inclusive culture. It’s worth going beyond talk of harassment, a hostile work environment, and the like. We have to do better if we’re going to retain top performers and cultivate a successful, committed and tight-knit team. In order to do that, we need to change the narrative from useless employer “CYA” anti-harassment training to answering difficult questions that actually illustrate what’s toxic in our work cultures.

Focusing on sexual gratification at the expense of a coworker’s dignity and well-being is clearly reprehensible. But other situations may not be so clear. With that in mind, if you’re not sure whether a particular activity, decision or topic of conversation contributes to an atmosphere of harassment, ask yourself some of these questions:

1.       Is the behavior or conversation centered around sex or sexuality, even if not for sexual gratification, but instead to exert power or demean someone?

2.       Is the interaction sexual in nature and unrelated to the work at hand?

3.       Is sexually focused behavior or talk directed from one person with power toward another person with less power? This doesn’t just mean a supervisor to an employee, but could also be a client or customer, or someone considering investing in a company.

4.       Are you tempted to keep it secret?

5.       Did you cross a physical boundary that is normally inappropriate at work?

6.       Do you treat people differently at work based on your sexual attraction to them?

7.       Has someone gone along with the behavior or talk but it’s clear from the person’s body language that discomfort or awkwardness exists in the interaction?

8.       Did you press forward with a sexually explicit topic or action after someone said “no” or changed the subject?

9.       Would you be comfortable discussing the interaction with your grandma, or seeing a news story about it online?

10.   Did you witness any sexually inappropriate behavior from a coworker directed toward someone else, and you laughed it off or silenced yourself or others about it?

If the answers are yes to any of these questions, it may be worth investigating further and considering changes. The pushback I often hear is that a company’s culture is “freewheeling” and “no BS” and people like being able to “be themselves” at work in order to foster innovation-leaders don’t want to diminish that. What they’re missing is that some people are just pretending to feel great about it, and those who actually do typically are in the seats of power in the organization. That makes their behavior more dangerous and likely to negatively impact their company’s brand and invite legal liability, not to mention, most importantly, risking serious harm to others from potential harassment in the workplace. If your company culture is centered around being free about the way you talk and act toward one another and you value that energy more than you do respect for everyone in the workplace, you may want to reconsider.

I’m working with my clients to address the potential business risks of this behavior and develop understanding of the potential upside financially of creating an atmosphere of respect, passion, drive and success where men and women can do phenomenal work together without harassment and assault. The energy of your organization can change for the better without losing your company’s fiercely unique identity.

Photo credit: Foter.com