Sexual Harassment is still the haunting reality for hundreds of working women today. Here is what you need to know and do if you are a victim

The world is making strides in women empowerment and women advancement. Women are also making gains in the workplace but then we see cases like that of the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler who published a 3000-word blog post describing a nightmarish workplace culture in which male superiors solicited her for sex and human resources officers shrugged off her concerns about sexist company practices. Another recent case was a high profiled one involving a newswoman’s lawsuit against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. All these incidents put a spotlight on an issue that still remains an all-too frequent reality in the workplace and that is sexual harassment. It also makes us realize that sexual harassment is a deep rooted problem and has nothing to do with class or culture. It is an epidemic which is prevalent across the globe evidencing alarming statistics.

I was recently mentoring some young girls who had just begun their career. Whilst casually discussing challenges at work, one of the girls expressed her discomfort at a senior male colleague repeatedly addressing her at work as ‘sweetheart’ and/or ‘Darling” and at how he kept patting her shoulder every now and then. What she shared was disturbing but what was even more appalling was how she dismissed her own concern and undermined its seriousness by quickly adding.’ I know I am over reacting and being silly and childish. He is my father’s age and it probably doesn’t mean much. But I am not a kid anymore. Anyway, I am not the only he does this to. He does that to everyone”

The rest of the girls nodded in agreement and laughed it off as well. I was speechless. Not only did this girl believe or was made to believe that calling names which make you feel uncomfortable is actually okay, she was also finding excuses to defend her Manager’s harassment. And that’s when it struck me- perhaps, one of the major reasons why many sexual harassers get away is because they make the victims believe that what they are doing is not something that can or should warrant an objection. Inappropriate actions under the guise of ‘It’s my nature’ ‘It’s not just you’ ‘I did it once only’ or it was a ‘just a compliment’ are some of the common excuses used by sexual harassers to justify their sick behavior.

Age and seniority have nothing to do with this either. I recently heard about a very senior Manager being fired from my ex-company on account of sexual harassment. My colleagues and I were shocked. Not only was he one of the most respected Managers of the company, some of us fondly called him ‘granddad’! Apparently, he had been portraying a very different image in front of us, however, how he behaved with new hires in other departments was all together a different and horrific story. And that’s when I learned an important lesson- just because some one looks elderly and respectful and just because, you didn’t experience it yourself; there is no reason to believe that others won’t experience it either. These incidents prompted me to write about what is still consider a tabooed topic by many and through my writing bring awareness that can help empower women who are victims of sexual harassment.

You see – It’s not just the harassers that we need to stop. We as women need to make ourselves strong enough to be able to raise a voice and unleash a backlash on such offenders and teach them a lesson or two.

Social media is more powerful than it ever was. In Susan Fowler’s case, the media pounced on the offenders with extreme vitriol. The #deleteuber campaign which reached new heights proved that media has the power to highlight social injustices and evoke remedial measures like never before and we need to make use of every medium out there is to make our voice heard.

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If you are victim of sexual harassment, here is what you need to know and do

  • IDENTIFY THE BEHAVIOR AND CALL IT IS IT IS

The very first thing you need to if you feel you are the victim is to identify that is happening. If any behavior repeatedly makes you feel uncomfortable then you are probably not overreacting. The very first step towards countering harassment is to realize that it’s happening. Once you say what it is, you are opening yourself to different possibilities of handling it.

Harassment can be physical, verbal and/or non-verbal, can happen to anyone in any environment, and can be either a ‘one-off’ or a series of incidents.  A key test, though, is how the victim is made to feel by the behaviour. European Community Code of Practice describes it as unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex, affecting the dignity of women and men at work. This can include unwelcome physical, verbal, or non-verbal conduct. According to Louisa Symington-Mills who works in private equity as a COO and is founder and CEO of City mothers and City fathers, & is The Telegraph’s careers agony aunt. ‘No one should have to endure such behaviour in the workplace – or anywhere else. Behaviour that is unwelcome and intimidating can transform an office environment from harmonious to odious, and may have immediate implications on the health and happiness of the recipient, as well the wellbeing of those that work closely with them.’Determining whether or not a comment or action directed towards you is inappropriate is often subjective, but if you feel upset and uncomfortable as a result, then it’s very likely to be – and may even be harassment.’

There are two types of sexual harassment Quid Pro Quo-The name for this type of harassment is Latin for “this for that.” In essence, this type of harassment occurs when an employer says that they will give an employee this job, this promotion, or this benefit, for that sexual favor. Hostile Environment- This type of harassment is much more difficult to pin down. It occurs when the harassing behavior creates a hostile, negative work environment for the employee.

Many harassers use several types of excuses to vindicate themselves such as; 1] ‘She laughed at my joke so I thought she didn’t mind’ Some employees feel obligated to participate or laugh for fear of being negatively judged so just because they smiled doesn’t mean they are not uncomfortable.  2] ‘ It happened on a business trip, so it doesn’t count’ Whether it took place in an office environment or outside, it doesn’t change the context and is still counted as harassment. 3] ‘It was just a compliment’ Compliments that make the other person uneasy some under harassment too. 4] ‘It only happened once’ It’s still harassment, whether it happened once or 20 times. 5] ‘The comments were directed at someone else’ If you witness inappropriate comments (such as your colleague commenting on how someone else might be in bed, without that person present) you can still file a sexual harassment complaint. 6] ‘Sexual harassment is all about sex, and sex didn’t happen’ inappropriate touching and verbal harassment direct or indirect cannot be discounted. ‘This is the way I’ve grown up; you can’t expect me to change’ Other people at your workplace are not expected to accommodate and adjust to what you think is socially acceptable or consider a norm.

The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board states that unwelcome behavior can fall into seven categories; Sexual teasing, remarks, jokes, or questions; Pressure for dates; Letters, e-mail, telephone calls, or materials of a sexual nature; Sexual looks or gestures; Deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, or pinching; Pressure for sexual favors; Actual/attempted sexual assault or rape. Other behaviors include displaying inappropriate sexual images or posters in the workplace; staring in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner, or whistling; making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts; Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person; asking sexual questions, such as questions about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation

  1. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT AND YOU ARE NOT ALONE

The second important step is to realize that if you are being harassed, it’s not your fault, and it has nothing to do with your actions or who you are as a person. Take control of your emotions and detach yourself from the abuse. You did not incur this on yourself, nor do you deserve it. Also, you are not alone.

More than half of the women say they have been sexually harassed at work and most admit to not reporting it, new research by the TUC suggests. A survey of 1500 people saw 52% cite the problem and also found a third had been subjected to unwelcome jokes and a quarter experienced unwanted touching. TUC head Frances O’Grady said it left women feeling ashamed and frightened. Many of those who told their stories also said they felt unable to report what had happened to them because they felt embarrassed or feared they would lose their job. A survey carried out two years ago by Slater & Gordon found six in ten working women felt a male colleague had behaved inappropriately towards them, whilst more than a third reported a senior male colleague had made inappropriate comments about their body or the clothes they were wearing.

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  1. IGNORING THE ABUSER OR LETTTING GO WILL BRING YOU MORE HARM THAN GOOD

Many such examples exist wherein when you leave the harassers unhooked, they come back again and again, each time more audacious than before. Another example is of a Senior Account Manager at an HR company. She has been working for her current employer for 13 months, but struggles with unwanted attention from her boss. She narrates: “The harassment started soon after I joined, but I was the new girl, so I didn’t want to kick up a fuss – and it was only the odd comment about how I looked. “Now he says personal things about me – things I wouldn’t like to repeat – and is always trying to touch me. I feel physically sick at going to work. Living in London is expensive, so I can’t just leave my job (although I am looking). I’ve no rights, so they can fire me for causing trouble – and even if could take legal action I know a tribunal would be unlikely to find in my favour.”

Unfortunately, as can be seen in the example above, and many more such as this story of another Uber survivor , the moment you decide to ignore or let go of a harasser there is no looking back. Ignoring or avoiding the abuser may seem the safest way, but it’s actually more harmful; the victim suffers in silence and the problem doesn’t get resolved. Trying to appease the abuser or complying with him is no solution either. Bullying or Harassment is a power struggle. Once you give into one demand, they will push for more.

  1. START ISSUING WARNINGS

According to a training by Velsoft, you should start with a verbal notice and tell the harasser what they are doing is not acceptable immediately in a calm, unemotional tone of voice. In my article published in the Huffpost on dealing with bullies I suggest that ‘if they are invading your comfort zone in terms of physical space, place a physical boundary (like a desk) between you and them, or ask them to step back. If emotional space is being threatened, such as asking personal questions or offering unwarranted advice, tell them to stop, politely yet firmly.’ A statement like, “Get your hands off,” is firm, assertive rather than aggressive, and non-negotiable.

You should also start keeping a written record of events, times, dates, and people that witnessed the events. Even if the issue is resolved at this first step, you need to document what happened. Give stronger warnings and notice that you will report the harasser. If the harasser continues his/her behavior, repeat the first step but make it stronger. Something like, “I have already told you to stop touching me. If you don’t stop, I will report you for harassment,” repeats the original message, and is still assertive and non-negotiable. Make sure you keep your tone of voice calm and unemotional. Issue written warnings. Keep a record. Keep you tone of voice and body language assertive as it will be crucial in deterring the harassers.

Write the person an e-mail or letter and send it to them. This letter should be done the same way the other warnings were: firm, assertive, and non-negotiable. It should restate the points you made in your verbal warnings. Make sure you do not threaten the harasser; stay as unemotional as possible. Also make sure you keep a copy of these letters for your records.

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  1. MAKE AN INFORMAL HARASSMENT INQUIRY

If you have been unable to deter your harasser or if you feel that there is serious risk in confronting your harasser (such as being physically harmed or losing your job) Velsoft next recommends going to your manager, your company’s Human Resources department, or the company’s harassment officer. They will typically give you their opinion about the claim: whether it is more or less serious than the complainant perceives and what options s/he has next. Be aware that this step may place your complaint on record. And, no matter what the outcome of this meeting, be sure to record its details and add it to your log of events.

  1. MAKE A FORMAL COMPLAINT IN THE ORGANIZATION.

This step turns the complaint into a formal process. Both parties (the complainant and the alleged harasser) have a lot at stake here: their reputation, their job, and possibly their career. According to Velsoft,  if you have events documented and recorded, you will feel a lot more secure in raising a formal complaint. However, be aware that this step will probably bring the issue to the attention of your co-workers. Investigators usually try to maintain your privacy as much as possible, but they will likely need to talk to your co-workers to confirm events. The process of raising a complaint is not always a bitter and prolonged one. Sometimes the harasser and the complainant can meet to discuss the incident(s) and come out with a better understanding of each other and what happened. If your harassment issue has not been resolved by the first four steps, this will be the last opportunity to resolve it in-house.

  1. MAKE A FORMAL COMPLAINT WITH THE GOVERNMENT

In most countries, there is an agency that governs against harassment and discrimination. You should consult with an attorney before filing a complaint with this organization or agency. Some areas have time limits; the EEOC in the United States, for example, requires filing no later than 180 to 300 days after the alleged incident, depending on the state where you live.

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I do realize that the above points may be helpful but not easy to implement. And that many organisations and particularly the HR department may not be very supportive either. In an article written by a 20 years old veteran of HR, Laurie Ruettimann, Laurie states that HR departments in America operate under a dubious mandate: ‘Keep workers engaged and happy, but make sure nobody sues the company’ She encourages victims to therefore, channel their inner Susan Fowler when someone sexually harasses them. She asks victims to follow Susan Fowler’s example and to follow the chain of command at their company. ‘Report the incident.’ she says, ‘Then leverage your network and start your job search. Once you find a new job, use the internet to tell every single human being on the planet about your experience. Leave a review on Glassdoor, start an anonymous blog, or even create a Twitter account and share bits and pieces of your story in a tweetstorm. Find ways to tell prospective candidates to apply elsewhere’

Laurie also admits that some women aren’t in a position to quit their jobs. And that they can’t freely look for work, either, due to the time and stress involved in the interview process. ‘They depend on their pay check and can’t afford to rock the boat. Going to work and paying attention to their personal lives is just about enough. HR needs to work harder to protect those employees from hostile work environments’ But she also asks people to look in the past for lessons on how to rally around one another and create supportive environments at work. ‘Change the system that weighs you down.’ She adds. Laurie recommends women should unionize without unionizing and ‘If you feel like your interests aren’t being looked after, don’t wait for HR to solve your problem. Find your peers, share your concerns, and craft a plan to tackle the work-related issues that are plaguing your lives.’

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Life is often hard and unfair. You need to learn to fight your own battles. Don’t always depend on other people to come to your rescue. You need to be your own saviour. Nothing is more important than your self-respect and integrity and only you can make everyone else realize that too. It’s never too late to stand up and fight your own battle. As they say ‘The best time to start was yesterday, the next best time is now’ and once you have stood up and fought your own battle successfully, come forward and help others fight theirs. Perhaps even start a gulabi gang of your own?

Hira Ali is the C.E.O of ed Management Consulting as well as Founder of Advancing Your Potential & Revitalize and Rise. She is a Leadership Trainer, Motivational Speaker, Writer, Professional Coach & NLP Practitioner. She tweets @advancingyou and can be contacted at hiraali@advancingyourpotential.com.

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