Be sure you know where the line is
We are well past the tipping point. It is now commonplace to hear of men in power toppled from their pedestals due to ugly and coercive behavior toward women on the job. The #MeToo movement has made it abundantly clear that mistreatment of women occurs chronically almost everywhere you look.
Whether you attribute it to the “Trump Effect,” the “Weinstein Effect” or something else, the reality is that we are in the midst of a major cultural movement. The tsunami of allegations will only grow in the future and there is no turning back.
Massive changes and disruptions are coming at the individual, corporate and legislative level. Many of these will come about as a result of scores of lawsuits.
At long last, we will see more women in power positions. Society will benefit because sexual harassment is not just a workplace issue; it is a public-health crisis.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
According to Findlaw, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive workplace.
Whether something is offensive is judged by asking whether a “reasonable person” should have to endure the conduct in question. Sexual harassment can take many forms, but here are some common examples: 1. A male employee making derogatory sexual comments about a coworker’s appearance or clothing; 2. Employees hanging out in common areas telling sexually explicit jokes or sharing them by text or email; 3. A boss referring to his secretary in a sexist and demeaning way; 4. Unwanted touching or coercive requests for sexual favors as a (tacit or express) condition of employment.
Many victims of harassment are hesitant to speak up when they are faced with difficult situations in the workplace. But, employees have the right to go to work without being sexually harassed.
“You have the right to know your rights. Asking for guidance and help goes a long way to providing an understanding of what options you have,” said Sara Wyn Kane, Esq., a resident of Great Neck and a partner at the employment law firm of Valli Kane & Vagnini LLP in Garden City.
“Don’t assume that because you have not been touched that you have to live with it. You don’t,” she continued. “Making a phone call to a lawyer allows you to understand your options. It doesn’t mean you are suing anyone or have made any decisions.”
According to Kane, “These extreme examples of sexual harassment and assault shock our collective conscience—well-respected men doing unspeakable, degrading and bizarre things to woman and/or men simply because they can. As an employment discrimination attorney, I am sadly not surprised as I’ve represented women of all ages grappling with the emotions and choices they are left with in the wake of such behavior. What is important to us as a culture is that we recognize these are not isolated incidents. Yes, many of us have not had our boss expose themselves to us. But, many people have had to choose between laughing along when made to feel uncomfortable by the sexual innuendos or offensive photos shown around the office or speaking up to say, ‘No, I will not tolerate this behavior.’ You should not have to choose between feeding your family or being sexually harassed.”
Specific examples of wrongful behavior include, “Your boss touching you briefly on your backside as he brushes past you; your coworkers telling sexual jokes in front of you and looking at you funny when you don’t laugh along; and your supervisor having a picture of a naked woman on his screen,” explained Kane. “There are countless examples of women
(or men) who have experiences like this every day. They are uncomfortable every day. This is not acceptable and it is potentially actionable. Sexual harassment is not only the extreme examples we’ve all been hearing about lately on the news.”
Carrying the Movement Forward
Harassment of women is just as pervasive, if not more so, in less glamorous industries than we are seeing in the headlines. While it is true that high-salaried women in visible fields like television and Hollywood have courageously come forward, millions more women working in food service, retail and domestic work are also harassed. Female police officers, women in the military and academia, and nurses in hospitals and countless others are the targets of harassment on a daily basis. This has to stop.
“The women’s movement got us into the workplace, but it didn’t make us safe once we got there,” said Ann Curry, the former Today show co-anchor who worked alongside Matt Lauer for more than 10 years. “The battle lines are now clear. We need to move this revolution forward and make our workplaces safe. Corporate America is quite clearly failing to do so and, unless it does something to change that, we need to keep doing more ourselves. I admire the women who have been willing to speak up both anonymously and on the record. Those women need to keep their jobs, and all women need to be able to work, to be able to thrive, without fear. This kind of behavior exists across industries, and it is so long overdue for it to stop. This is a moment when we all need to be a beacon of light for those women, for all women and for ourselves.”
The Important Role of Bystanders
Data shows that roughly 71 percent of women do not report sexual harassment out of fear of retaliation, and far fewer bystanders report harassment they’ve witnessed. While harassment can be experienced by anyone, data shows that 25 percent of women report being sexually harassed in the workplace, more than double the percentage of men.
Tarana Burke, the originator of the #MeToo movement, explained that it is important for everyone to get involved in stopping bad behavior.
“One actionable step is for folks to be accountable—not just the perpetrator but the bystander,” said Burke. “Men and women who see harassment in action should one, let the victim know they are supported (this doesn’t have to be a big grandiose gesture but some show of support) and, two, don’t tolerate it. Full stop.”
Other women’s advocates are calling out for even more accountability.
“The actionable next step is continuing to expose and hold accountable more Harvey Weinsteins in different industries—and that includes men speaking out against other men, not just survivors of harassment and assault,” said Shaunna Thomas, cofounder and co-executive director of UltraViolet, an organization of women and men fighting for women’s rights, from politics and policy to media and pop culture. “As we see more accountability, more women will feel comfortable coming forward and there will be a shift of power away from men who have been getting away with harassment for so long with impunity. Instead of instances of assault and harassment being enabled and buried in silence, there will be consequences and that will change future actions.”
Businesses need to ensure that there is zero tolerance for harassment or retaliation against reports of harassment. What is needed is a top-down culture of respect and incentives to report bad behavior. These policies would stop harassment in its tracks and, at the same time, encourage a culture of civility and respect in the workplace. Ripple effects at the workplace would extend into the rest of society and benefit future generations.
Where to Draw the Line
Needless to say, not every off-color joke or insensitive comment is grounds for reporting. Some joking is fun, while other types of humor go over the line. If you encounter offensive behavior at a meeting or work encounter, be brave enough to call it out, especially if others are around.
You can say: “Knock it off; that’s not funny” or “That is making me uncomfortable; stop.” Be clear and be firm.
In today’s world, there is a much stronger likelihood that the behavior will change. If it doesn’t, consider making a formal report by email to the appropriate department. Don’t wait too long to document the situation. As we all know, victims of harassment are frequently challenged because they “waited too long” before filing a report.
Other advice? Make it a policy not to date coworkers—or mixing business and pleasure. Office romances are exceedingly risky. If you take the risk, be prepared for negative consequences. In the same vein, avoid discussing your dating life and sex life at the water cooler—or openly on social media. If you value your career and paycheck, work should be kept separate from your personal life.
What Employers Need to Do to Protect Their Companies and Employees
According to FindLaw, employers are obligated to maintain a safe and secure workplace—and that includes preventing sexual harassment. It’s good business practice to have training and policies in place, because it can help you down the line in the event of lawsuits.
Encourage individuals to come forward if they are uncomfortable with coworkers. Take all complaints very seriously. Sexual harassment is prosecuted under the same federal laws used to prosecute employers for race and religious discrimination, so it’s important for employers to take it just as seriously as other forms of discrimination. An employment lawyer is a good resource for employers if guidance is needed.
The Safe Center staff can educate businesses of all types on how to recognize when employees may be experiencing abuse, violence or stalking. Sexual harassment and domestic violence can cost significant revenue loss in the workplace due to lost time and hours of productivity. To book a training session for your business, contact The Safe Center Education Department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kings Point resident Jacqueline Harounian is a regular contributor to the Great Neck Record. She recently earned a graduate degree in behavioral forensic psychology and is a trained victims advocate at The Safe Center in Bethpage.