The Sexual Harassment Handbook, Everything You Need to Know Before Someone Calls a Lawyer by Linda Gordon Howard
Employers are increasingly aware that sexual harassment is a problem and that they may be in for trouble if an incident happens in their workplace. However, they still struggle to understand exactly what it is and how to prevent it. In this useful manual, attorney Linda Gordon Howard explains U.S. law in plain language and provides real-life examples of sexual harassment. She points out that sexual harassment affects more than the actor or the target; it can create mistrust and poison the entire workplace atmosphere. She provides advice about investigating complaints, taking action and creating policies. getAbstract recommends this book to human resource managers and supervisors who wish to create workplaces that comply with the law and remain free of hostility.
- Sexual harassment can occur when one person, male or female, has power over another.
- Legally, sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior that has a detrimental effect on an employee’s performance.
- Much sexual harassment is unintentional.
- Workplaces don’t need to become dour settings where jokes and flirting are forbidden.
- Supervisors should never become romantically involved with the people they oversee.
- Regardless of how you say “no” to a sexual come-on, the person who made the request should listen to you.
- Employers must do more than announce sexual harassment policies; they must also investigate complaints.
- Employers should encourage employees to report sexual harassment.
- If you’ve been harassed, document everything before you forget the details.
- Being named in a sexual harassment complaint doesn’t mean you are guilty.
The Sexual Harassment Handbook Book Summary
How Sexual Harassment Became an Issue
The workplace is a nonthreatening environment where people can get to know each other. Romance is nothing to worry about and is quite different from sexual harassment. Romantic relationships are consensual, and the people involved share similar feelings. In contrast, sexual harassment is nonconsensual and unwelcome. It usually occurs in four kinds of situations:
- One person does not want a relationship, but fears that if he or she doesn’t obey a direct supervisor the consequences will be dire.
- A harasser offends a co-worker with comments or actions.
- Co-workers end a romantic relationship, and one wants to reunite while the other doesn’t.
- A group harasses an individual they dislike.
“The currently available tools do not acknowledge the biological and social fact that when people work together, sexual attraction and sexual behavior are inevitable.”
Although sexual harassment has been around forever, changes in law and culture, especially women’s mass entry into the workforce during the last half of the 20th century, have changed society’s view of it. Public awareness of the problem has increased due to high-profile incidents, such as the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, during which Anita Hill – a lawyer who had worked for him in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – accused him of sexually harassing her.
“The difference in perception of sexual harassment between men and women does not represent an inherent failure of men, but rather a difference in experience and exposure.”
Employees gained protection from harassment with the enactment of antidiscrimination laws such as Title VII, which forbids companies to discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex or disability, and protects employees from wrongful treatment and poor working conditions. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that men can be deemed to have harassed other men (and, by implication, that women could be seen as harassing harass other women); that employers are responsible financially and legally if harassment occurs, even if the employee never reported it; that having antiharassment policies in place can protect employers from liability; and that the employer is responsible if an employee loses a job or benefits as a result of sexual harassment.
“It is possible to work together as human beings who value each other, even flirt and joke together, while steering clear of offensive behavior.”
Executives at more than half of businesses in the U.S. believe that sexual harassment is a serious issue that they should address. Many employers conduct training and have instituted antiharassment policies.
Everything You Need to Know about Harassment You Learned in Kindergarten
Three rules, which most people learned as children, can help you avoid becoming the target of harassment accusations:
- “Leave anyone alone who doesn’t want to play” – Listen to what others say, and do as they ask. This isn’t easy, because most people don’t want to reject others and don’t always communicate their wishes clearly.
- “Don’t be mean” – Often you don’t intend to hurt, offend or humiliate someone. However, the law doesn’t take into account your intention; it considers only the effect of your behavior. “I was just joking” is not a valid defense.
- “Don’t pick on little kids” – In the workplace, “little kids” means those with less power than you. Sexual harassment is mainly about power, not sex. Supervisors must be particularly sensitive and avoid using their authority to coerce others.
Defining Sexual Harassment
Terms such as “victim” and “harasser” can affect how others see the people involved in an incident. To sort out what really happened, use neutral terms such as “actor” and “target” to identify who did what. The legal term “responsible supervisor” refers to the person who investigates the sexual harassment complaint. Co-workers who witnessed the incident are the “active observers.”
“Women in positions of supervisory power are able to impose unwanted and offensive behavior on their male and female subordinates just as men in supervisory positions are able to do.”
Legally, sexual harassment is unwanted and has a negative effect on the target. To fit the definition, it must include these four elements:
- The actor does something verbal, visual or physical, such as touching or flirting.
- The target views the action as unwelcome or unwanted.
- The action is somehow sex- or gender-related.
- The interaction damages the target’s performance, work environment or job security.
“The pursuit of female company or sexual satisfaction is one thing, but using one’s authority as a supervisor or taking advantage of the woman’s inability to escape the attention without leaving her job is another thing altogether.”
Sexual harassment incidents are usually of two kinds:
- “Quid pro quo” – Exchanging a job, promotion or benefit for sex or related activity.
- “Hostile environment” – Creating a poisonous atmosphere. For example, the men in one office regularly pinched and touched a female co-worker, and used vulgar language toward her. Although she didn’t lose any tangible benefits, she experienced harassment nevertheless.
“Once the target submits a formal complaint, no matter how understanding the employer is or how conciliatory the employer represents the complaint procedure to be, the process becomes adversarial.”
Although the legal definition of sexual harassment may sound clear-cut, with language such as “unwelcome” and “sexual,” you can’t always be sure when you’ve crossed the line. Generally, when the target expresses disapproval, you’re harassing him or her. But people don’t always express their dissatisfaction, and the courts don’t view certain one-time behaviors as harassment.
Dealing with Sexual Harassment
If your supervisor makes unwelcome advances, tell him or her. Focus on the action rather than the supervisor’s character or motives. When you approach a supervisor with a complaint about his or her behavior, the supervisor should thank you for the feedback and agree not to do the offensive action again. If that doesn’t work or if you are reluctant to speak up, report the problem to the appropriate manager as soon as possible.
“The key to dealing with an accusation of sexual harassment is recognizing the target’s communication for what it is: a complaint.”
To minimize the possibility of sexual harassment accusations, supervisors should not initiate sexual relationships with subordinates and should reject their advances. Even if your subordinate seems to welcome the relationship, avoid entanglement.
Women sometimes reject men’s advances tactfully by saying something such as: “I have other plans” – leading some men to think they are still open to another invitation. When someone turns you down, no matter how politely, take the response as a final no.
“It is tempting to dismiss an employee’s concerns if other employees put up with, were not bothered by or were amused by the behavior.”
Harassment among co-workers is different from harassment by supervisors, since co-workers don’t have the power to withhold tangible benefits. However, if an employee complains about sexual harassment from co-workers, and the employer either has no policy or fails to investigate the problem, then the court may hold the employer liable.
Conduct a Self-Assessment
Look at these three aspects of your behavior to make sure you’re not offending those around you:
- “Innocent interaction” – In an innocent interaction, you don’t have an agenda. Determine if your actions or statements are offensive, sexual or condescending by examining the response you seek. Ask yourself whether you would have done the same if the target was the other gender. If your answer is yes, then your interaction was probably innocent.
- “Gender-specific agenda” – Flirtatious comments, including invitations for drinks, dinner or other social activities, or references to the target’s body parts, appearance or social life can be harassing if the target doesn’t welcome them. If the target responds by laughing uncomfortably, changing the subject or ending the conversation, he or she probably finds your comment unwelcome.
- “Hostile agenda” – If you don’t care about the target’s response to your actions, you may be acting out of anger or resentment, not fondness or attraction.
What to Do if Someone Harasses You
Take nine steps if you experience sexual harassment:
- Admit that a problem exists – This doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong, but rather that the actor is bothering you and that you need to take action. It’s not your fault. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed by the situation.
- Ask the actor to stop – Explain that the behavior upsets you. You may have to bring it up more than once to get your message across.
- Talk to someone you trust – Find someone who can provide support, help you recognize your feelings and take the right follow-up actions.
- Look up your organization’s sexual harassment policy – Determine whether the behavior constitutes sexual harassment.
- Document everything – Write down names, dates, actions and how you felt. Identify potential witnesses. This diary can serve as evidence. Keep it at home, since information at the business site belongs to the company, and if you leave your job, you won’t be able to take the documentation with you.
- Report the behavior – Your company’s policy should include a procedure for reporting complaints. Reporting may make you feel uncomfortable or you may want to avoid confrontation. You may not want to see the actor fired; you just want the behavior to stop. However, this might not happen if you don’t report it.
- Answer questions during the investigation – Be prepared for more than one interview session, and make sure you have enough copies of all relevant information. Never give away your originals.
- Seek help from an external agency – If your employer doesn’t plan to investigate, then turn to an external organization such as your state antidiscrimination agency or the federal EEOC. The EEOC requires you to file within 180 days of the incident.
- Get a lawyer – You need a lawyer if your employer has taken no action or if the external agency requests that you sign documents. Lawsuits can take a long time to resolve and can be emotionally and financially draining.
What to Do If Someone Accuses You
If you face an accusation of harassment, take it seriously. Listen to the target. Talk with employees to learn what behaviors they consider acceptable. Stop doing anything your target identified as unwelcome. Review your employer’s sexual harassment policy. Get the advice and support you need to evaluate the situation and find a resolution. Document all activities. Refrain from trying to convince the target that you did nothing wrong.
“The tendency to impose maximum penalties for every violation tends to discourage targets from reporting incidents of sexual harassment.”
If you receive a formal complaint, read the documentation and contact the manager who sent it to you to find out about the complaint process and what you must do. Remember that your company has a responsibility to investigate complaints; a complaint does not mean that you are guilty. Some workers make revenge complaints after they’ve been fired.
The Role of the Supervisor
When you receive a complaint, listen. During the initial contact, learn about and understand the problem. Determine whether the incident is sexual harassment. Ensure the employee’s safety. After resolving any security issues, explain to the employee what happens next. If you’re not sure what to do, find out. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
“Basic prevention activities are usually enough to eliminate much of the employer’s risk of liability.”
Explain the company’s sexual harassment policy, give the employee a copy, and answer any questions about the policy and procedures. Respect the employee’s concerns. Ask for documentation. End the meeting by telling the employee what you will do and when to expect follow up. Soon afterward, contact the responsible person or the EEOC.
The Employer’s Responsibility
Organizations must have policies that explain sexual harassment clearly, and outline procedures for reporting and investigating a situation. The complaint procedure should be easy to follow and use. Though only a handful of states require employers to conduct sexual harassment training, you may want to provide it to communicate the policy and norms for your workplace.
About the Author
Linda Gordon Howard is an attorney, consultant and trainer with expertise in legal and management practices related to sexual harassment.