By Jennifer K. Crittenden, Special for THE TIME USA
Recently, I attended a workshop about sexual harassment with some college students. During our discussion, I became aware that they thought that, once they were out working, the first reaction to something that might be sexual harassment should be to head straight to human resources to report it. Er. Hold on. Let’s look at two types of incidents from a practical standpoint.
If someone has threatened to fire you if you don’t sleep with them, that’s illegal, and a one-time offense constitutes sexual harassment, the so-called quid pro quo offense. If that happens to you, and you can prove it, fine, go to HR. Everything else though? It’s going to be more of a judgment call. Propositioning someone at work is not illegal although many think it is. Even offensive jokes or photos aren’t illegal unless their frequency and severity rise to the level of creating a hostile work environment. That can be a pretty high bar, and most complaints fall into a gray area.
Believe it or not, the human resources staff is not waiting breathlessly for you to march in to tattle on someone. Even if they are well-intentioned, competent professionals, you aren’t going to make their day. Human resources staff vary in their abilities; some are excellent, experienced and wise people who have had to deal with lots of complicated cases; others not so much. Inexperienced, awkward, or even overzealous HR staff can make a situation worse, rather than better. Because their responsibility is to keep the company out of lawsuits, they are also inherently conflicted. If you wave a flag at them that says, “Hey! Potential liability over here,” don’t be surprised when they don’t run right over to document your tale of woe. In fact, they may discourage you from pursuing your complaint, or they may make light of it and try to jolly you out of it, especially if it doesn’t seem like something really serious.
In my experience, a person who was feeling harassed often wanted someone (HR or the boss) to speak to the offender and just make the problem go away. It can’t work that way because HR can’t take your side without giving the accused a chance to tell their story. It wouldn’t be fair. So HR will be confronted with a decision about whether or not to start an investigation into what happened. Do you really want HR to go to the person that you work with and say, “So-and-so said you did thus-and-such. He or she didn’t like it. Tell me your side.” Will that turn out well for you? If you look like someone who over-reacts, who can’t take a joke, or who exaggerates, it’s not going to help your reputation. I’ve known many excellent HR staff who greeted a complaint about someone’s behavior with a sigh and an eye roll. They don’t have a magic wand. They can’t make everyone get along.
Here’s an alternative to consider. Harassing behavior spans a spectrum from circulating jokes, using innuendo, or simply ostracizing someone all way up to unwanted touching, bullying, or assault. You have to assess the severity of the behavior, along with its frequency, and what evidence you have of it. Rather than involving HR, you may want to think about what actions you can take to reduce the impact of the behavior or get it to stop on your own. Pointing the behavior out to the perpetrator, even humorously, can send a strong message about your discomfort. Defusing or avoiding the situation or trying different reactions to see if you can influence someone’s behavior is more empowering and can be more effective. Confronting the person and explaining how their behavior is making you feel could make you uncomfortable, but it may cut down on the behavior or stop its progression into more egregious actions. As you gain experience and develop your observation skills, your coping skills, and your verbal skills, you will become more adept at navigating these situations and more comfortable with dealing with them on your own.
Let’s look at a specific example I was told about recently. A young cocktail waitress reported her boss would frequently ask her about her sex life. The poor waitress was intimidated and would tell the truth, even though it embarrassed her. After she was let go from the job, she was angry and felt that she had no recourse to complain about what had happened. Let’s break this down: was the boss’s behavior illegal? Probably not. Unless it was joined by other objectionable behavior, it probably wasn’t creating a hostile workplace. Should the waitress have answered the questions? Probably not since it upset her. What could she have done? A few things come to mind: answer lightly or humorously, e.g., “Hey, what happens down there stays down there.” Put the question back on the boss about why they are taking such an inappropriate interest, e.g., “Why are you asking? Are you writing an erotic novel or something?” Turn the boss’s attention back to the work they should be focused on, e.g., “My sex life is boring. I want to talk about what drinks are on special tonight, so I can make some money!”
Here’s another example that came up during a recent radio interview. A man was out at a restaurant with a female co-worker who disclosed that she was a big fan of the Three Stooges. The man said that he was surprised because, in his experience, most women didn’t like slapstick. When he came into work on Monday, HR told him that a complaint had been filed against him. I know this sounds ridiculous, so perhaps something was lost in the translation, but if it’s true, there’s no doubt that a complaint should not have been filed. The offended woman should have spoken up then, saying, “Ha ha, I’ve always been the weirdo,” or “You’d be surprised. A lot of women have a secret slapstick side,” or “What do you mean, slapstick? The Three Stooges are highly intellectual!” Or she should just grow up. It certainly didn’t help their working relationship to have pulled HR into the mix.
These situations are tricky, and there’s much for you to consider when things are happening in the workplace that make you uncomfortable. You want to assess the behavior in light of its real effect on you—maybe the guy is a jerk, but it doesn’t really bother you. Maybe you’re going to be moving on to a different job soon anyway. You want to consider whether going to someone else will help your situation or make it worse. In my view, the most important thing for you to focus on is you. Are you doing okay despite the behavior? It’s not your job to police the workplace and make sure everyone is behaving correctly. You only need to ensure that you protect yourself and your career. You may find that you yourself are better equipped to deal with a situation than HR is.