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Sticky Situation: How to Deal With Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Sticky situation(s):

I recently had the privilege of attending one of your presentations on professional image.

I am writing to you about an issue that inserts itself into discussions, almost on a weekly basis. My peers and I regularly discuss issues of gender equality and how we can work to shape the future of our profession. Although the two questions that follow are usually concerns raised by my female peers, they are certainly not issues that are exclusive to women. I was wondering if you have any suggestions to approach the following two situations:

1. When a superior at work makes an inappropriate remark or gesture that is sexual in nature how should one respond?

Our concern is that we may be fired, or create barriers to our success in the workplace, especially if the superior is in a mentoring role or has a significant say in promotions or full-time job offers.

For example, if a woman is sitting cross-legged in a desk chair (because they find that they are productive and comfortable in that position) and a superior says: "You're flexible."

2. When a client or a business partner makes an inappropriate remark that is sexual in nature in front of your superior(s) and they fail to explicitly acknowledge the problem. How should you react in this situation?

For example, a female employee drops off a file in a boardroom where a client and the employee's boss are sitting. The client makes the remark that the employee has "nice, big lips".

Solution(s):

As evidenced by your questions, workplace sexual harassment is gender neutral. The malaise is not only felt by the 60% of women in the Canadian workplace but also by men who are a witness to them or a victim to them. While men on women encounters are more typical, women on men and same sex numbers are rising.

Either way, inappropriate sexual comments or behaviours have consequences for all workers. They impact morale, productivity, absenteeism and employee turnover.

According to our courts, all Canadian workplaces should be free of words and gestures that jeopardize an employee's right to fairness, tolerance, freedom and security. Sexual harassment occurs when an employee feels discriminated against, is intimidated or is simply uncomfortable with the language or actions geared to him/her or that he has been a witness to. Any unwelcome conduct; verbal, non-verbal, written, visual or physical of sexual nature, that is severe or pervasive applies to sexual harassment claims.

These emotionally loaded 'sticky situations' that involve sex and power are challenging for new recruits and seasoned professionals alike. The potential losses of employment, being overlooked for an employment opportunity or an upcoming promotion, are real.

As a newcomer or an existing employee, dealing with these scenarios is based on your level of comfort with the person and the seriousness of the vocal, verbal or visual message.

When deciding on if, or how, to intervene, consider the following:

• Seek information about your rights and the fulfillment of your roles and responsibilities. Familiarize yourself with your employee manual and your employer's policy for harassment or respectful workplace environment. Follow its proposed procedures and use the resources made available to you, in the prescribed process.

• Before making an outside claim to a government or law representative, follow the intercompany communication channels.

• Prior to making an internal or external complaint, document the scene with a clear record of the event(s). Do so as quickly as possible, before your memory plays tricks on you. Your evidence should include dates, times and persons present. Add as many details as possible. Make copies of all documents and keep one at home. You may even share this information with a confidant.

• Depending on the situation and your connection with the instigator, you may choose to ask the person to stop the use of offensive words or actions. Make direct eye contact and be precise in your description of what is inappropriate and making you feel uncomfortable. If he or she repeats them, be firm by telling them that this is not acceptable. Add that if they do it again, you will report them. Depending on the severity of the language or the comportment, you may voice your concerns on the spot or choose to meet the person in private. When meeting one-on-one remain factual about the inappropriateness of the incident.

• As a young professional beginning his/her career in a new organization, determining if a client and/or colleague interaction has crossed the line, from professional to intimate, may at times be tricky. For a first time observation, where the boundaries are blurry, you may choose to simply excuse yourself and leave the scene. Away from onlookers, document the occurrence. If it reoccurs, go back to the previous considerations. Here too you may seek the counsel of a confidant to validate.

• The last option is looking for other employment opportunities and ultimately leaving your position, for a more respectful workplace environment. Sometimes, rarely I hope, that is the best option for you; your health, your safety, your career and your general well-being.

Whether it is a light touch, a slap on the back joke or a 'salty' email, sexual harassment is serious and should be stopped. We all share that responsibility.

Have a Sticky Situation yourself, write to julie@etiquettejulie.com and Julie will reply promptly. You can also ask your questions on her Facebook page.