Crucial Skills®

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Dealing with Workplace Harassment


David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of two New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything and Influencer.


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Q Dear Crucial Skills,

One of my coworkers has been harassing me for more than three months. I have expressed that I am only interested in maintaining a professional relationship and asked him to refrain from touching me or making further advances. When he ignored my request I complained to company management, but six weeks later the sexual harassment has continued and expanded to include other forms of harassment.

I filed another complaint and he has been talked to again but not terminated. I have been told that if there are future problems, he will be let go. In the meantime, I find myself in a job I love but where I no longer feel safe. I am required to work with this individual and maintain a professional relationship. After reporting the problem twice without seeing any results, I do not feel the harassing party will ever stop and I am not confident the company will protect me. I’m considering a job change. Do you have any advice for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace?


A Dear Harassed,

Sexual harassment is very hurtful and scary, and it can be very challenging to resolve. My heart goes out to you. My first and most important piece of advice is to stay safe. Don’t allow yourself to be in a position where you can be harmed. Your safety needs to be your first concern.Next, I’ll try to answer your questions.

As you know, sexual harassment has legal implications and I want to make it clear up front that I’m not an attorney. Please don’t consider any of my suggestions as legal advice. I’ll focus on three elements:

1. Understand the law and your organization’s policies.
2. Be clear in words and actions that this person’s advances are unwanted.
3. Have a crucial conversation with human resources.

Understand policies and laws. If you haven’t already, get a copy of your organization’s sexual harassment policy. Read it carefully, write down questions it raises, and then meet with HR to get answers to your questions. Remember that the people in HR have to walk a careful line. They don’t want to permit harassment, but they also need to follow due process. They’ve told you they are monitoring the situation. Do your best to help them do their job.

If you have questions about laws that protect against sexual harassment, you should seek advice from an attorney with expertise on this issue. The basic law prohibits harassment and requires employers to maintain workplaces that are safe and free of harassment. However, the interpretation and enforcement of this law leaves many victims of harassment dissatisfied. Likewise, the interpretation presents challenges for people who believe they are wrongfully accused of harassment when they were trying to be friendly or just joking around.

The law would be clear if you were fired for refusing sexual advances. However, your experience is better described as a “hostile” work environment and people—even judges—don’t always agree on what “hostile” means.

Be clear in words and actions. You share that you’re required to work with this person and maintain a professional relationship. This is very typical of harassment situations and it’s incredibly tough to do. You need to stay professional while keeping yourself safe from someone you no longer trust. Know that others are watching you as well as your harasser. Behave as if your interactions are being videotaped and picked apart by a skeptical jury. Be on your best behavior.

Often, a harasser’s defense boils down to “it was a misunderstanding,” and this defense will sometimes win—both with HR and in court. Make sure your message is clear, unambiguous, and public. If your coworker is inappropriate when others are around, be quick to ask him to stop. You want others to witness two events: his bad behavior and your immediate, professional, and unambiguous response. If possible, avoid being alone with your coworker to avoid any “he said, she said” situations. Keep a journal with dates, times, and details of any inappropriate actions—including quotes of what was said—and report incidents to your manager and to HR immediately. Build a case that will refute any claim of misunderstanding.

Avoid behaviors that could be seen as flirting and don’t take part in bawdy conversations or jokes. Don’t initiate or accept invitations to be alone with your coworker in situations that he or others might interpret to be social or a date.

Have a crucial conversation with HR. It appears that you have already had a crucial conversation with HR and that HR believes it is following the letter of its sexual harassment policy. This policy probably involves verbal and written warnings. Again, based on your description, it sounds as if HR has made it clear that further harassment will result in termination. Since the harassment is continuing, I suggest you promptly have a second crucial conversation with HR. Here are a few ideas for this next conversation.

Share your facts. Detail exactly what has happened since your last conversation with HR. If you’ve taken notes, use your notes and provide them at the end of your conversation. Describe the circumstances, exactly what was said or done, who may have witnessed the incident, etc. If there have been multiple incidents, describe each of the incidents in detail. With harassment, there is often some ambiguity—what politicians call “plausible deniability.” Do your best to provide enough details to make the facts undeniable.
Tell your story. After you have detailed the facts, tell your story. Explain how these facts fit together into a pattern of continuing harassment. You say the harassment has expanded into new forms of workplace harassment. Make sure to describe the common thread that ties these incidents together. Make sure HR understand that you no longer feel safe at work.
Ask for others’ paths. Stop and ask the HR professionals for their help. Know that HR can’t violate the confidentiality involved in the formal disciplinary system, so don’t ask them to tell you exactly what they will do to your harasser. Instead, ask for how they can help you. Ask them to prevent the harassment and ensure your safety.
Talk tentatively. Avoid accusing HR of not doing their job. They must give due process to both you and your harasser. Be open to ideas that will work to solve the situation, but also be honest about ideas that won’t work for you.
Encourage testing. As you share your facts and tell your story, stop to check for understanding and agreement. Encourage HR to ask you questions and even to play devil’s advocate. You want to hear any concerns they have while you are still in the room and able to respond to them. Ask HR to give you advice and to share what the next steps will be. Have a note pad with you and write down the response.

I want to conclude my response by reiterating that regardless of the course of action you take, first and foremost do what is necessary to stay safe. Incidents of harassment can quickly escalate into an assault. Finally, if you don’t think the situation is being handled appropriately by HR, seek advice from an attorney.


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4 thoughts on “Dealing with Workplace Harassment”

  1. Lois Penn

    Another response would be for the Complainant to submit a request, either to her supervisor or to Human Resources, to assign one of them to a different work area.

    Even if there may not be sufficient grounds for termination, separating the parties might be an important and effective intervention.

  2. Marilyn

    What an excellent response by David and an important comment by Lois. Thanks to you both. This is a very important subject. Too often the victim ends up leaving their job out of fear for personal safety. It’s difficult sometimes for the victim to understand the often tedious processes that HR must go through in providing due process for both the victim and the accused. Sometimes that long process is simply too long – leaving the victim no choice but to terminate their employment in order to ensure their safety – getting the short end of the stick for their career and personal finances in the process.

  3. Herb

    David, great article. Thanks for sharing.One item that i thought might be stressed is instead of just calling it harassment, the person should be documenting exactly the words being used, the “actions” that have ocurred and the responses of the other party, including the words of response. And, unless it is documented on paper and submitted, “it didn’t happen” (which you so appropriately pointed out. Great articleHerb

  4. David Maxfield

    Thanks for your input. I agree that an expedited transfer may be appropriate. However, I worry about people accepting transfers that hurt their careers. For example, leaving a training program before you are certified or transferring from an assignment before it is completed. I hate to think a harassment-driven career move could come back to haunt your career later.

    At the same time, people always ought to put their personal safety first. There is plenty of evidence that workplace rapes and assaults are preceded by harassment.


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