Unfortunately, I have experienced sexual harassment, not just once, but many times throughout my career. Sometimes it was by a peer, a few times it was by management, and other times by co-workers. While regrettable, I can’t say I was a victim of the experience, because I believe that we are only victims when we don’t deal with the issue. Also, as someone who had experienced harassment and hostile work environments, I have to acknowledge that after the first time I had to be careful not to interpret words and behaviors in that context when things weren’t meant that way.

My first experience with sexual harassment occurred as a teenager working a part-time job. It was unnerving, intimidating, and totally out of line. It also was a breach of trust issue, but it was also the real world where sometimes the other gender in workplace is clueless. This was the early 80’s and the world was changing at home and in the workplace (not that this an excuse, but the time period was a factor). In the late 80’s, at my first full-time career position, issues of harassment centered more on inequity in behaviors and perceptions of particular members of management. In one instance, I was called in for wearing red. According to my boss, “Red is a power color is reserved for men.” This was a red flag (no pun intended) for me and the few women on the management team. The day after the red edict was issued, all the women in management in the organization arrived wearing red … including me!

One of the most blatant and potentially demoralizing incidents occurred at my next job, when I reported being harassed by a point of contact at a client organization. The response from the female human resources manager: “Do whatever it takes to make the client happy!” My response was, “He will never be that happy.” It was not a matter of words or comments; this guy was twice my age (I was 23) and my staff was afraid for me to even be alone with him. The extremes that we had to go through to ensure that he could not get me alone were ridiculous. But ultimately, I went around the HR manager, and dealt with the situation and transferred to a new location (and received a promotion).

Whether it is words or actions, sometimes the definition of “appropriate behavior” comes down to perception and perspective. If attention is unwanted and declined or if the joke, comment or other action is obviously out of place in the workplace, then organizations must be prepared to stop it. When they aren’t, it is not just unfortunate but unforgivable.

Perceptions and perspectives of harassment came into play at my next company, which had a firm policy on sexual harassment and workplace conduct. At one point I was dealing with two very different executives, both nearing 40 years at the organization, but with completely different methods of dealing with subordinates. The first gentleman said to me in a meeting, “Honey, sit down and be quiet; I’ll tell you when you have an opinion.” However, his peer in management would call me and say “Honey, can you come by my office and explain this financial stuff to me. I can’t seem to follow what is going on.”

In the first case, my response was a polite but direct pushback in front of roughly 100 co-workers: “I am not your honey, darling, or baby. I am your finance representative and I will inform you of my opinion.” That went over like a lead balloon with my management chain of command and triggered an additional conversation. I informed them that I could make it clear that this was inappropriate and I would not accept it, or I could file a formal complaint.

In the second instance, the executive who would call on me for my expertise was a gentleman of another age and his use of the word “honey” was neither derogatory nor harassing. It was the manner in which he spoke. Many times I was asked why some managers would be called out for their use of “honey” and this particular gentleman would. Pointing out the context and the intent of the person made the difference was an educational process for both men and women in the organization.

Today there are still many comments and actions that could be taken as harassment or discrimination, but I put things into perspective, and know that I have the power. I can choose whom I do business with. I can also choose how I handle discriminatory people and comments. I have had comments made on my accent, appearance, strong opinions, and more. These comments reflect negatively on the speaker—not on me. People can only use your gender, background, etc. against you when you allow it to happen.

Behavior is learned. Perception is personal. As the old saying goes, ”If you are hammer, everything you see is a nail.” From my experience, past harassment or discrimination means that future behaviors are filtered through that perspective. We are often captive to our experiences and if we cannot be objective about the intentions of others, then we will walk through the world expecting more bad behavior. I do not—and will never condone—improper, inappropriate behavior that is discriminatory, harassing or otherwise demeaning, but I also know that there is always two sides to a story … and then there’s the truth.

In any social or workplace situation, you should:

  1. Be aware of your own experiences and perceptions and how your expectations may impact what you are seeing and hearing and feeling about something.
  2. Assert your boundaries for the behavior you will and will not accept. Even in tough economic times, early in your career, etc. you have alternatives to putting up with a bad situation.
  3. Identify the factors that are influencing the behavior of co-workers, peers, and others in the workplace or social settings. Do they come from different backgrounds, experiences, cultures? What we in the United States expect as “normal” may not be the same when someone comes from a different part of the world—or even a region inside the US.
  4. Inform the person when you are not comfortable with his/her actions (yes it works both ways).
  5. Work within the boundaries of your organization or group to address the situation. If it cannot be resolved, be prepared to either take it to an external source for resolution or move on from the situation.
  6. Document, document, document: The more support information you have the better your chances are for getting the issue addressed.
  7. Seek advice and perspective. Get the input of people you respect and who will understand the situation: discuss with independent counselors or advisors, mentors, or other experienced professionals that can give you meaningful advice from their experience (look outside the organization when possible).
  8. Put yourself mentally, professionally, physically, and emotionally in the right place to address the issue.
  9. Learn from the experience, but do not be victimized by the experience, no matter how it is resolved.
  10. Get beyond the experience; you won’t forget it, but it should not be given more power over your perceptions than it needs to have.

Since sexual harassment allegations are a hot button topic, I have found myself watching everything—even popular TV shows—with an eye on behaviors. Whether it’s in a drama or comedy, on TV or at movies, where the workplace and social settings are portrayed, you can often count 10 or more comments or actions that are “inappropriate” in those settings. What makes the stories not about sexual harassment and hostile work environments is the relationship of the characters portraying the events that filters our perceptions. Innocent flirting stays innocent because we know the characters and their personalities. In the real-world workplace, without those relationships the same behavior would likely involve someone being sent to the human resources office.

We cannot become inured to the impact of harassment and bad behavior, but we also do not have to look for it, expect, anticipate it or gleefully celebrate it as a 24/7 news event—regardless of who is alleged to have engaged in the behavior. We also need to realize that the standard for determining bad behavior is not a hard and fast line. But, we can draw a consistent box around the parameters and our reactions to the behaviors. There is a huge chasm between someone making a comment that offends versus a supervisor or co-worker that rapes, or a political figure that has an affair with a subordinate while in office.

It is time to become more aware and knowledgeable (and perhaps less sensitive) and give each other the benefit of the doubt the first time some passing comment seems inappropriate. Stop, ask and caution. But if it happens again, take appropriate action, get resolution and move on.

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