Sex harassment — so common a term that everyone thinks they know what these words mean and what happens when accusations fly. Do you?

He said he didn’t harass her. She said he did. 

Often, sexual harassment happens behind closed doors and out of others’ eyesight. How do we unravel what happened?  If you’re in management or HR, or a co-worker wanting to come to another’s aid, you may want to know. After all, someone was potentially victimized and another someone’s reputation is at stake.

Here’s what to know. You’ve probably met two types of individuals who can’t tell you whether harassment occurred or didn’t — the too thin-skinned and the totally clueless.

To the thin-skinned, even sideways looks register 6.4 on a sensitivity Richter scale.

According to the clueless, no one should be offended unless they “meant it” or managed the difficult feat of offending themselves.

Ultimately, 12 jurors render a verdict for whether sexual harassment occurred. Thus 12 jurors told thin-skinned Delores to lighten up when she sued after her co-worker watched a “Seinfeld” episode and the next morning repeated a one-time dictionary joke about her name rhyming with a part of the female anatomy.

Jurors similarly surprised the construction crew members who thought it funny when they wrote their female co-workers’ names in the snow when relieving themselves. “Just a guy thing,” said the construction crew’s management. “Gross sexually laden harassment,” declared the jurors.

So what’s the big deal?

If you harass and a jury finds you guilty, you pay an average of $50,000 in damages to your victim. Your company may pay hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars because they didn’t stop you in time. Additionally, you and your company may spend thousands of hours with and dollars on attorneys. The final big deal — your damaged career.

Where there’s smoke there’s fire

Not true. Approximately 50 percent of sex harassment investigations result in a finding of “no harassment.”

I never asked her for sex and so it wasn’t sex harassment

Who said sex harassment was about sex? Often, it’s about power and one individual’s desire to dominate a co-worker or subordinate. Sexual harassment includes repeated insults, innuendos and touches that have little to do with romance. If you say, “Hey, babe, nice tits” when you greet the receptionist, you sexually harass.

What if falsely accused?

The best defense isn’t a good offense, nor is a blanket denial. Good investigators ferret out the truth. If you try to bluff your way through or make yourself appear better behaved than you are, you weaken your credibility and shoot yourself in the foot.

If a co-worker accuses you of harassment, stop and think, “Why did I get accused?” If you decide your co-worker maliciously accused you because of a personality or other conflict, tell the investigator so the real story can surface.

If, however, you got called on the carpet for telling off-color jokes or similar behaviors, immediately clean up your behavior.

While this sounds like common sense, a surprising number of those accused of inappropriate behavior get their backs up when accused and “defend” themselves by escalating problem behavior. For example, those accused of telling inappropriate jokes often tell everyone they can find off-color jokes to make the point that others appreciate these jokes, thus nailing their own coffin shut.

Once accused, never confront your accuser alone, even if you see them off-site, particularly if you think they’re out to get you. Those who confront accusers in parking lots risk their alleged victims running to their cars and “falling” into the car doors, then driving to a medical clinic and getting the wound photographed to substantiate a stalking allegation. Confront a frightened co-worker in a grocery store and the victim may scream, creating witness reports that turn a civil sexual harassment claim into a criminal suit.

If someone files a complaint against you, back off. If you want to air the whole situation, tell your attorney.

He’s a good guy; he couldn’t have done what she said

Good people do bad and stupid things, including harassment. A manager may achieve high sales or outstanding productivity and yet suffer from a fatal flaw that leads him or her to misbehave.

Beyond a shadow of doubt

Unlike criminal court, in which guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt or the court of public opinion in which innocence needs to be proven or guilt may be assumed, sexual harassment cases rest on prima facie evidence. Prima facie means “what would a reasonable person conclude?” In other words, what would someone other than you say when looking at what occurred?

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ” Beating the Workplace Bully” and ” Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm  The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter  @lynnecury10 or at

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