Sex harassment – so obvious we think we know what it means and is. But do we? Which of these myths have you or others in your workplace believed?
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 another. Sexual harassment includes repeated insults, innuendos and touches that have little to do with romance. If you walk into a room intended to have a professional discussion and find yourself greeted by “hey, babe, I’m imagining you on your knees,” you’re offered not sex but humiliation.
She never said “stop” and so I didn’t know
While victims have some responsibility for saying “stop;” they don’t have sole responsibility. Juries recognize that victims may be too intimidated to speak out and hold employers and managers responsible for noticing harassment.
He’s a good guy; he couldn’t have done what she said
Good people do bad and stupid things, including harassment. A personable, high-achieving manager may suffer from a fatal flaw that leads him or her to misbehave.
It’s easy/impossible to prove
We’ve all heard it’s “he said/she said.” Except it’s not – after conducting several thousand investigations I can tell you it’s generally possible to say “harassment probably occurred” – or didn’t.
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 case decisions rest on the basis of a preponderance of the evidence. When all the facts are presented, what will twelve reasonable people, the jury, conclude?
He insists he didn’t harass her. She claims he did.
You’ve probably met two individuals who can’t tell you whether harassment occurred or didn’t – the too thin-skinned and the totally clueless. According to those 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, twelve jurors render a verdict. Thus twelve jurors told thin-skinned female 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.
It’s no big deal
If you harass and a jury finds you guilty, you pay an average of fifty thousand dollars 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 thousands of dollars on attorneys.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire.
Not true. Approximately fifty percent of sex harassment investigations result in a finding of “no harassment.”
Don’t bluff 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 “how come I got 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 icy 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.
© 2017, Lynne Curry
Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Solutions” and “Beating the Workplace Bully” and founded The Growth Company, an Avitus company. Curry is now a Regional Director of Training and Business Consulting at Avitus Group. Send your questions to her at Lcurry@avitusgroup.com, follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10 or at www.workplacecoachblog.com.