Defining Sexual Harassment at Work

Sexual Harassment can come in many forms. As the victim it’s important you understand that its how you interpret the behaviour you have experienced that matters. It’s not your colleague’s, your boss’s or even the HR department’s perception of the incident that counts. Good organisation policies on harassment will make it clear that this is the case.

So some thoughts on how you might describe and personally manage any sexual harassment at work.

  1. Go with your gut… if you feel uncomfortable or are left questioning an action, take time to reflect on it as soon after the event as possible. We do not all react in the heat of the moment; sometimes we are too shocked, sometimes it was so subtle we need to relive it in our minds again to confirm how it made us feel. Other times we are distracted as our focus was caught up in a work related task. However, all of this does not mean an act of sexual harassment didn’t occur.
  1. Consider your approach. This is where knowing your strengths and weakness and your own personal foibles can help you. For example, do you often react in the heat of the moment and live to regret it or are you more known for being introverted and not making a fuss? Either way reflecting on this and how others might perceive your report in advance can be important.

It is acknowledged you did not ask for this behaviour, nevertheless, it will be important to demonstrate that you are credible, serious and clear about the unacceptability of the incident.

It might help to write down if it’s easier, the sequence of events and then use a ‘scale of unacceptability’ to help you define the act(s) of sexual harassment. For example;-

    1. “I am now afraid to be in a room with this person: the behaviour was clearly indicating intention and expectation. It was either or all; manipulative, threatening and/or an attempt at being sexually persuasive.”
    2. “It was disgusting and blatant conduct: crude, vile, language and behaviour with undertones clearly related to sexual harassment and overall completely unacceptable in the workplace. The buffoon thinks they are being funny whilst testing boundaries.”
    3. “Obvious sustained personal interest; directed comments and behaviour towards me. I am getting unwanted attention that makes me feel uncomfortable, even if the language and body language appears to be innocent. For example, the perpetrator just slightly breaches my physical barriers; often standing or sitting too close to me, very slightly touching me either accidentally or meaningfully by grazing my hand, back or otherwise. The perpetrator might believe they are trying to be friendly, however, I don’t see it as such. I have asked them to ‘back off’ politely but they still don’t seem to change their behaviour.
    4.  “Subtle signals only I would notice. It made me feel uncomfortable irrespective if others didn’t notice.” For example ‘Licking their lips with a menacing look on their face whilst reversing in the car park’ or saying ‘Sign here gorgeous with a meaningful look’ when they drop the post off each morning.”

Reporting sexual harassment at work is hard yet brave. Even though it’s thought to be easier now since the MeToo movement it’s still controversial and not plain sailing for anyone when they do report it.

If you have any questions about how to handle sexual harassment or victimisation and your rights, download the HR Solver app today and chat to our dedicated HR advisors who have expertise in supporting employees during these times.