Speak up for what you need and seek support when inappropriate behavior in the workplace creates an uncomfortable environment for you. Here's how.
I often receive calls from individuals where they ask for career advice on how to handle sexual advances in the workplace. These advances can come from co-workers or clients. Females aren't the only ones that are at the receiving end of such uncomfortable advances, either—men can find themselves in uncomfortable situations and work relationships of a similar nature.
Though we might like to think it should be more straightforward, handling such advances can be a quandary for many. I know this from my personal experiences, as well as from the experiences of the individuals with whom I speak. For some, it's difficult to speak up for themselves. Others might be concerned about losing a job or client. Many don't want to "rock the boat," meaning they don't want to make an already uncomfortable situation worse if they can avoid it. What's unfortunate about these reasons is the fact that it's the one in the uncomfortable position that's concerned about the possibility of retaliation and how he or she will be perceived, when in reality, it should be the other way around.
If you find yourself in a position or work relationship where sexual advances are making you uncomfortable, I hope you find some support with the following tips.
1. Speak to the individual making the advance.
Be honest with the individual about how you feel and that you're uncomfortable. If it's a client, and you're concerned about losing the account, your safety and well-being come first. If the client is worth working with, he or she will not hold it against you. The company you work for should back you up on this, as well. No work relationship is worth you feeling uncomfortable or being harassed.
2. Speak to your manager or supervisor.
If it feels appropriate, you could speak to your supervisor about the issue to seek advice on the best way to handle the situation or what the process would be to make a formal complaint if it's gone that far.
3. Seek HR guidance.
If you are uncomfortable approaching the individual(s) who are making the advances, and the issue doesn't quickly resolve itself on its own, consider seeking career advice on the subject from someone in your HR department for support. He or she should be able to give you some direction in how to handle the work relationship. A word of caution, if your case borders on harassment, or you claim you're being harassed, then the HR department will likely need to conduct an investigation around the issue. Harassment is not something to be taken lightly. Also, know that they might not be able to fill you in on all the details of the investigation if one should take place.
4. Seek outside guidance from a mentor or personal coach.
It can be extremely helpful to have a mentor or personal coach who can offer career advice and help you navigate through the ups and downs of your professional experiences, including the type of scenario discussed here. I have found this to be extremely helpful throughout stages in my career and is what's prompted me to offer such support to others.
5. Take the high road (don't gossip or badmouth).
Whether you're in the midst of dealing with an issue or the case is coming to a close, take the high road and move on. Speaking badly about someone will only prolong the energy around the issue for you and worsen work relationships.
6. Utilize company resources when available.
Many companies offer free or relatively low-cost resources to support health and well-being. Find out if your company offers such resources—often referred to as Employee Assistance Programs—and utilize them. The consultants or therapists with such programs are often equipped to help employees deal with sexual advances in the workplace and might also be aware of your organization's protocol if the issue warrants filing a formal complaint.
7. Be clear you're reading the message clearly before reacting.
Per the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)." I believe it's important to share this because claims of sexual harassment are no joking matter. Depending on the circumstances, the individual you're making a claim against will likely be investigated, and it could hurt his or her reputation. If you have taken the steps to request the behavior to stop, and it doesn't, then some additional action is warranted. At the same time, miscommunications and misinterpretations do happen, and once the other party is aware that you're uncomfortable, in many instances, they'll stop whatever they're doing to make you uncomfortable. If they don't, then refer to the above tips and seek support to resolve the concern.
First and foremost, your safety and emotional support are important and not worth any work relationship, position, job, or organization. Speak up for what you need and seek support in the most comfortable way that works for you when sexual advances in the workplace are creating an uncomfortable environment for you.
For more information about the laws governing sexual harassment in the workplace, refer to the following links per the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission web page: EEOC Sexual Harassment and Facts About Sexual Harassment.
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