Workplace harassment is one of the most difficult and devastating experiences you may have to deal with while on the job. It’s something that happens regardless of workplace or industry. While workplaces can always strive to be safer, it’s impossible to guarantee that any space is fully safe or free of harassment. These behaviors are possible to prevent, difficult to predict, and damaging to deal with.
What Does Workplace Harassment Look Like?
We often imagine a common scenario: a man in a position of power harassing a woman who is his subordinate at the company. This is with good reason: 38% of women report having experienced sexual harassment at work. That doesn’t mean men don’t experience harassment from women or from other men, as 1 in 33 report an issue.
Harassment can include:
- Inappropriate sexual advances: This is a more brazen and obvious attempt, such as unwanted touching or verbal propositions.
- Favor trading: This occurs when a person in power offers something (like a promotion or a bonus) in exchange for sexual favors.
- Stalking: Stalking includes unwanted contact, especially outside the office, such as an unreasonable amount of personal phone calls, aggressive online interactions, or hoarding information about someone’s life or family.
- Grooming behavior: Grooming behavior occurs when a person in a position of power conditions a subordinate or equal to crave rewards and praise from them. This process usually takes time, and the offender seeks to fill a role that is missing in the victim’s life.
- Intimidation: Offenders sometimes use intimidation to bully victims into sexual attention or activity. This includes threatening someone’s job, health, emotional, personal, or financial safety and security.
That said, harassment isn’t limited to the sexual variety. It can include any repeated and unwanted contact, particularly outside of the office, and the subject matter can include, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Perpetrators often use electronic communications to accomplish this.
If you find yourself dealing with harassment at the workplace, you may initially feel shocked or confused. You might even laugh, brush it off, or assume you’re just taking it personally. When that happens, listen to your instincts. Your safety comes first. Get to a safe location before taking the next steps.
If you feel uncomfortable, the first thing you should do is to document the instances of harassment you experience. This can involve texting the information to a trusted contact, writing down a report immediately, or maintaining any footage or evidence of the harassing behavior.
If the behavior happened online or on your phone, take a screenshot of the behavior, such as repeated phone calls. If it happened in front of a security camera, note the time and place so your office security personnel can pull the footage before it’s overwritten.
Notify Human Resources Immediately
Sexual harassment is among the most underreported crimes, with only a very small percentage of cases being reported to law enforcement or human resources. When you experience harassment of any kind, it’s natural to feel embarrassed, confused, and violated.
Despite that, if you feel able, report the behavior as soon as you can. Your human resource department is there to prevent liability and minimize risk. In short, they want to help you, and they want to avoid a lawsuit against the company.
Human resources should document the incident and give you a copy of your statement. Before talking with your manager or confronting the offender, they should speak with you and get your permission after outlining recommended next steps. Good, trusted leaders know how important it is to do the right thing.
Understand the Psychology Behind Harassment
What happens to you once you’ve been harassed? Over time, bullying and harassment of any kind can lead to trauma and anxiety. Specifically, victims of harassment can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and its symptoms. PTSD can affect your mood, sleeping habits, and your relationships at work and at home.
Continued exposure to the harmful office environment can also expose you to triggers. When you encounter one, you may find yourself reliving traumatizing moments. If the effects are so extreme, it’s important to find allies who believe you — as well as legal counsel ready to stand up for you in court.
To be clear: harassment isn’t only wrong, it’s illegal. Violating the law as outlined by the EEOC is grounds for a lawsuit.
Why Does Harassment Happen?
Remember that harassment does not happen due to anything you did. Work environments should provide a supportive setting in which to conduct business. Unfortunately, people are still people, and they often bring their prejudices and privileges to work with them and may behave inappropriately.
Harassment occurs more frequently when an employee is working in a role not common for someone of their gender or race. In cybersecurity, for example, 51% of women in the field have experienced discrimination or harassment.
If you’re in a situation like this, you still have every right to exist and excel in your field. Don’t forget to consult a therapist, especially if you’re feeling sad, isolated, or angry. The ongoing and informal support of your family and friends can help as well.
Consult Your Support Network
If you’ve been victimized at work, pursue available resources as you feel comfortable. It’s typical for someone to feel uncomfortable talking to a parent or spouse about what’s going on at work immediately. However, that same person might feel comfortable seeking religious counsel or talking to a childhood friend.
As you deal with the repercussions of what someone else has done to you (and how they made you feel with improper actions or advances), you will need a healthy network of people who care about you. Some professionals refer to this group of people as their “editorial board,” featuring teachers, professors, friends, family members, mentors and counselors from different points in their lives.
Keep your discussions about workplace harassment private. This is also something your lawyer, should you choose to seek justice legally, will advise. Outing your abuser on social media might feel good, but you shouldn’t put your case in jeopardy or risk a counter-lawsuit.
Therapists specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also teach you valuable techniques to help you face your fears and confront your traumas in a healthy way. CBT can help you take control of your own fears, thoughts, and feelings, giving you a sense of agency over your own life. Your life and well-being belong to you, not your harasser.
Along with your support network, your therapist can remind you that you’re not facing the harassment alone. Your support network can help you form and execute an action plan to handle the harassment and move forward.
Consider Your Next Move
It’s not giving up to move on to another job or industry. Freeing yourself from the presence of your abuser is a gift you can give yourself. If you choose to pursue this option and the HR department is apprised of the situation, you’ll likely have their full support in securing a role somewhere else.
Those newer to the workforce (age 24 and younger) have already held an average of 5.5 jobs. Regardless of your age, moving forward when a job isn’t a good fit is often the right thing to do. This may be the push you need to move on from that toxic work environment.
Whether you choose to handle harassment internally at your company, seek therapy, take legal action, or all of the above, the important thing is that you take steps forward to deal with the harassment so it doesn’t control your life. Every harasser stopped is one who is hopefully unable to victimize anyone else.