Responding to Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace
No matter one’s career field, title, education level, or years of experience we can all be vulnerable to experiencing harassment in the workplace. As newbies, we may forget this reality as we enter our first professional position fresh from college. If we are veterans of the workforce, we may think these kinds of experiences are behind us, lulling us into the false notion that we can always navigate ourselves away from predatory or problematic co-workers. Yet the truth remains that sexual misconduct in the workplace is a pervasive problem and one that many people will need to understand how to address each year.
Sexual Misconduct Defined
Before we know how to address sexual misconduct, we must first understand what exactly it is. Too often, when we hear terms like this, we think of only the most extreme examples: a boss saying a subordinate will get a promotion only if they sleep with them, a co-worker physically groping someone, etc. But these are only the top tier of what is included in sexual misconduct at work, and if these things are occurring, then a foundation of abusive behaviors has already been laid.
The first level of sexual harassment may include things like sexualized humor, demanding unwelcomed touching such as hugs or shoulder rubs, homophobic or transphobic remarks, and commenting on whether someone at work is deemed attractive or not. From here, it may go into discussing private sexual experiences in public, sharing inappropriate videos or photos, and asking someone out on a date repeatedly. We may also see where someone’s personal life outside of work is used against them- someone’s Tinder profile is office room fodder, or being seen at an intimate party/nightclub is shared with team members.
All of these abuses of power are tools for toxic individuals to test the environment, and then if no one is strongly protesting, continue to escalate the behaviors. These actions decrease productivity and retention- even impacting workplace accident rates. The victim, as well as those witnessing the victimization, can suffer from the long-term impacts of trauma.
Predatory or Problematic?
The person causing the harm may be predatory, or they may be problematic. A predatory individual is planning their next move. They know their behavior is upsetting or hurting others, but they still want to try and get away with it. A problematic individual genuinely does not get that they are harming anyone and may feel their behavior is appropriate because of generational, cultural, or neurodivergent differences. Either way, these behaviors must still be stopped, and the sooner they can be effectively addressed, the better for every party involved.
If you feel that you have experienced these behaviors and want them to stop, here are three main tips for getting help:
Understand the issue and your rights.
As mentioned above, sexual misconduct/harassment can take a multitude of insidious and subversive forms. Understanding this can affirm that all those things that make our intuition say, “This isn’t right,” really are correct. Once we know this, we also want to understand that we have a legal right to a safe work environment where we can do our jobs without ever having to feel vulnerable or afraid. Title VII states that all workplaces in the United States must comply with these principles or face legal ramifications.
Talk to professionals.
When you feel ready, start talking to people you can trust and who will support you. Be careful to choose individuals who won’t end up gaslighting you (making you think you imagined it all) or victim blame. These might be friends or family, but therapists and victim advocates are often the best places to start. If you are going to make a report to HR but don’t know how you will be responded to, ask an attorney for a consultation first. That way, you can walk in knowing your rights, options and that you have people supporting you all the way.
Fight for systemic change.
This last part can feel like the hardest, but it is so important for both the victim to feel justice was served and to protect the next person. If you have a complaint filed, ask for restorative practice principles to be applied- victim statements (even during mediation), informal resolutions that include clear objectives for atonement, and systemic changes to the ways that the company trains and respond to misconduct in the future.
Above all, remember this- you are not alone in this experience, and you deserve help. No matter your age, interests, or history, you do not ever deserve to experience harassment. None of this is ever the victim’s fault nor their responsibility to address alone. There are support resources and a bright future at the end of this storm.
This guest post was authored by Dr. Laura McGuire
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and The Sexual Misconduct Prevention Guidebook: Consent and Conduct for Higher Education Campuses (Fielding University Press, 2022). They were named as one of the 2022 Champions of Pride by the Advocate Magazine and are regularly featured in media outlets for their expertise and approachability. They have created the world’s first certifications in trauma-informed care for industries spanning from law to insurance.
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