Sexual harassment should always be taken seriously. Always. This past year, we all witnessed a major shift in how our society views this issue and now it’s time for all of us to stand up against sexual harassment.
Over my decade in the accounting profession, I have witnessed countless instances of sexual harassment in the workplace, at work events, and at unplanned social events with co-workers, and I’m confident that most people have lists of their own. It’s time for all of us to declare that these things are not acceptable. If we don’t start discussing these matters, then we cannot find a resolution to them. We can’t rely on companies to resolve these matters, especially when their best interests are not in alignment with the best interests of those who have been or will be harassed.
The real debate usually begins when people start to define sexual harassment. Everyone is capable of initiating harassment — good people, bad people, and even people trying to defuse situations before they become major problems.
Let’s consider the case of Howard (none of the names in this piece are real) and me. I worked for Howard many years ago and didn’t like him because he was a “screamer.” My second day on the job, I heard him screaming at a co-worker in his office and figured it was just a matter of time before it was my turn. Sure enough, four months later, I’m sitting in the HR office to file a complaint (not of a sexual nature). Bill, the HR director, did something very unusual in that he offered me a severance package of six weeks, despite my being on the job for only five months. I could stay on the payroll and just not come into work. This sounded great to me, but I found it odd that it was offered so readily. Bill told me that it’s their standard procedure for sexual harassment claims, which mine wasn’t, but that he knew about Howard, how “he could be,” and was willing to offer me the package, too. I accepted. But I later started to wonder what sort of organization would have a standing, unwritten policy for sexual harassment claims. The answer is the kind of organization that handles a large number of them and doesn’t want to address the primary instigator: the predator.
How many of you know co-workers who are dating, couples who met their spouse at work, or someone who left their job because a relationship with a co-worker ended? The list goes on, but any one of these examples, if the perspectives were changed slightly, could have constituted sexual harassment. If sexual harassment is rampant in the workplace, who, then, is looking out for the potential victims? Well, I’m sorry to say, I don’t think it’s your HR department. Their interest is solely in protecting the company and its employment liability. So, who?
Let’s now consider Jay, a former boss, who took me out for drinks one day to discuss my future with the firm. As we chatted on the way to the bar, he started asking me about my relationships and my old girlfriends. I didn’t feel comfortable discussing this with him, because I generally don’t discuss my personal life with my co-workers, and attempted to change the subject three times before I was finally successful. Later, over drinks, he tells me that if I want to be successful in this profession that I have to be willing to connect with people and my refusal to discuss my relationships with him was an example of him not being able to connect with me.
The next day, I walked into his office and told him that I didn’t appreciate his line of questioning from the day before and that it made me very uncomfortable. He asked why I hadn’t just changed the subject (I had tried), but indicated that he didn’t intend to make me uncomfortable and perhaps he took it too far. Then he closed with, “How do you know when you’ve gone too far with a woman? When she slaps you.” This sort of statement was typical of Jay. I imagine he thought it would somehow resonate with me, but he only succeeded in solidifying my negative opinion of him. I had assumed my conversation with Jay was the end of it, but a little over a month later, I was terminated. Was it sexual harassment? Did that fateful conversation have any impact whatsoever on my future with the company? Should I hire an attorney? I made them a lot of money that year and I hadn’t been informed of any performance-related issues. The company went so far as to protest my unemployment claim and lie to the rest of their employees by suggesting that I had quit. #MeToo?
Lastly, let’s revisit the case of Chloe and Kim, from one of my previous columns. Kim worked directly for Chloe, and later, for me. Unbeknownst to me at the time, while Kim worked for Chloe, they developed a romantic relationship. Kim was an open lesbian and Chloe was not. In fact, it was an open secret in the office that Chloe had previously had a relationship with a male partner. Chloe attempted to break off the relationship with Kim, but Kim didn’t want to let it go easily.
To make a long story short, Chloe, the supervisor, later filed a sexual harassment claim against Kim, her subordinate. Because I always made a point in scheduling meetings that everyone had to work together, regardless of favorites, Chloe came into my office one day to say she didn’t want to work with Kim due to their situation. However, at the time, she omitted certain details about the relationship that obviously would not have reflected well on her. I suggested she take the matter to HR. She told me she had and they were working on it. So, I let the matter go, pending HR’s dutiful resolution of the matter.
Two months later, in the heart of tax season, an upset Kim entered my office. HR had not resolved the situation and Chloe had turned half of the office against her. The environment was so toxic that half of the team wouldn’t even speak with Kim, which had the profound side effect of crippling our workflow during our busiest time of year. I also learned more specific details about the relationship itself: Apparently, during one of their trysts on a busy Saturday, when they were both supposed to be at work, Chloe texted her boss that Kim wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be coming into work that day. This confirmed what I already suspected was a severe abuse of power. Kim went on to share additional details that could be easily verified. I suggested she go to HR again, but she already had, to no avail. I decided to get involved and go ask HR what they were doing about the matter. “What can we do?” they asked. “Their stories conflict. Let’s just get through tax season and deal with it after.” I then went to the head of our department and received a similar answer.
Almost another two months went by and now it was Tax Day, the end of our busy season. To say that our office environment was hostile would be an understatement. Kim quit that very day. She worked the rest of the week and left. Who is responsible for creating the hostile work environment, which also included me as a third party who was caught in the uncomfortable middle? The answer, in my humble opinion, is that they were probably both in the wrong. Chloe slept with her subordinate, and for that alone she should be terminated. Kim, having pursued the matter after she was clearly rejected, probably deserved termination, too. But is that what the company did?
The New York State Attorney General defines sexual harassment as “gender-based discrimination that involves unwelcome sexual conduct that is used as the basis for hiring or other employment decisions or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.” The AG goes on to state that even third parties may complain when one or more of the following occurs:
- Submission to sexual demands is a general condition of employment;
- Harassment directed at others adversely affects the third party’s work environment; or,
- Offensive sexual conduct, even if consensual between the parties involved, is creating a hostile work environment for the third party.
Even though sexual harassment in the workplace should never be acceptable, it is frequently tolerated. Our natural tendency is to awkwardly laugh away an inappropriate comment or disregard behavior we find questionable so that we don’t have to confront it. Well, now is the time when you will be heard. Start a conversation, ask your firm how it handles these issues, and, more importantly, ask yourself what you would want done if you were harassed. My message to all of you is to speak up. If you can start your organization down the path of open and direct communication before you have an issue, then, when it happens, you’ll be able to professionally and respectfully address the situation.