According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 6,696 charges of sexual harassment were filed in 2017.
Unfortunately, those statistics don’t tell the whole story. It’s estimated that 71% to 75% of women don’t report sexual harassment at all, and even fewer bystanders want to get involved when they witness it.
What is considered sexual harassment at work?
Sexual harassment is legally defined in the USA as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” If an employer makes employment, raises, or promotion contingent on granting sexual favors, or creates a hostile work environment, he can be sued for sexual harassment.
The definition of a hostile work environment is not as clear-cut as grabbing someone’s breast or butt (which is sexual assault and clearly sexual harassment). It may be subtle, but has to be severe or pervasive. For instance, telling a lot of gross, sexist, demeaning jokes about women (or men – both men and women can be sexually harassed), is only sexual harassment if it happens often enough. One joke doesn’t constitute harassment.
What causes sexual harassment at work?
Now that we know what is considered sexual harassment at work, we can talk about its causes. Most of it seems to be linked to an attitude of male superiority and entitlement. Some men think that it’s their right to treat women with disrespect.
However, some men might have good intentions but misread social cues. Is it possible that women’s professional politeness is being misinterpreted?
Three pitfalls that can be misread
Here are three pitfalls that can be easily misread if some simple training is not provided:
Pitfall 1: Professional politeness
Women are raised to be polite and told from a young age that nobody likes a difficult woman. We’ve come to realize that being likeable will get us further faster. Unfortunately, this signal can be misread as romantic interest.
Pitfall 2: Flattery
We all know flattery goes a long way. For our professional growth, we need to surround ourselves with teachers and mentors so we can gain knowledge from them. When we learn something valuable, we politely share our admiration as a way of thanking the person for their insights. In our minds, we are being mentored. But for a man, it can be difficult to differentiate whether our flattery and admiration is personal or professional.
Pitfall 3: Others are doing it, why can’t you?
A former boyfriend worked at a Fortune 100 company, where it was open knowledge that one of the VPs was having an affair with his secretary. This same VP also emailed sexual jokes to other company employees. Because he did his job well, this behavior went unchecked for years until that secretary realized he was never going to leave his wife and finally reported him. The VP was fired a few days later.
When through tacit approval it is deemed okay for one person to behave like this, others can easily feel inspired to do the same or worse, even if they know what is considered sexual harassment at work. Pack mentality can explain a lot of poor decisions.
So… Can Sexual Harassment Be Unintentional?
If it’s possible to misinterpret friendliness as sexual interest, can sexual harassment be unintentional? Better communication could clear up a lot of misunderstandings in the workplace and lead to a better environment for all concerned.
Unfortunately, many people, both men and women, are not good communicators. If the situation is unclear, there’s nothing wrong is saying something like, “Excuse me, what exactly did you mean by that?” Clear up misunderstandings when they occur and no one will misinterpret friendliness as a sexual invitation.
How can you promote better communication? This is a topic I discuss in detail in my Youtube video Can Sexual Harassment Be Unintentional?
Sexual harassment training at work
Providing employee sexual harassment training can help your whole staff learn appropriate boundaries for workplace behavior. An HR department that knows what to do and what to look for can help clear up sexual harassment cases before they start.
Invite us to come and train your team, or to provide you with a train-the-trainer program to support you in providing this essential foundation for Balanced Leadership.
A library of learning materials can be a great asset to a employee sexual harassment training program. Have us create a customized training video that will support your efforts in curtailing sexual harassment, while providing tips on how to recognize what is professional and what is personal at work.
Please contact us here and let us know where to reach you. We’ll get in touch.
At her lowest point, Beate Chelette was $135,000 in debt, a single mother, and forced to leave her home. Only 18 months later, she sold her image licensing business to Bill Gates in a multimillion dollar deal. Chelette is a nationally known ‘gender decoder’ who has appeared in over 60 radio shows, respected speaker, career coach, consummate creative entrepreneur, and author of Happy Woman Happy World. Beate is also the founder of The Women’s Code, a unique guide to women leadership and personal and career success that offers a new code of conduct for today’s business, private, and digital worlds. Determined to build a community of women supporting each other, she took her life-changing formula documented it all in a book Brian Tracy calls “an amazing handbook for every woman who wants health, happiness, love and success!”
Through her corporate initiative “Why Acting Like a Girl Is Good For Business” she helps companies with gender diversification training, and to develop and retain women.
If you’d like to book Beate as a speaker on New Leadership Balance or Creative Entrepreneurship for your next event please connect