How I Learned to Address Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

The Conversation (1)
Debra22 Dec, 2019

As women, we may not be able to avoid putting ourselves in emotionally harmful environments, but we can confront other barriers our gender faces when trying to start a career and get an education: https://medium.com/c%C3%B3digo-ecuador/harassment-isnt-always-what-you-think-aaa5d6278594

Fresh Voices
4min read

Ever since I graduated from college, I have worked in high-pressure environments with a lot of powerful men. The vast majority of men, who I interacted with on a daily basis, were my superiors. I have worked in Congress, law firms, a Fortune 100 company, and a startup throughout my career. As different as each job sounds, I had one thing in common at all of them. I was at the receiving end of sexual harassment at each job.

Believe it or not, I can say that I have been sexually harassed at almost every job I have ever had. However, in the wake of the #metoo movement, this fact probably won't surprise you or anyone else. Although I was young and naive when a lot of this happened, upon the precipice of 40, I did eventually work up the courage to file a lawsuit against my harasser -- and I won.

This was a daunting undertaking, but I realized it was something I personally needed to do. Quite simply, it was time for me to stick up for myself, and in the end, I felt proud of myself for finally doing it.

After all these experiences, I decided to write a fictional book based on facts about it. An Anthology of Evil Men (Riverdale Avenue Books) chronicles some of my deeply personal encounters in the workplace and is shared which hopefully imparts some wisdom to the readers. My goal in putting out this book was for those who are experiencing workplace harassment to know that you are not alone, and you can take control of the situation.

If you find yourself as a victim of inappropriate sexual advances, there are simple steps you can take to initially diffuse the situation. Here are five tips to address sexual harassment in the workplace

1. Shut Down Inappropriate Behavior ASAP.

When I received texts or emails from my coworkers and even superiors that contained inappropriate comments such as "You looked really hot today at work" or "I wish we could go to a secluded island together," I would text something back. I didn't write comments back to encourage the behavior because I wanted it to stop. But for some reason, as a younger professional, I always felt compelled to be friendly and upbeat. I wanted people to like me, and I did not want to make waves at work. However, with a much sharper eye now coupled with wisdom from years of putting up with this poor behavior, I recommend shutting this behavior down early. I would not respond at all --- as we know from "ghosting" in the dating world, not being responded to at all sends a very clear message. Alternatively, you should call it out as inappropriate behavior and let the sender know it makes you uncomfortable.

2. Document. Document. Document.

As a former lawyer, I still tell all women who come to me with workplace harassment stories to document everything that is said, done, received, etc. Often these situations come down to a he said/she said, but if you save the emails or write down the comments that are made or record them, you have the proof you may need later. Keep any inappropriate message in a folder designated for inappropriate behavior.

3. Set Boundaries.

You do NOT have to always be friendly and upbeat at work -- especially with creeps. It helps to set firm boundaries, and it will send a clear message to the perpetrator. Something as simple as shutting your office door or not responding to a text or email sent at 9 p.m. could very well help you in ending the unwelcome behavior.

4. Shut Off Your Phone After Work and on the Weekends.

I was always eager to please my coworkers -- and that meant being doing work even when I was off from work. I have had men send me texts and emails at night and when they were out drinking on the weekend, and these messages will more often than not contain at least one thing inappropriate in them. Do not respond to any emails after work hours. Your coworkers should not be reaching out to you after 6 p.m.! If you keep getting late-night texts or emails, simply say I do not respond to emails after work hours. If you need anything, you can contact me tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. when I am in the office. Just do not engage; it will only encourage him, and the pattern will continue.

5. Go to HR.

The last step, of course, is to report the conduct to HR. I know this can be difficult, especially if the person who is harassing you is your boss. I once had to report my boss for serious harassment, and they did do an investigation (and he did admit to many of my allegations), but in the end, all that happened was he got sent to "sensitivity" training. However, that's not the case today. Finally, in the aftermath of the #metoo movement, corporate HR Directors are taking this stuff seriously. After an investigation -- especially if you documented as advised above --- you could very well see your harasser fired-- getting his just due.

The bottom line: Don't be afraid. It's illegal for them to retaliate. Take care of YOU first.

​4 Min Read

Please Don't Put Yourself On Mute

During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.

When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)

This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.

By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.

But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.

I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.

If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?

At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)

At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.

They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.

  • Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
  • Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
  • Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
  • Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
  • Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.

It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.

So please don't put yourself on mute.

Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.

But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.