Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

How to respond if you’re being sexually harassed at work

Sexual harassment by definition includes unwelcome sexually suggestive behaviour and if someone's behaviour, actions or words make you uncomfortable, it is okay to act and address the situation

On 4 January, the Mumbai police registered a case of sexual harassment against a venture capital investor. This, the latest in a string of similar complaints, may signal a shift in attitudes but many working women still find themselves in a conflicted position when it comes to dealing with harassment: Should they report it or ignore it?

Sexual harassment by definition includes unwelcome sexually suggestive behaviour, whether directly or by implication, the key word being unwelcome. The first step in dealing with the issue is to acknowledge that if someone’s behaviour, actions or words make you uncomfortable, it is okay to act and address the situation.

You have to choose how you would like the behaviour to stop. Start by calming the voice in your head that makes you wonder, “Am I overreacting?" “Why am I so sensitive?" Take a moment and acknowledge your discomfort—it’s a start to respecting your own personal boundaries.

When confronting harassment from a colleague, you begin to consider the risk of isolation from the rest of the team. Often, you would even consider the future awkward interactions with the harasser. In cases where the harassment is from a superior, client or vendor, it is likely that you are considering how speaking out will affect your career. Research suggests that sexual harassment has a negative impact on the mental health and economic progression of the person facing it. So whether you complain or not, the harassment will still have a negative effect on your career.

It’s important to remember that sexual harassment has little to do with attraction. It has little to do with what you wear and how you look. It is an assertion of power, where the harasser assumes they have the right over another.

For example, when someone makes a sexual comment on a colleague’s appearance, it is often because this person assumes that they will get away with it. They also believe that the person they are making uncomfortable is not likely to counter. This is an act to make someone feel helpless and vulnerable—thus, the harasser assumes they are in a more powerful position.

When a colleague turns harasser

While conducting sexual harassment awareness training workshops, we often get asked, “How do I say that I am not comfortable?" While some acts of harassment are intended to cause harm, sometimes our diverse backgrounds may cause someone to say or do something offensive without even realizing they have done so. Nonetheless, if it makes you uncomfortable, you have the right to address it. If you choose to address the incident on your own, here is a useful tip I gathered in a conflict resolution class.

Remember, the aim of confronting the person is because you want them to stop the behaviour that is making you uncomfortable. In such a case, you do not want to get their defences up. Sarcasm is the least effective conversation strategy to bring about change.

Here is an example for your reference: “I declined his Facebook request the first time. He sent me one again. I did not want to make things awkward so I accepted it the second time. Now he keeps liking and commenting on all my pictures. How do I tell him that I am uncomfortable?"

There are two ways to confront the situation:

1.“Why do you keep commenting on all my posts? Don’t you have better things to do?

This statement is more focused on the character of the harasser and is likely to make them defensive. Thus, they are likely to try and protect their ego by denying the incident or coming up with excuses.

2.“I am a very private person and I value a separate professional and personal life. It makes me uncomfortable having colleagues on my Facebook page. I do hope you understand."

This statement directs the conversation from blame to a genuine focus on how the behaviour affects you. Here, the person cannot refute, argue or deny “your" emotions. The manner of the conversation is focused on the impact of the action, and not the character of the person you are confronting, thus increasing the possibility of them changing their actions.

So, take the person aside and explain to them how their actions affected you and why you would like them to stop. If they still don’t stop, take up the matter with the appropriate authority.

When the perpetrator is a senior/client/vendor

Directly confronting sexual harassment from a senior or client can be difficult. In my experience, because these confrontations are often emotionally driven and the power dynamics between those involved are different, the person confronting the situation may face further retaliation. Acknowledging that confronting sexual harassment in the workplace is not easy, the law mandates that every company with more than 10 employees have an internal committee (IC) to deal with incidents of sexual harassment.

The members of the IC are trained to inform you about your choices to make your work environment safe. If you are uncomfortable making a complaint, you can just speak to one of the members (you can even directly call the external member on the committee). Think of them as confidants with the expertise to deal with such situations. Bringing it to their attention will also protect you from possible retaliation and victimization.

Even if you do not wish to pursue a formal procedure, the IC can speak to the harasser informally and ask them to stop. If you wish to deal with the incident on your own, an IC member can also offer advice on how to do so. Confrontation is not easy but a well-trained IC will ensure that all those involved in the incident can achieve some sense of normalcy after the case is closed.

The act of speaking to someone itself takes immense courage. Remember that asking for assistance does not imply that you cannot take care of yourself. It merely means that you have chosen a different strategy to get the sexual harassment to stop.

Chryslynn D’Costa is head, diversity and inclusion, Serein Inc.

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