What It Looks Like, Its Implications, And Why You Don't Have To Live With It Anymore.
The real cost of sexual harassment.
We can’t do our best work if we feel we have to distance ourselves, defend against or carefully watch anyone who is pursuing us or referring to us as a sexual object in the workplace.
We can’t perform to the best of our ability if we are experiencing sexual harassment.
This is a problem: not just for the affected persons, but for all employees of the company, and our society at large.
The consequence of sexual harassment is more than just someone feeling uncomfortable in a single moment and days after.
It’s the health consequences - sick days and low energy due to higher stress levels. It’s the silencing of voices and intellect due to self-protection mechanisms like making ourselves smaller in meetings or avoiding conversation with certain colleagues. It’s the lowered participation in company activities which foster healthy company culture when no one feels threatened. It’s retaliation, which includes delayed raises (contributing to increasing pay gaps) due to the refusal of a returning a sexual favor or a lawsuit to work through all that could have been avoided.
Sexual harassment impacts the whole workplace.
What’s not often talked about is how those sick days, delayed raises, lowered participation in meetings, avoidance of colleagues and lawsuits can add up to untrackable consequences for the company and put undue suffering on others in the organization. Untrackable consequences include less revenue (losing talent and clients are two examples; additionally Harvey Weinstein’s company filed for bankruptcy in March 2018), lack of dedication and effort amongst current employees (say goodbye to them going the extra mile) and talented candidates passing up job offers.
No one should have to suffer from sexual harassment.
Why is a coaching company talking about sexual harassment?
We - the GoCoach team - don’t want to see any more people suffer from sexual harassment. Many of us on the team know someone who has experienced sexual harassment first hand. Some of us have experienced it ourselves. The fear, stress and hold it puts on our lives can prohibit people from growth and doing their best work, which is what GoCoach helps people do.
Everyone has the ability to close the gap between their current reality and their aspirational dream. Growth is a crucial part of closing that gap, and it’s extremely difficult to grow if we are operating under fear and stress.
Too many of us have stories. We want to eradicate sexual harassment. Are we crazy? Maybe. But there can be no forward progress if we don’t try.
Part I - Identification
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual Harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct from a colleague, supervisor, customer or vendor, that makes you feel uncomfortable.
It can be physical, written or verbal. It can be blunt or nuanced and merely hinted at. We mostly hear about extreme forms of sexual harassment like rape, forced kissing, or requests for sexual favors, but it can be as passive as displaying obscene or graphic “art” on a desk space. (Skip to “The Gray Areas: Is this Sexual Harassment?” section to learn the range of actions that can qualify as sexual harassment.)
It also doesn’t matter how a statement or action with a sexual undertone was intended. If it made someone uncomfortable, the incident can be reported and looked into on grounds of sexual harassment. This doesn’t mean that all reported incidents are automatically classified as sexual harassment; there are processes in place that will determine if it can be defined as sexual harassment or not (this is elaborated on in the next section).
Lastly, it’s important to know that sexual harassment does not need to be happening to you directly for you to report it. (To learn more about reporting sexual harassment, jump to Part III).
What is Not Considered Sexual Harassment?
Not everything that gets reported is sexual harassment. Teasing, offhand comments or isolated, unserious incidents are not considered as sexual harassment, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Additionally, discriminatory or offensive comments about a person’s sex that are not sexual in nature, (i.e. “You’re a woman, you can’t do the same work as a man.”), can also be classified as a type of sexual harassment.
There are two types of Sexual Harassment.
Quid Pro Quo
When translated, Quid Pro Quo means to give something in exchange for something: thus, this kind of sexual harassment occurs when someone asks for or suggests a sexual request in exchange for a benefit like a raise or promotion.
This excerpt from a New York Times article of sexual harassment from Harvey Weinstein is an example of Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment.
“In 2014, Mr. Weinstein invited Emily Nestor, who had worked just one day as a temporary employee, to the same hotel and made another offer: If she accepted his sexual advances, he would boost her career...” Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades
Quid pro quo tends to be more blunt actions, making it easier to identify, and call out as wrong.
Hostile Work Environment
This kind of sexual harassment occurs when speech or actions of a sexual nature are frequent enough to create a work environment that is uncomfortable for the employee.
This excerpt from a New York Times article on Matt Lauer’s firing is an example of the kinds of commentary and conversation in the workplace amongst colleagues that can create a hostile work environment:
“Jokes about women’s appearances were routine, the former employees said. ….Two former employees recalled colleagues playing a crude game in which they chose which female guests or staff members they would prefer to marry, kill or have sex with.” - NBC Fires Matt Lauer, Face of ‘Today’
Statements or actions that create a hostile work environment may at times be more nuanced than those of a quid pro quo type of harassment, but there are processes and methods that will help you identify and rectify them.
Who Can Sexually Harass?
The harasser does not need to be your boss for you to experience sexual harassment, even though we usually hear stories about bosses sexually harassing their direct reports.
Anyone - colleagues, direct reports, other managers or C-level employees - can sexually harass you, even if they are not directly overseeing you. Additionally, vendors, customers or people at partner companies can also be accused of sexual harassment. If someone is making sexual advances toward you - explicitly or suggestively - especially in the workplace, you can report it as sexual harassment.
Stories help create understanding and empathy. We spoke to a couple of anonymous sources and asked them to share their stories. Below is an account of a woman who experienced sexual harassment while at an after hours work happy hour.
“I was out at a bar with my colleagues after work one night. One of my male colleagues, who was involved with a completely different department, (not my boss), put his arm around me at our gathering in front of all of our co-workers. This was not the kind of friendly pal-put-your-arm around you move. It was intimate because he pulled me in close to him, put his hand around mine and rubbed his thumb over my hand the way you would do if you were showing your girlfriend affection. We had no romantic relationship. Immediately, something felt off in my gut; the closeness, the way he caressed my hand. This came out of nowhere and I was immediately worried about what my coworkers would think, since a group of them were standing around.
I quickly pulled my arm out from under him and said, “You’re making me uncomfortable.” He apologized and asked genuinely if I could tell him what exactly he did that made him uncomfortable, so that it would help him understand. I told him “I don’t know, but it just did.” In the moment, I didn’t know how to articulate it. He thanked me for telling him and casually moved to another side of the room. In retrospect, I think the only reason I was able to say that to him in the moment is because he wasn’t my boss and I didn’t fear backlash. It also helped that we had a good work relationship, but it was still uncalled for physical touch that had romantic/sexual undertones.” - Anonymous female
Is this Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment can be obvious and not so obvious.
Outright sexual requests, forced physical contact or exposure are non-questionable circumstances. But what about flirting at a company offsite, like a retreat or bar? What if it only happens every once in a while? What about colleagues talking about sexual experiences amongst themselves? What about a colleague who drunkenly says sexual remarks to you?
None of the above is appropriate behavior and it’s important to remember that nuanced and subtle statements still have a profound effect on those experiencing it directly or witnessing it.
All of these can be examples of sexual harassment.
Exposing themselves (Matt Lauer)
Forced physical contact
Any physical contact that makes you uncomfortable
Blunt sexual requests
Flirting: ex: saying things you’d expect a guy trying to hit on you at a bar would say.
Discussion of sexual topics
Displaying content of a sexual nature ex: a desktop background with a nude photo, a personal notebook at work with nude or crude drawings.
Social media ex: Posting something sexual in nature, even if it’s just on the person’s newsfeed.
...A note about the smaller actions.
Subtle comments or actions that make us feel uneasy can be even easier to write off as an occasional incident.
But when that occasional incident occurs more than once, it becomes a problem. The person committing the subtle incidents may either not know that they are causing harm or use those small patterned behaviors to test someone’s boundaries.
“The magic phrase here is, “we were uncomfortable AF.” The hard to describe and more nuanced things that occurred up to, during, and after the more public events are almost worse. I’ll give you an example of one. While sitting at my desk, he would come stand right next to me and would grab and scratch his genitals, IN MY FACE. This happened a lot and was clearly intentional. He targeted me, he berated me, and he stole many months of my happiness, while compromising my career.” - Anonymous female
Commonly Asked Questions
What if it was at a bar, or anywhere outside of the office?
Even if it takes place outside of the office, the behavior can still count as sexual harassment.
Is it sexual harassment if it wasn’t intentional?
Yes. It doesn’t matter whether it was the intent of someone to sexually harass or not. If someone felt uncomfortable it can be looked into as sexual harassment.
In the end it always matters more how the action, statement, joke or imagery made you feel. Listen to your gut.
The follow-up process for a reported incident will help clarify the circumstances around the action, which is designed to enforce the appropriate consequences.
What if the employee complied with the sexual advances?
The employee can still report the incident as sexual harassment, because at times people may have complied out of fear.
What if I feel like I was “asking” for it?
Unless you went up to your boss, colleague, etc. and explicitly asked them to sexually harass you, their behavior is unwarranted.
What you were wearing, the environment - even how much you had to drink - is never an excuse for an act of sexual harassment. Your choices are never justification for another’s actions.
Part II - What To Do If You’re Experiencing Sexual Harassment [Breathe]
[If you think you’re experiencing sexual harassment at work, learn about speaking with one of our coaches].
The emotional backlash of sexual harassment can come instantly after the experience, or weeks after. It’s not uncommon to feel shock, anger, sadness, anxiety and fear. It’s also not uncommon to wonder; Is it that big of a deal? Is it actually harassment? They didn’t say anything explicit. Am I’m blowing this out of proportion?
If something felt off in your gut, listen to it. RAINN has a great guide on what to do in the moment if you’re being pressured by someone who is sexually harassing you.
Here are a few typical reactions and responses to keep in mind as you’re processing.
Self-Doubt: This Is Not a Reflection of Your Work
Was I hired, promoted or put on this project because someone in the hiring process was attracted to me?
Sexual harassment can have us doubting our work performance, or why we were hired or assigned that project in the first place. These kind of questions can lead to toxic self-doubt. This is described by the article “The Hidden Health Effects of Sexual Harassment.”
“Embarrassment can be experienced, a fear over other people finding out. Also, particularly early in their career, a person may doubt their ability, and wonder if they weren’t only hired because of their sexual value. They may question their achievements, and if they’re young or new to a field, they may ask, ‘Is this just what it’s like in this field?’ If they have nothing to compare it to, they may not have an idea of what is normal or what the appropriate recourse is.” - Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Colleen Cullen told NBC News BETTER
Try to not give weight to these questions and understand that they are merely a common response to sexual harassment behavior.
To combat this feeling:
Practice some serious self-love and start big. Make a list of the things you’ve been most proud of throughout your life. (This will warm you up for the next bullet.)
Reflect. Write a list of everything (big and small) you’ve accomplished at work, then write down your accomplishments before this workplace (even in college and high school!)
Get outside feedback. Set up 1-1 coffee with other colleagues and mentors to get broader feedback and reminders of why they did and still are investing in you.
Look at numbers. See if you can look at measures of growth (ROI) in your position.
Self blame: It’s not your fault.
There is still a lot of language in our culture that puts the blame on the victim instead of the perpetrator. It’s not your fault. Remember, you didn’t ask for this. You didn’t “provoke” this person.
It’s worth repeating again: your choices are never justification for another’s actions.
“I have a female co-worker that BLAMED herself for what happened. She blamed herself because at one point she brought up the sexual undertone of a product she worked on and she felt that she somehow opened the door for sexual misconduct and harassment on his part. This is simply NOT true. This ritual of blame is so rampant and until we quit blaming ourselves it will make it extremely difficult for the actual problems to be illuminated.
There was NO WAY anything my co-worker did caused him to sprout this personality overnight. The issues with him extended beyond the targeted women in the room. The male co-workers were feeling that being present, while this was happening, made them complicit, and they simply didn’t know what to do with it.” - Anonymous Female
To combat this feeling:
Recognize and reverse patterns of self-blame. Try to become aware of any self-blame language you may be thinking subconsciously day-to-day around a sexual harassment incident. The more aware you become, the more you can catch yourself and actively work to change your thought pattern.
Playing Down the Experience: It wasn’t that big of a deal.
This kind of statement can serve as a survival mechanism. Thinking that something “was not that bad,” can be comforting, but it can also be used as a reason not to take immediate action sooner.
Additionally, maybe others are experiencing harassment at the company and are not doing anything about it, maybe you’ve been taught that what you’ve experienced is not that bad or acceptable.
The LA Times had mothers talk to their daughters about sexual harassment. At times, their definitions of sexual harassment was different; one mother telling her daughter; “my definition of sexual harassment is so lax, because I’ve been brought up thinking; “oh that just happens.”
Ultimately this kind of survival thinking protects us from potential risks and repercussions if you take action. Survival thinking serves a purpose, but it’s not a good long-term solution. If you believe you’ve experienced sexual harassment, the best thing to do is to remove yourself from the situation (by reporting it or changing jobs), recognizing that it can be damaging to your career growth and if left undealt with for too long, even your health.
To combat this feeling:
Look at the impact. Write down the impact it’s had on you (every day you’ve felt stressed in the office, the times when you’ve avoided that person, stress-headaches, etc).
Create a plan of action. Create a place that will stop you from enduring the sexual harassment or stress afterwards. This can involve one of the situations listed below or a different situation, (our coaches can help you do this).
You’re Not Alone
You might feel isolated or alienated, but you are not alone in experiencing sexual harassment. According to a survey from Jan. 2017 from the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, 38% of women said they experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
“Among women who say they have been sexually harassed, more than half (55%) say it has happened both in and outside of work settings.” - Pew Research Center, March 2018
“27% of men had personally received “unwanted sexual advances or verbal or physical harassment of of a sexual nature whether in or outside of a work context.” Pew Research Center, March 2018
“Among women, those with at least some college education are far more likely than those with less education to say they have experienced sexual harassment.” Pew Research Center, March 2018
CNBC says one-fifth of American adults have suffered from sexual harassment in the workplace.
ABC News-Washington Poll found that 33 million U.S. women have been sexually harassed and 14 million sexually abused in work-related episodes -“83% said they were angry about it, 64% felt intimidated by the experience and 52 percent said they were humiliated by it.”
“More than 45% of the people in this country have had a friend reply “me too”” - Linsey Davis, Reporter, ABC News
The numbers are humbling and also help illuminate how pervasive sexual harassment is. As more people bring their stories to light, it will become easier to talk about.
Write The Incidents Down
One of the best things you can do is write down the sexual harassment you are experiencing. Others may - and if you report it, probably will - read it at some point. Writing all of the details down, while you remember them clearly, will help you when you are ready to report the incident(s) in the future. Keep the documentation in a safe place, like at home, until it’s ready to be read.
“In many cases, sexual harassment is a pattern.” - Jessica Roy, Author of “How to Report Sexual Harassment”, LA Times Reporter
Here’s what to include:
Step-by-step breakdown of the incident
The Importance of Trusted Support Systems
It can be tough to tell anyone about sexual harassment you’ve experienced, but it can also relieve you of overwhelming stress, that could eventually manifest itself as health problems, as noted in NBC’s article, “The Hidden Health Effects of Sexual Harassment.”
The act of being able to share experiences with others that harbor feelings of fear, shame, turmoil or stress has been proven to be help the body in studies since the 1980s.
According to a New York Times article from 1984 a study showed that, “...the act of confiding in someone else protects the body against damaging internal stresses that are the penalty for carrying around an onerous emotional burden, such as unspoken remorse.”
If you’re not ready to open up to anyone in your circles, therapy might be a great outlet to consider. Some of our team members have used Psychology Today’s therapist finder and it’s proven to work great. See more resources in the next section: Healing, Reporting and Solutions for Sexual Harassment.
Actively Destress: Invest in Self-Care
To help deal with the stress that can come from sexual harassment, it’s important to go the extra mile in self-care. Exercise, writing, taking a day trip outside of your regular environment can all help change up your thoughts; but the best place to start is by doing something that’s fun for you; whatever your definition of fun is.
When your brain is in a relaxed state (versus a state of anxiety), you’re able to gain perspective and generally assess situations clearer. This will help you take next steps.
Part III - Healing, Reporting & Solutions for Sexual Harassment
In working toward a solution; whether it’s confiding with a few trusted coworkers, staying at your job until you get a new job or reporting the sexual harassment to your HR department - lean on friends and family, lean on people you trust - but most importantly, lean on yourself.
There is no right or wrong answer about how you decide to proceed. Usually, if you listen to your gut, you’ll know what to do. Here’s more information about various solutions.
Reporting Sexual Harassment to Your HR Department
What to consider before bringing sexual harassment to your HR department
Before you bring a sexual harassment complaint to your human resources department, you may want to double check to see if you work at a company that has clear policies on harassment, discrimination and retaliation.
If the answer is yes, you’re on good footing. If the answer is no, or if human resources can’t do anything about it, or they won’t, lean on other resources.
GoCoach is one resource you can use if you’re unsure about going to your HR department. We have coaches who have experience with a range of sexual harassment cases at a variety of companies. They can answer all of your questions with an unbiased opinion while keeping all of your information confidential. We fiercely believe in education and while we won’t be able to eliminate the source of sexual harassment, we can provide you with extensive education around it, helping you feel more secure in your decisions moving forward.
Knowledge is power here. Knowledge about what sexual harassment is, knowledge about the process and information about solutions. The more information you have, the stronger you can feel in your steps forward.
We’re not the only resource, but we’re one of them. Let us know of other resources in the comments section.
Here’s a list of other resources we’ve found:
Callisto, building technology to combat sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment detection bot, helps users understand if what they experienced was sexual harassment.
That’s Harassment, an education resource, part of RAINN.org (disclaimer, their videos may be triggering).
If you report sexual harassment to your HR department
Reporting sexual harassment - even just sharing it with trusted friends - can be nerve racking and difficult for many reasons.
All fears considered, no one should suffer feeling uncomfortable at work - even infrequently (that’s unnecessary stress) - which, as mentioned earlier, can affect your health and performance. So what are the positive outcomes of reporting sexual harassment to your HR department?
Positive Outcomes of Reporting Sexual Harassment
Eliminate the harassment behavior in the workplace. Depending on your company’s policy for sexual harassment, the person being complained about will either receive a warning, likely with a plan of specific action to prevent complaints from happening again, or in more severe cases, termination. The latter is a likely result for a company with a zero tolerance policy.
Establishing distance through HR’s recommendations. This solution creates distance and ideally, less interaction. It could also result in the person changing their behavior and/or being further removed from working with you.
Can prevent others from being sexually harassed. If even just one person speaks up, having the behavior on record, documented with HR, can help save others from experiencing repeated uncomfortable behavior in the future, by either providing serious consequences to the person doing the harassing or having it help build the number of complaints that ultimately occurs - leading to more serious action to stop it.
Starting at your company can potentially be faster, more direct and will not cost you lawyers fees.
A handful of variables will determine whether the person who was committing the harassment needs to be let go, or if Human Resources will eliminate the behavior in other ways (i.e. issuing warnings, sexual harassment training, assign counselling, etc).
Know your rights.
Retaliation is illegal.
Keep your own records of everything you reported, including email, in-person meetings, when and where meetings with HR took place, etc.
You have a right to know who will know the information you report.
Confiding in other trusted teammates can be helpful to gain momentum before you speak up alone. Women at Nike were able to create change this way.
Can’t Trust Your HR Team? Here’s Other Options.
Report to Your State or Federal Agency
You can file a discrimination charge with a state or federal agency. Typically this is the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC).
Within 10 days the employer will receive a notice that a charge has been filed.
EEOC may dismiss the claim: if the charge is untimely, or if they can’t determine if the law was violated, or the claim doesn’t go against EEOC’s laws.
EEOC may continue to investigate: if the claim meets certain criteria, the EEOC may suggest mediation (between the filer and the employer) as the next step, and/or investigation by EEOC personnel.
See more information about the process on EEOC’s site here.
Go to a Lawyer
File a Lawsuit
If won, you can receive monetary compensation for damages, get your job back and ask the court to make your employer change it’s practices and policies around sexual harassment.
For more resources:
Guidance on Sexual Harassment for all Employers in New York State, by the Division of Human Rights
Changing jobs is another perfectly acceptable solution. If you’re interviewing at a company, ask and see if they have protection against discrimination, retaliation, and harassment. Take an extra look at startup companies.
Also note that sexual harassment training is only mandatory for public companies, not private companies, although New York may be changing that soon to match California and Maine in mandatory sexual harassment training.
There are so many elements of sexual harassment. This guide merely scratches the surface. We will continue to put out more (and shorter pieces) of content tackling different sides of sexual harassment. We’re here to change workplace culture for the better, and it starts by ensuring everyone feels safe at work.
Sexual harassment is never okay. And it’s likely that many of us have dealt with it in one form or another - whether be as a witness to inappropriate behavior, a cat call on the street, or spoken to inappropriately at work or by a colleague.
Awareness and conversations are starting steps to ending suffering. New standards need to be set in all workplaces, but also in media, in institutions and organizations and in the way we talk to children when they’re young. GoCoach team members know people who have experienced sexual harassment, and some of us have experienced it first hand. We stand united against anyone feeling unsafe at work and will always be in solidarity and here to help those experiencing it.