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Posted: November 09, 2011

Sexual harassment: 20 years after

Know how to protect yourself

John Heckers

This October marked the 20-year anniversary of the Clarence Thomas hearings, where Anita Hill came forward to report that she had been consistently sexually harassed by Thomas, who now sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. Recently, credible claims of sexual harassment by three women have arisen against presidential candidate Herman Cain. It is vital to know what sexual harassment is and how to protect yourself, whether you're an employer or employee.

Sexual harassment is wrong. It is also a rising problem. Here are a few things to consider.

1). Know what sexual harassment is. Sexual harassment is a situation where you are either facing a consistently hostile environment sexually, or where threats, overt or implied, of losing your job if you don't comply or promises of favorable treatment if you do. You have rights under the law and under the policy manuals of most companies. Know them, and be prepared to exercise them.

2). Report sexual harassment immediately. If you believe you are being sexually harassed, immediately report to your H.R. department or the appropriate supervisor. An H.R. professional will know how to handle these accusations and may well protect your job, as well as remove you from further harassment.

3). Be specific about what happened. Give great detail. If you aren't sure if you've been sexually harassed, keep a log with specific instances for a couple of weeks. When you go to H.R. or the appropriate superior, being able to clearly spell out what happened can mean the difference between having the issue dealt with and being dismissed as "all in your head."

4). Be aware that sexual harassment can happen to anyone of either gender or sexual orientation. Sexual harassment happens to men and women from both men and women. Employers should take all complaints about sexual harassment seriously.

5). Consider the consequences of reporting. It is wrong that this is so, BUT...reporting sexual harassment can end your career at many companies. Consider if there are other options, like a transfer or a different job before getting involved in reporting. If you decide to report, work through company channels first before making an EEOC complaint or filing a suit. But don't just ignore harassment, as it can escalate.

6). Avoid situations and/or behaviors that can open the door to sexual harassment. Avoid dressing in provocative clothing, talking about sex, or being alone for extended periods of time with another employee unless you know that person very well.

7). Be aware that sexual harassment can be perpetrated by supervisors, peers, employees and even customers.

The Other Side of Sexual Harassment

A rising problem is false reporting of sexual harassment. Once almost unheard of, this is becoming much more common. If you're a supervisor take common sense steps to protect yourself from false reporting.

1). Don't be alone with an employee unless absolutely necessary. There is safety in numbers. Be especially careful about closing the door alone with an employee, particularly one that is very young and/or attractive. Even if nothing goes on, there can be a perception issue. Don't give an employee a ride home alone, or have an employee alone in your house unless you know them very well.

2). If you must discipline an employee have an H.R. representative or other person present. This protects everyone. Making clear and concise notes about a disciplinary session also helps. If you have an H.R. professional available, use her to assist you! H.R. professionals are highly trained in these areas and can be invaluable.

3). Document carefully any issues with an employee, especially if these are leading to possible termination. It can save you from harassment charges and lawsuits.

4). Don't date your employees. If you fall in love, one of you must transfer or get another job (break-ups happen, you know!). Things that are normal in relationships can look like (or be) sexual harassment when one supervises the other. Additionally, there can be perceptions of favoritism that are bad for morale.

5). Be very careful in your jokes and even compliments. Something that seems innocent to you may well be taken the wrong way.

Many of these recommendations are more applicable in medium to large sized companies than very small companies. In small companies, close and trusting relationships are easier to form and maintain. Be aware, however, that, regardless of a relationship you think you have or company size, things can "go South" very rapidly. Take common sense steps to protect yourself both from being harassed and being accused of harassment. The career you save may well be your own.

Are you in the management or executive ranks and looking to network with those who have great job leads? Please join me and up to 30 of your colleagues at Structured Networking November 14th. Registration and more information here.
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John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC was an Executive, Relationships, Life and Spiritual Coach in Denver with 30 years of experience  helping people with their lives, relationships and careers.

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Readers Respond

I agree, Irene. As usual, a few bad apples have killed common sense for all of us. But, I'll say it again...just be careful until you know you can trust someone...on both sides. Also, though, people betray those who trust them. But 95% of the time, people are going to understand any caring gestures for what they are. Some people, however, will misconstrue them. Whether or not to take the risk is a judgment call. But you're right...complete safety only lies in being a cold zombie-like creature and not showing any care for those around you. Sad. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 11 10
the sad part of this is that appropriate affection can so easily be misconstued for inappropriate actions. The much needed and appreciated hug can be misconstrued for inappropriate lust. The only way to escape possible criticism is to be a rather zombie-like character. and we may all become robots in the end. By Irene Nelson on 2011 11 10 the way. Since I wrote the article last week a fourth accuser has come forth for ex-Godfather's CEO Herman Cain. She is being pilloried by the Cain campaign and Conservative news channels. This is a). an example of the costs of reporting and b). an example of a clear pattern of harassment. When person after person comes forth in a company, the claims, while not certain (people could be conspiring to get rid of an unpopular boss, and, certainly this could conceivably be happening with Cain), the claim becomes more credible. One Two claims...yeah, maybe. Three or more claims...there is something (though we can't be sure exactly what) going on. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 11 10
Bob -- it really depends on the situation. This is why both the potential recipient of sexual harassment and the potential alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment have to be very careful in today's world. You're right....there often is no proof. But, often there IS a pattern. Realistically, however, in the real world, though this is neither right nor fair, a sexual harassment claim probably will have a very negative impact on both people. If a woman reports it and it goes public (or through the grapevine) she often becomes untouchable. If a guy is accused of it, ditto. If a man reports sexual harassment, he is made the butt of jokes and ridiculed, especially if the alleged harasser is another guy. And so on. This is really a case where "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." can't always go around worrying about this kind of thing. In time, a trust can and should build up where people feel safe around one another. If not, it is an indication to move on. I'd be especially careful at a new position and/or company until you get to know someone, boss, peer or employee. Even so, not all of this is avoidable. It is a sad part of America in 2011 and our very strange society. By John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC on 2011 11 10
In many cases the alleged harrassment is between two individuals in private. This then becomes a he said, she said situation. Where does the burden of proof lie, with the accusor to prove that the event actually occured or with the one accused to prove their innocence?? By bob stone on 2011 11 09

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