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How to Cope with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

This is a guest post by Adetola Adeolu-Balogun. More about her at the end of the post.
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Sexual harassment is an obvious yet lightly treated issue in today’s workplace; unless you are at the receiving end, you won’t understand the graveness of it.
Your team lead constantly throwing suggestive jokes at you or makes threats to leave you out the promotion list if you don’t sleep with him are are some of the glaring signs you are being sexually harassed and unless you consent to it, you should in no way accept this.

Some of the most recognized forms of sexual harassment are:
• Direct sexual advances or propositions, including higher-ranked employees asking for sexual favours
• Intimidating or excluding employees to jeopardize their employment status based on a person’s sex
• Creating a hostile workplace by using sexist jokes, remarks, or pinning up sexually explicit or pornographic photos

Sexual harassment can happen at work, or at work-related events; between people sharing the same workplace or between work colleagues outside the workplace.

Here are some tips to cope with sexual harassment at work:

Make your NO a NO
One of the most important elements of sexual harassment claim is that the conduct must be “unwelcome.” Most abusers always claim the victim encouraged them or enjoyed their words and actions. Hence, it is necessary to make it clear to the abuser that such behaviour is unwelcome. Speak firmly to the abuser and make it clear that you are not interested every time the behaviour(s) is exhibited.

Keep every record
This may be difficult, but doing this will ensure you have proof that the conduct actually took place. Keep any conversation e.g. emails, chats, text messages etc., letters, gifts, or other tangible evidence from the harasser.
If possible, try to record your conversation with a smartphone or voice recorder and keep a diary or notes of any incidents that may be relevant to your claims. It is advisable to document such occurrences in handwritten notes or on personal computer because of the company’s IS policy and keep them carefully.

Source: Corbis Images
Source: Corbis Images

Establish you have been sexually harassed
Not all offensive behaviour is unlawful sexual harassment so it’s hard to draw the line. It is important to talk to your company’s HR Unit to find a lawyer who knows about sexual harassment law and about how to deal with such behaviour.

Don’t quit your job.
You have no cause to fear, sexual harassment is against the law. Do NOT have to endure a sexually hostile work environment as your employer is legally required to make it stop. However, make sure you keep doing your job to the best of your ability. Sexual harrassment can cause some emotional damage but you have to bear up under the pressure until you resolve the problem. Do not be silent about it but it’s not a good reason to quit a good job either.

Report  the conduct.
Reporting sexual harassment may feel frightening and embarrassing, but your report gives your employer an opportunity to correct the problem, i.e. make the harassment stop; and if the conduct does not stop, you have proof that your employer knows about the problem. Once your employer is on notice of the harassment, s/he should investigate and, if warranted, take prompt remedial action to address the problem.

If you do not inform your employer about the harassment, you’ll probably lose your sexual harassment charge. Although it may be hard, you need to cooperate in the employer’s investigation. Fear of retaliation generally is not a sufficient reason to avoid reporting harassment. Also, when you make a complaint about sexual harassment, you must make it clear that you’re complaining about sexual behaviour, call it a “Formal Complaint of Sexual Harassment.”

Consult Your Employee Manuals and Policies
Most established employers have specific sexual harassment policies that spell procedures for laying complaints. Follow that policy. If the person to whom you are supposed to report is the harasser, bypass that person and go to his/her supervisor or to Human Resources. If your employer does not have a sexual harassment policy or HR Unit, complain to someone you believe has the authority to address the problem, such as the Managing Director of the company, or some other high-level executive.

Get legal advice from someone who knows about sexual harassment law.
If you think you’re being sexually harassed, talk to a lawyer who’s experienced in sexual harassment cases. This is especially important if you’re considering quitting your job. Meeting with a lawyer does not mean that you are going to sue your current or former employer. An employment lawyer can advise you about what the law considers to be unlawful sexual harassment; counsel you about how to handle the situation (i.e., making a proper complaint, trying to preserve your job, gathering proof of the harassment, or dealing with the stress); and if matters escalate an attorney can advise you about your legal options (i.e. negotiating a severance/settlement agreement or, if necessary, filing an administrative charge or lawsuit).

Lastly, if you are experiencing severe psychological distress, you may want to consult a psychologist or other mental health professional who understands the problems caused by sexual harassment. Remember, you have the right to work in an environment that is free of sexual harassment.

Have you ever been sexually harassed in the workplace before? Share your story here.

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Adetola Adeolu-Balogun is a Lawyer and a Human Resources Specialist in a private oil and Gas Firm in Lagos. She also manages HRBlog Lady, a HR blog for employees and employers.

WRITTEN BY
Nathan Jeffery
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