The recent news about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment of countless women has opened the discussion of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry. Famous women have come forward with their stories of men in power using their positions to intimidate and threaten. They fear their careers may be hurt if they complain so often they remain quiet or at the very least refuse to name the predator. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not just confined to Hollywood or high profile industries. Women in every industry suffer in silence for fear of losing their jobs or permanently damaging their careers. Expert Ava Miles, author of The Goddess Guides to Being a Woman, offers advice for handling sexual harassment in the workplace.
Not being near these abusers in the first place is ideal. Are there red flags that someone might be prone to sexually harass others?
On one hand, sadly, it’s hard to say whether a certain workplace or company would be more or less likely to have a sexual harasser on staff. On the other hand, those in charge often tend to hire and promote likeminded individuals. If you observe inappropriate sexual behavior or commentary from one or more staff members (sexist of “off-color” jokes around the office as a matter of course or male colleagues looking or talking inappropriately about women, for example), you may be dealing with a situation where upper management is tolerant of such behavior.
The question to ask at that point is whether or not this company is really the one for you; we don’t always know the inside of an organization until we are smack dab in it. If for whatever reason it is the place you feel you want/need to be, make sure you have strategies in place to stay safe and remove yourself from — or altogether avoid — potentially threatening situations. Per the example above, it’s probably not a good idea to laugh at sexist or off-color jokes and instead remain silent or excuse yourself.
When working around a known abuser, how can women prevent being in a situation where they could be assaulted?
Try to exert as much control over the situation as you can. Make sure you aren’t alone with this individual. If you are asked to a private meeting, circumvent an uncomfortable situation by moving the meeting to a more public place such as a coffee shop or conference room (one with glass walls is ideal). If that fails, make sure the door stays open. Failing that, have some tools in mind to take back control of the situation if you feel physically threatened. You can pretend you’re suddenly ill from something you ate and have to throw up. You can remember that you left something in your car or that you forgot to make an emergency phone call. You can belch and fart (seriously!) to gross the person out, then run out as if from embarrassment. The latter would be embarrassing, but it’s better than being assaulted.
What is the best way for women to deal with someone in power who is known to sexually harass subordinates?
Have strategies in your professional toolbox — like those I mentioned above — for defusing or avoiding potentially threatening situations. If necessary, be prepared to be assertive. You can use humor to keep things light while still clearly communicating a veiled warning that the unwanted behavior is not acceptable. For example, you could say, “If I didn’t know you better I’d be pulling out the HR handbook right about now…” Then take charge of the conversation by changing the subject back to focus on work-related matters. This works for in-person encounters, email, phone or text.
How can women say no to aggressors without hurting their careers?
Sadly there is no way to be one hundred percent certain here, and that’s the issue many of us grapple with. However, the veiled threat to get HR involved works well. Again, using humor can keep things light while still leaving room for you to draw a line in the sand. You’re giving the person an out and not antagonizing them, something many bullies get a rise from (literally and figuratively). It doesn’t have to go any further than that — on the harasser’s end in terms of inappropriate behavior and on your end in terms of reporting to HR — and you make that clear by switching gears as quickly and seamlessly as possible and focusing on the work and the task at hand. Otherwise, if certain behavior continues at say work happy hours, you might stop attending them all together. Not dating anyone at work also ensures there’s no fodder for the gristmill. Maintaining your work to be at a top standard while maintaining both personal and professional dignity leaves a lasting impression on others. As I heard many times in my former career, “Cream always rises to the top.”
When is it time to report behavior and what is the best way to go about doing that?
If a harasser won’t stop or won’t take no for an answer — and certainly if someone has crossed the line to physical inappropriateness or intimidation — you might want to get HR in the boat with you. You’re going to want to create a document outlining events by day and direct quotes from the person or any other evidence you have; if the person consistently harasses you verbally, you might try using your cell phone to record the audio, but make sure you aren’t compromising your safety. Reporting a person to HR is a step that is not to be taken lightly and you’ll want to be as factual as you can about the situation.
If you have a trusted colleague — and I mean completely trustworthy and squeaky-clean — you might talk with him or her about the situation and ask them for suggestions. If the person is more senior than you and has power, they might even be willing to go to HR with you. Often times HR people don’t know you or you them, and having someone vouch for you can be very helpful in these matters — even though that shouldn’t matter since you aren’t in the wrong.
Hopefully, your company’s HR staff will properly respect privacy as the law requires. However, you should go in with your eyes open knowing that this may indeed compromise your position at the company and who is willing to work with you. As we all know, the company rumor mill works quickly. At the end of the day, though, it’s important for the harasser to receive consequences for inappropriate behavior and it’s even more important for you to feel safe at work.