What if It’s Not Sexual Harassment? Should I Say Something?

by Alli Polin on June 3, 2014

Afraid to speak up and being harassed at work?

I had only been in the workforce for less than a year and had landed on a really exciting consulting project.  I was on the team designing the organization structure for a big IT outsourcing program.  I was collaborating closely with senior leaders in my company and with key players in the client organization too.  The hours were long, I was learning a lot and I loved my job, that was, until I started to get a strange vibe from one of the clients.  I wondered if the “vibe” was actually sexual harassment, but quickly dismissed that thought.  After all, he was a seasoned professional who knew better and I was a young consultant who was clearly reading things wrong, right?

I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble if I was misreading the situation so instead of speaking up, I stayed silent.  I asked myself over and over, “What if it’s not sexual harassment?”  I was more worried about getting in trouble than having a place to work where I was safe and respected.

Each time I met with him I stayed professional and on topic, but he’d usually like to break the ice with some personal banter.

“Do you have a TV in your bedroom?” he asked. 
“I don’t,” I answered, ready to move back to the meeting agenda. 
“I do,” he said.  “Nothing else is going on in my bedroom…”

Conversation after conversation there was nothing overt, but I always left our meetings like I wanted to take a shower.  Ultimately, I decided I thought about it enough and dreaded meetings with this person enough to get some advice from a female senior leader on the program.

“I’m sure it’s nothing but…”

I told her how I felt, what was said and that I was probably wrong.  Her reaction taught me a lot.

Within 24 hours all of the senior Partners on the program had been informed and met with me in the conference room.  Not only did they immediately report it to our home office HR, but also an offer would not be extended to the person who was harassing me and they gave me the option working remotely from our headquarters office.  Furthermore, I would not see or meet with that client again.  This was serious and they were taking it seriously.  I felt respected, valued and heard.

The Partners taught me an important lesson with their words and swift actions; it’s my job to speak up and their job to take action.  There was no hemming and hawing as they figured out how to keep everyone happy.

What if it’s not sexual harassment?  What if I’m wrong?

Clearly, women are not the only ones that are the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.  Men may struggle even more than women with speaking up when they feel victimized.  Worry about the judgement of others and overwhelming shame often stops men from approaching HR.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman or you’re unsure if you’re being harassed… if you’re consistently uncomfortable, say something.  Go to HR and they will speak with you and not belittle you.  If your company is very small and you don’t have HR, go to speak with a trusted senior leader.

My company took things seriously and yours should too.  If you stay silent out of fear, doubt or embarrassment, but feel like you’re being sexually harassed, you need to be a leader that takes a stand for yourself.

Should you say something if you feel harassed at work?  Yes.

  • If you feel like you’re being harassed, say something.
  • Sexual harassment is never acceptable.
  • If you don’t get a response from your company that takes your report seriously, that is not somewhere that you should work.
  • Man or woman, new hire or senior leader, no one should ever feel threatened, uncomfortable or violated at work.

Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation?  What did you do?

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Chery Gegelman June 3, 2014 at 7:10 am

Wow Alli!

I love your courage to speak up, your wisdom to share the concern without accusing, and the wisdom and compassion that your company responded with.

Great topic, great example, great coaching!

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Alli Polin June 3, 2014 at 8:18 am

Thanks, Chery! Sometimes speaking up stops being a debate and we have no other real choice but to do it.

Hope that more people will speak up instead of sucking it up.

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Joy Guthrie June 3, 2014 at 8:32 am

An important message Alli. Thanks for sharing your advice. I believe you will help someone specifically with this post.

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Alli Polin June 3, 2014 at 8:55 am

That’s definitely my hope, Joy. It’s for the one person that really needs to hear this message now, sees this post and speaks up.

Thanks, Joy!

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Terri Klass June 3, 2014 at 9:21 am

A critical topic to be discussed, Alli and not swept under the carpet.

I know of a situation where a young woman was being sexually harassed on the phone by a client and when she confronted the senior partners they didn’t respond initially. She then took matters in her own hands and asked to get off the client. The partners finally said something to him.

Losing a client is far less important than supporting an harassed employee.

Thanks Alli for sharing this with us!

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Alli Polin June 4, 2014 at 10:32 pm

Terri, Thank you for sharing that story. Really glad to hear that she didn’t tolerate a bad situation despite the fact that her senior partners didn’t take remarkable action when she spoke up. Too bad it went down that way but really glad to hear that they spoke to the client (and they could have gone even further and ended their relationship with the client).

It does get swept under the carpet a lot because it’s one word against another and the fear that the person who’s being harassed is reading into things. That’s when listening to our gut really comes into play.

Thanks, Terri!

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LaRae Quy June 3, 2014 at 9:34 am

Great post, Alli!

Too often we don’t speak up because we don’t want to rock the boat. The response by your organization was amazing…what impressed me was the clarity with which the company moved. While it wasn’t clear to you, it was to them!

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Alli Polin June 4, 2014 at 10:34 pm

I have to say, that company had exceptional processes in place to handle any kinds of harassment. Not because it was a particular problem within the organization but because they held a commitment to create a great place to work.

There are times when rocking the boat is not optional and this is one of them.

Thanks, LaRae!

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Tom Rhodes June 3, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Great post Alli;
Life should be a safe and comfortable place. I say life not just work because people should be respected everywhere. At work, at home, in a public place ….etc. If these conversations whether in person or by phone or text are uncomfortable and unwanted then they need to end.
Basic civility.

Tom

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Alli Polin June 4, 2014 at 10:35 pm

I’m with you all the way! People should always be respected and feel safe. It’s not only an issue of sexual harassment but also any and all behaviors that make someone feel bullied, compromised or at risk.

Thank you for this addition, Tom!

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Carl June 3, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Alli, I also commend you for not ignoring that ‘little voice’ and having the courage to speak up. I believe you are correct that it may be even harder for a man to speak up when the roles are reversed, cultural/sexual stereotypes are hard to break.

Appreciative of your work,
Best regards,
Carl
@SparktheAction

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Alli Polin June 4, 2014 at 10:37 pm

I’m sure that there are far more men that feel as if they are the victims of sexual harassment than we’ll ever know about. Makes me think of the movie Horrible Bosses when the female dentist was harassing her male assistant and his friends thought it was awesome that a woman was coming on to him. That is and was certainly not the case.

Thank you for your comment and adding to the conversation, Carl!

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Cynthia Bazin June 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

Great post Alli! You are helping so many people out there! Awesome work as always!

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Alli Polin June 4, 2014 at 10:38 pm

I really do hope that someone that is wondering if they should speak up, even if they’re not totally sure about what they’re experiencing, will read this and take action.

Appreciate your support, Cindy!

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Jon Mertz June 4, 2014 at 9:15 am

Alli,

When situations like this happen, it is important to speak up and stand up. This point you made is vital: “I felt respected, valued and heard.” Having this type of culture and environment is what we deserve. Thank you for sharing your story and, most importantly, for standing up.

Jon

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Alli Polin June 4, 2014 at 10:41 pm

I feel really lucky that I spent 11 years of my career with this particular organization. It was not only lip service to people first but the way they ran the business too (and hopefully still do!).

I could not agree more – a culture that leads with respect and valuing the employee is absolutely something we all deserve.

Thank you, Jon, for adding your insights here!

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Julie September 2, 2017 at 7:22 am

Thanks, I think you just helped me. I think I should tell my superiors about something that happened to me. I don’t want to be “that girl” but I think I should tell someone. I hate it. I’m brand new, I haven’t even been there 60 days, I’m still in my new hire probation period. And now I’m gonna be the sexual harassment girl. I wish this had never happened. I know as soon as I tell my supervisor, they are going to have to report it to HR. Ugh, I hate it.

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Alli Polin September 4, 2017 at 9:00 pm

Julie,

First of all, I’m so sorry that you’re in that position. I wish it never happened to you too but if you know that it is or did, speaking up is the right thing. You are not wrong or less important because you’re in your probation period. Sexual harassment is unacceptable and action needs to be taken to protect you and others. I know it won’t be easy but from your comment, it sounds like you know it’s what needs to happen. I know I don’t know you, but if you ever want to connect, not as a coach and client, but with a woman who’s been there, I’m here to listen and support you.

Best,

Alli

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