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March 10, 2009

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Sexual harassment is truly the dirty little secret of Corporate America. The important things to remember if you are a victim of sexual harassment are that you are not alone, and it is not your fault. If you get a group of women in a room, each one will be able to contribute a story about herself or a friend dealing with unwelcome and inappropriate advances from a peer, a manager, a senior executive or a client. Women don't talk about these experiences openly for a number of reasons. They can't believe it happened to them. They wonder if they were at fault. They don't want to damage their professional credibility.

Different variables may affect your exact approach to dealing with a harasser. How offended are you? Is it a one-time offense that you can ignore, or is it a recurring issue that will worsen if you don't address it? Keep in mind that you probably won't be the first or last person harassed by this perpetrator. Maybe he doesn't even know he is harassing you and the situation requires a polite but frank confrontation. Give the harasser the benefit of the doubt if the offense is more irritating than threatening. "You probably don't realize it, but you are making me really uncomfortable, and I don't want to feel that way around you because I think you are a great guy and we work so well together." "I am flattered that you are attracted to me, but I am not interested in extending our relationship beyond our professional interaction."

Who is the perpetrator? Is it a peer or the goofball in the mailroom who you can directly confront with confidence? If you want to escape a sticky situation with an important senior person without causing a scene, humor and white lies are the best weapons. Let's say a senior executive has you cornered at an office party and you don't want to get on his bad side with a rude exit. Tell him you need to go to the bathroom and don't return. Surround yourself with safe peers or superiors so that he can't corner you again. If he asks you why you didn't return, innocently tell him you ran into another colleague in the bathroom and got sidetracked in a conversation.

Who do you tell? If you can't laugh off the situation, talk to someone you trust to get another perspective. That person doesn't need to be your manager. Try to decide whether your manager will be your ally in dealing with the situation. This likelihood has nothing to do with your manager's gender. A man could either downplay the "flattery," or immediately see the situation for what it is and take it seriously. If you have no idea how to handle the situation and no obvious confidante to tell, a good first step is talking to your own manager or the Human Resources Manager.

The Legal Lowdown

"I feel like I've been discriminated against at work -- what can I do?"

If you feel that you are the victim of illegal discrimination at work, you must address it. Don't turn a blind eye and be a victim of actual discrimination. Make your voice heard and get the matter resolved.Legally speaking, discrimination means unfair treatment of people. The most common types of discrimination that occur in the workplace are discrimination based on sex, race and age. Other types include family, marital and pregnancy status, national origin and physical and mental disabilities.

Harassment, sexual or not, is a form of discrimination. It is conduct that is unwelcome and intimidating, abusive or offensive. Sexual harassment falls into two categories: quid pro quo and hostile environment. Quid pro quo is basically "sleep with me or you're fired." Hiring, promotions and retention, for example, are influenced by whether or not an employee succumbs to requests for sexual favors. Hostile environment is unwelcome conduct that is severe enough to create an objectively or subjectively abusive work environment, for example derogatory comments or dirty jokes, offensive posters and pictures.

The harasser can be a supervisor or any other employee, regardless of position, or a non-employee such as an agent or contractor of the employer. To determine if the environment is hostile you must look at all the circumstances, such as the frequency and severity of the conduct (however, ONE act can constitute illegal harassment, depending on the circumstances) and whether your work performance is hindered. An employer can address issues of harassment in different ways, depending on the severity -- from counseling and separating those who are involved to termination of the harasser.

If you feel you have been the victim of real discrimination, take action. First, unless you have concerns for your safety, directly tell the offender that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. Then follow your company's specific grievance system. Employers must have policies that are well publicized against workplace discrimination and effective means for implementing those policies, including clear steps that employees can follow to report the conduct and how an investigation will be carried out. If you feel the current system of your employer is not effective, tell someone you trust within the organization and get the ball rolling for change.

You should not tolerate discriminatory acts against you -- your employer has a responsibility to prevent and eliminate any discrimination. But be prepared to look for a new job if your company's response is not acceptable. Some companies, even faced with the bald truth of discrimination, cannot, or will not, execute an acceptable resolution in a quick enough time frame.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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