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The Biggest Mistake Women Make When Being Sexually Harassed at Work

A long-time friend recently called me for some legal advice.  For purposes of this article, let’s call her Kimberly.  Kimberly explained to me how her newly hired direct supervisor kept making comments about her breasts.  At first Kimberly tried to dress even more conservatively at work and ignore him, but the comments persisted.  Then one day her supervisor poked the left side of her breast with his finger and said “when are you going to let the girls breathe again?”  Kimberly was uncomfortable and just giggled and smiled, and then she said “I need to leave some mystery in things.”  That was Kimberly’s biggest mistake, and it is unfortunately a mistake that women make all too often when faced with a similar situation.

By smiling, laughing and engaging her supervisor, Kimberly unknowingly made herself appear to be a willful participant in the harassment.  Sexual harassment must be unwanted.  Any bystander (without knowing what was going through Kimberly’s head) would believe that Kimberly wasn’t offended and in fact flirted back with her supervisor.  Further, the supervisor may fairly perceive her conduct as flirtatious as well.

So, what should Kimberly have done?  Kimberly should have immediately objected to the unwanted touching and comments.  She should have told her supervisor directly to stop and made it clear that the conduct was unwanted.  She should have consulted the Employee Handbook to see if her employer identified a procedure for reporting sexual harassment and designated an individual or individuals to receive the information.  If the employer did not designate a specific procedure and/or individual(s) to report to in the Employee Handbook, she should have gone to her Human Resource Department and/or her supervisor’s boss.  She should have been specific in her complaints by providing as much detail as she could.  Further, she should have documented her complaints in writing (preferably by email).  Without her employer being told of what is going on with her supervisor, the employer had no opportunity to investigate and/or rectify the situation. 

Ultimately, Kimberly followed my suggestions.  She was truthful with the Human Resource Director.  She explained what had happened to her and explained that she did smile, giggle and comment back in an effort to hide her discomfort.  Fortunately, her employer acted promptly and quickly conducted an investigation into Kimberly’s complaints.  The Human Resource Department determined that she had in fact been sexually harassed, and the supervisor was immediately terminated. 

Despite laws designed to protect victims from workplace harassment, sexual harassment is still prevalent.  One in four women have experienced workplace harassment according to a survey completed in 2011 by Langer Research Associates on behalf of ABC News.  That statistic may be even higher according to a 2015 survey by Cosmopolitan.  According to Cosmopolitan’s survey, of the 2,235 women surveyed, one in three women ages 18-34 reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.  Unfortunately, just like Kimberly, many victims of sexual harassment “play along” with the unwanted conduct for fear of being ostracized, retaliated against or losing their job.  By standing up to her harasser by reporting his conduct, Kimberly was once against able to do her job free of harassment (as she should have been all along).       

If you want more information to understand your legal rights, please call our firm at (413) 733-9111.   

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