Monday 14 September 2020

Addressing Workplace Harassment

Photo of Lady at her desk
Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

For some reason, the thought of a colleague I used to have came into my head. And it was followed by such immense disgust that I had to take long, deep breaths to calm myself.

He – of course it was a man – was the definition of classless. I want to call him ‘dumb dumb’ but I am learning to be nicer to people. So, I will settle with Mr. X.


Mr. X believed that he could say whatever he wanted to me and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand where he got the nerve from. He annoyed me to no end and while it is sad, I was a bit glad when he was laid off.


Okay. I know…you need context. Let me explain why he revulsed me so.


I had started what was a really great opportunity to work and grow and I was excited to be able to contribute to areas of the global goals that tied directly to my personal mantra and life plans. Since I was new, I focused on learning the ropes of this new career path and navigating the office interaction and boundaries. For the most part, I was polite but relatively aloof in my engagement with many of my colleagues.


With this background, you can imagine my demeanor when Mr. X came to my office to chit chat. I was cool as I answered his questions until he brought up a sexual innuendo. I can’t even remember what it was but my eyes bulged, ready to eviscerate him on the spot where he stood. But… I paused. Could he actually have said what I thought he said? Maybe I was reading meaning to things that just weren’t there. His statement could have been harmless for all I knew.


So, I tittered and went back to my computer, hoping he would take it as the cue to leave me alone.


He didn’t.


Mr. X. continued to make suggestive statements that confirmed that my first instinct was right. At this point, I could feel the steam rising and I knew I was going to blowout. Thankfully, another colleague came in and the conversation changed, prompting him to leave my office. In my head, I thanked whatever God he worshipped. Mr. X. had saved himself from the caustic end of my tongue and I had saved myself from revealing that beneath my calm exterior, there was a volcano that didn’t need that kind of trigger.


I had forgotten about Mr. X. for a while until we attended an event together. At lunch, another colleague came to me and raucously mentioned how I had gained weight. I laughed about it  as I walked away from him. He continued to follow me, making remarks about my weight and laughing cluelessly. Mr. X. decided to join in the conversation.


So, there I was, with two men following me as I picked food I wanted to eat, commenting on my weight and laughing. My tight smile did nothing for them. Neither did my silence. But by God, I was ready to explode when Mr. X. mentioned how the fat was going ‘into all the right places’.


I stopped.


What. The. Bloody. Hell?!


I knew I was going to explode but again, I was at lunch with a bunch of colleagues, guests we were hosting and other development partners and stakeholders.


So…I walked away.


But I swore to myself that the next time Mr. X. tried me, I was going to check him faster than he could spell his own name. And because harassers would always stay true to character, it wasn’t long before an opportunity presented itself to me.


Few weeks later, we had a human resource training where I shared my thoughts about badgering people to marry or give birth. I expressed why I thought it was harassment and why the practice should not be allowed.  As the day wore on, sexual harassment was touched on and the human resource manager mentioned why it was important to call out sexual harassment without being contentious. Now, she wasn’t saying we should let it slide. She said we should firmly call it out for what it was without resorting to raised voices, physical altercations or worse. Her point was that, some people may not know that they were sexually harassing another person and the first option should always be to correct…except of course if the situation was dire. It was a learning session for me because my first instinct is always to fight. But in the workplace, fighting is not the way to go, especially if there is a possibility that the situation can be misconstrued.


No sooner had we left the training center than Mr. X. followed me to my office. He said the way I spoke was ‘like one of those feminists’. I laughed and assured him that I was a feminist. He began to throw questions he thought would trip me and I kept responding with, ‘Oh! That is what they do? I didn’t know that.’ Though my responses were sarcastic, each question served to rile me up. Just when I wanted to mention an excuse to get him out of my office, he threw the grenade: ‘Is it true that feminists know exactly how to please a man? That they can give a man good sex?’


Santa. Maria!


I knew I was within my rights to cuss him out and teach him a lesson he would never forget but I inhaled…and side stepped the bomb. I raised my head from my computer, looked him straight in his eyes, and said in as measured a tone as I could muster, ‘Mr. X. This is not an appropriate conversation for the workplace.’


You could tell that he was shocked, even though he tried to laugh it off. He continued to try to bring examples to back his point and my only response to his antics was, ‘Mr. X. This is not an appropriate conversation for the workplace.’ When he saw that I wasn’t going to budge, he slunk away from my office.


It was the last day he tried to bring up that kind of conversation with me; even though he continued to use some sexual innuendos when we were in a group. You can understand why I said I was happy he was laid off, right?


It wasn’t the first time I had faced this type of treatment in an office. It is actually quite commonplace for people not to have or respect boundaries. What was new for me was how I handled the situation. In the past, I would have gone for the jugular and made sure I eviscerated his entire existence. Heck, whom am I kidding? Even now, I am most likely to choose a shouting voice instead of the calm ones. But I am learning to be different because of some possibilities.


Words (and actions) can be misconstrued. Take people who are natural huggers for example. They may not mean anything by hugging people, including their colleagues. If they have a colleague who doesn’t liked to be touched, they may create offense by hugging, or trying to hug them. Also, two people can get close to each other and be open to having conversations about sex around each other. This camaraderie could be seen as harassment by another person.


There are many situations like this and for that reason, I am tilted towards correcting behavior first…even if it ticks me off. By establishing that Mr. X’s conversation was not appropriate to me, I set a boundary for him and for myself. If he had continued to act inappropriately towards me, I would have had grounds to complain to human resources. If nothing was done about it and the behavior persisted, I would have been well within my rights to seek redress in the highest office possible, or even legally. By learning to follow this process, I gave Mr. X. – and other people like him – the benefit of the doubt while resolving the situation amicably.


Rest assured, my reaction would have been very different if he had tried to touch me or force himself on me. And again, I would have been well within my rights to do so.


The major thing however is this: set boundaries with people you work with; check them when they cross said boundaries; correct them if you genuinely believe they may not know better; and if they continue to move mad, be unafraid to hold them accountable for their actions.


Workplace harassment should not be tolerated. But it can be resolved in ways that doesn’t jeopardize workplace relations. Again, this only applies when situations are not pressing.


Have you dealt with any workplace harassment? How did you handle it?

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