I’m self-employed. My workspace is occupied by just me; I don’t have to sit through mandatory HR training on anything, not the least of which is what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace. So when I recently found myself in a rather awkward predicament all the signals pointed toward what happens to other people, but not to me.
We use the community room of a local business to conduct one of our leadership training sessions, and since our training occurs consistently on the same date and time each month, we are on a first-name basis with the staff.
Each month I make the trek from our meeting room to the staff kitchen to retrieve ice and water for use on our refreshment table, and each month the same male staff member happens to be in the kitchen, too. He always strikes up a conversation with me. I always give the shortest, but most polite, responses, and get back to our meeting room as soon as possible.
Creepy. . .
Recently, when he made casual comments about my looks, my smile, my personality, and my eligibility for marriage, I felt extremely awkward in my attempts to reply, and was more anxious than usual to excuse myself. Sensing my embarrasment, he actually tried to make me feel better by doubling his efforts, thereby creating a bigger strain in our already one-sided conversation. Later that afternoon I found myself alone with him once more, and he asked me about my dating status. This simply felt wrong and I was uncomfortable.
Via text I shared with a friend what had happened, and my friend told me plainly: That is harassment.
Once our training session concluded I shared the situation with my business partner, who also happens to be my brother, and he agreed: That is harassment.
What to do about it?
My brother and I agreed a face-to-face conversation would be the most appropriate course of action since I firmly believe the staff member had no idea he was harassing me, and that his actions, while offensive to me, were never intended to make me feel uncomfortable.
Wikipedia gives the following definition of one kind of harasser:
The harasser may be completely unaware that his or her behavior is offensive or constitutes sexual harassment or may be completely unaware that his or her actions could be unlawful.
Unintentional – Acts or comments of a sexual nature, not intended to harass, can constitute sexual harassment if another person feels uncomfortable with such subjects.
Feeling warranted to speak to him, with my brother by my side, I did just that. There was an appropriate opportunity in a public space and I thanked him for his help with our meeting space each month, and how much we appreciate the use of their facility, but the manner in which he has been speaking to me makes me feel uncomfortable and is inappropriate, and will he please stop.
He immediately apologized, asked my forgiveness, and assured me he meant no harm, and he appreciated me telling him.
It is my hope that no further action will need to be taken. But I learned a valuable lesson: there is a potential risk for each of us, regardless of our work environment, to harassment. I also believe it is important that we speak out and speak up when something just doesn’t feel right. You are your greatest advocate; use your voice.