Thursday, June 11, 2009

Advice: Workplace sexual harassment

Hello, I'm Prudence. Today's letter is about the Intern and the Office Lech.

Women's Voice: I'm a college age girl and last summer I had an internship at a small office. There wasn't a very strict dress code, so I usually wore jeans and a sweater. One day, an older co-worker who had been very friendly and welcoming, pulled me aside and said I was distracting him by wearing V-neck sweaters. I immediately apologized and promised that I would dress differently in the future. I wore my jacket for the rest of the day. After that, he started telling me about his past sex life and how he would have loved someone like me when he was younger. Then he told me that interns were supposed to have their pictures taken and asked me to take a few with 'more boobs'. When I left the internship, I was too embarassed to say goodbye to him. I also never got back in touch with my actual boss, even though he asked me to because I was afraid this person was going to tell him bad things about me. How much of this was my fault? And what should I have done? Signed, Dress Code.

Prudence: Dear Dress Code, you have some nerve being young, attractive and topping it off by having a pair of breasts. You're lucky this guy didn't bring a hostile work environment suit against you. Ok, even though you've left this place of employ, you need to get back in touch with your former boss and explain why you left so abruptly without thanking him. Ask for a meeting or talk to him on the phone and tell him exactly what happened. Say you were so embarassed and mortified you simply didn't know what to do and so you left but now in retrospect you need to let him know so another young woman doesn't have to go through this. Then tell him you very much appreciated the opportunity you had and you learned a lot. I bet you did.

While some of Prudence's advice regarding getting in touch with the boss was helpful, she failed to clearly address the advice seeker's main question - how much of what happened was her fault?

Here's the advice I would give to Dress Code:

None of this was your fault. That man's actions were out of line, unprofessional and constitute sexual harassment. His comments and actions made the workplace uncomfortable for you, which then impacted your work performance. He abused his position as an older, full time employee by acting inappropriately towards you as younger summer intern.

If something similar to this happens in the future, document the harassment with specific details such as what was said, when, where, if anyone else overheard it, etc. Bring it to your boss and issue a complaint against the coworker, if you so wish (and I encourage). But definitely document the harassment, in case in the future you need to establish a pattern or escalation of his behavior. By all means, get back in touch with your former boss to let him know what happened. Perhaps this man has a history of sexual harassment, and you can help prevent another woman from experiencing his inappropriate behavior.

This isn't Mad Men anymore. Sexual harassment within the workplace shouldn't be tolerated. Many women in the past have braved sexism, harassment and the struggles of the court system to establish the workplace sexual harassment laws we have today so you wouldn't have to apologize for wearing a V-neck sweater. But above all - this wasn't your fault. You are not responsible for his actions, regardless of how you were dressed.

1 comment:

J said...

I think she tried to answer that concern when she said, "you have some nerve being young, attractive and topping it off by having a pair of breasts. You're lucky this guy didn't bring a hostile work environment suit against you." The sarcastic tone was meant to imply that 'Dress Code' was not at fault here and that the 'Offic Lech' was way out of line to make her fee; that way - however, while that was obvious to me I agree that it might not be obvious to someone dealing with the feelings of guilt that this woman was dealing with... Emily should have been more direct, I like your advice!