Too often we hear of cases of sexual harassment in the work place. The workplace should be emotionally safe for both employees and employers. However, far too many people do not feel so safe on the job. There are countless reports of verbal and sometimes physical conflicts and intimidations. Perhaps the most insidious and common kind of problem on the job is sexual harassment. It is a problem that is very difficult, painful and oftentimes embarrassing to talk about. Too often, it remains unchallenged because of threats, shame, intimidation and severe abuse of power.
Sexual harassment is defined as “unsolicited physical contact and advances toward someone; a demand or request for sexual favors; sexually-colored remarks with colleagues on the job; showing pornography; and any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature”.
There are some people who do not want to be touched in any manner. Their colleagues would seek to give them long hugs first thing in the morning at work or lingering handshakes. Even when they insist the person not touch them, the actions are still forced on the person. This is wrong and could be identified as sexual harassment even if that is not the intent of the individual.
Interestingly, the victim could be the person harassed as well as anyone affected by the offensive conduct. Has your boss ever stopped by and rubbed your shoulders while he checked out the work you were doing? Or does your co-worker constantly stop by to flirt with you? A comment like, “Wow, you have sexy lips” can be sexual harassment.
Another form of sexual harassment is done with eyes only. Yes, staring can be a form of sexual harassment. It can make someone feel uncomfortable. Women have told me that they felt like their clothes were being taken off by the way persons were looking at them.
It is true that recognizing or reporting sexual harassment can be difficult. First of all, the relationships we have in the workplace are a major part of our lives. It seems to be inevitable that interpersonal relations of some kind develop on the job. Not only do we go to work to earn a living, we also go to work for the social aspects of relating with people, hence, the risk of sexual harassment is great on the job when this natural need for interpersonal relationships occurs where there are insecure, emotionally needy, flirtatious persons without proper personal boundaries. I’ve observed that many men are not even aware that they are sexually harassing or even flirting with someone. They consider close contact and touching normal.
According to one international study, nine percent of employees indicated that they had a romantic relationship on the job, but an additional 33 percent said they didn’t. On the other hand, 58 percent of employees said that they did not have a romantic encounter on the job but were willing to have one. Wow!
The workplace is also made up of persons who either experience conflicted relationships at home or are hungry for an innocent loving touch or a listening ear. If these persons are not aware of their own vulnerability, they will be high-risk targets for sexual harassment. They would not even know they are being sexually harassed until the direct requests for sexual favors are put forward. The gentle touching, lingering handshakes, warm embraces at the beginning of the day, walking together with hands around the waists, sitting on each other’s lap, eating alone in the cafeteria would seem to be so innocent. But would these gestures really be innocent? To the unsuspecting persons, these friendly gestures might well be a set up that may prove difficult to overcome.
• Barrington Brennen is a counseling psychologist, marriage and family therapist and board certified clinical psychotherapist in the USA. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, call 242-327-1980 or visit www.soencouragement.org.