Charming fellas, tantalizing women, you know who you are. In a world where sex sells, it’s easy to give a little wink and a dirty smile to get something done in a crowded workroom. Unfortunately, most interactions that start that way don’t end in a perfect Jim and Pam relationship.
Some places may prohibit employee relationships while other organizations have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place. Regardless of how your company handles employee relationships, when working 40+ hours a week with the same people, things can get a little heated.
Situations in which these sorts of alliances are mutual are not always the case. People get lost in the idea that in order to climb vertically in a business they have to trade favors. In some cases these favors are monetary and in others, they can be sexual.
In her book ‘Lean In’, Sheryl Sanberg writes about obstacles in the workplace including “blatant and subtle sexism, discrimination and sexual harassment.” It’s a common variable across industries and has no regard for title.
What’s “OK” and What’s Not?
The line is crossed the moment you feel uncomfortable. It might be a coworker who casually thinks you’re stressed and gives you a quick back rub, but if you don’t like it - it’s your right to say no. Even something as casual as a nod or a badly timed wink.
For example, I am often asked to gather the troops before a meeting. Most of the guys I work with are reluctant to attend and sometimes will even make crass comments such as “What do I get if I go?”. The first time this happened, I laughed it off since I was unaware if they were joking or trying to make a sexual innuendo. The second time, my coworker actually grabbed my hand and he winked. That was when I knew he wasn’t hinting, he was being serious and something worse could have happened. Instead of brushing it off, I knew I had to put a stop before things got messy. That day, I learned my boundaries about strongly suggestive phrases and looks because I was not going to let something so trivial stray me on my mission to success.
Every person is different and may take different comments or grazing of the hand differently, but personal space is yours to command. As soon as you feel uncomfortable, unsafe, or simply weirded out - you have the right to say “no” regardless of setting. At an office happy hour, Christmas party, or during everyday interactions, if it’s not OK for you, say it.
It Happened, Now What Do I Do?
Report it. There’s no way around it. And telling your closest work buddy, best friend, or sibling is not reporting it. Every company has different policies in place to support the victims of sexual harassment and you have a right to use them.
When things are not reported, it allows the villain to get more powerful and hurt more people. As stressful as it may be to walk into HR, just remember the service you are doing for other people who may have been in a similar situation as you.
How Can I Prevent This?
First of all, establish your own rules. Decide what is and is not acceptable based on your personal comfort level. Once you know your boundaries, make sure you are consistent with everyone. When you give off mixed vibes that Coworker A can give you back rubs because he/she is attractive, but then turn in Coworker B for winking at you - things can get a little awkward.
When you’ve designated your boundaries, these are in place for everyone. These guards are not stagnant, however, and if over time you become more sensitive you can move them closer.
The key is to always feel comfortable.
A lot of the times things get inappropriate when you need something, but there are other ways to use your voice and get ahead.
Don’t find yourself alone with one other person if possible. Try to always stay in small groups and avoid areas that are closed off.
If you have a gut feeling about someone’s comment or accidental brush against you, put a stop to it at that moment. You don’t need to call a lot of attention to it, but don’t accept their apology face value. Something as easy as “I don’t think that was necessary” or “Don’t do it again” can be polite but to the point.
No matter what remember that your space is personal and you own it. Actions speak louder than words, so always be consistent with your boundaries. Nip the issues before it becomes a problem, don’t accept even minorly inappropriate things - challenge the status quo. You can do this with simple phrases such as “That was not necessary” or “ without being rude". If something does happen, report it immediately. It’s tough, it’s awkward, but you could be saving yourself and a lot of other people.