December 2, 2017

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Some Initial Thoughts

Ever since the reports of high-profile men sexually harassing and/or sexually assaulting women in the workplace (e.g., Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, Donald Trump) hit the news, I've been trying to figure out how to address the subject. And once the floodgates opened to the point where it seemed like we were hearing about a new case at least daily, determining where to start became even more difficult. And then there were the #MeToo and #ChurchToo hashtags, reminding us that this appalling behavior is far more common than we'd like to admit and not limited to powerful men. I recognized that this subject was going to require more than one post, and I decided to start with something simple.

I admire the women (and men) who have been coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and/or assault. I know this is not easy, but I think their efforts are going to prove to be beneficial. As unpleasant as all of this is, it is forcing us to recognize a serious problem and work toward solutions. We are talking about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace in meaningful ways, and it is beginning to feel like the dirty not-so-secret secret is finally out in the open.

When it comes to how we deal with the accused, I think it is important to preserve due process and avoid the vigilantism that outraged Internet mobs so often demand. I will continue to oppose calling for anyone's head on Twitter or the "listen and believe" mantra that equates accusation with guilt. At the same time, I believe that the reports we have been hearing should be taken seriously and that the overwhelming majority of them are truthful. This is where nuance is needed. Those who insist that we must believe everything or believe nothing are presenting us with a false choice.

But I don't really want to talk about the accused perpetrators in this post. I imagine that will be the focus of other posts. For now, I'd rather keep the focus on those who have been subjected to sexual harassment and/or assault in their workplaces. And I'd just like to state the obvious here: these people deserve far better than this. Nobody deserves to be sexually harassed or assaulted while they are trying to do their job. This behavior is unacceptable. Those who are subjected to it need to be aware of their options for ending it, and the rest of us need to support them and the mechanisms designed to protect them.

I've known plenty of people, mostly women, who have faced sexual harassment on the job. Some of it was fairly minor and dealt with easily. A male co-worker made an unwelcome sexual advance, was told it was unwelcome, apologized, and never did it again. Plenty of other instances were not so minor and not easily resolved. Perhaps the male co-worker does not stop but continues a pattern of repeated sexual advances long after being told clearly that they are unwelcome. Or perhaps he decides to punish the woman for rejecting his advances by attempting to harm her reputation with their co-workers. Sometimes the man in question is a boss or supervisor, and sometimes he's a peer.

What stands out to me about every single instance of sexual harassment I've heard about is that it makes the target uncomfortable. These situations are rarely easy to deal with, and so we end up with someone who is made uncomfortable to the point where she (or he) may have difficulty performing at work. This stuff leads to stress, sleeplessness, fear, uncertainty, and so on. All this is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is still important to recognize what this feels like because it should help us remember that nobody deserves it.