Straight Talk About Sexual Misconduct in the Workplace and What You Can Do

Don't assume your company will explain all the nuances of sexual misconduct. Take the initiative to figure it out yourself to protect your career. Dory Wilson, Founder Your Office Mom.  Photo: Lacey Seymour Photography

Don't assume your company will explain all the nuances of sexual misconduct. Take the initiative to figure it out yourself to protect your career. Dory Wilson, Founder Your Office Mom. Photo: Lacey Seymour Photography

We've always had sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s not a new phenomenon. What’s become painfully obvious is we are still so confused over what it is, exactly.  The term sexual misconduct is mentioned often.  Whereas some people may understand it’s the broad term to encompass any unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature, most don’t, which complicates things.  Headlines have people shaking their heads, for a number of reasons. I think many people believe sexual misconduct is different from harassment and assault, as in another category altogether. 

As a talent development expert, responsible for developing and facilitating harassment training (among many other things) over the years, I know what harassment is and what will get your ass fired. But, I feel a little iffy on how this “misconduct” label factors into the equation. I understand the definition, but I’m not sure we’ve explained it, or the specific behaviors and in some cases, the nuances of those behaviors. We haven’t really looked at how perceptions might vary between generations, or within genders, or between them, have we?

When I say “we” I mean us collectively. We are a very fluid group, aren’t we? We move from job to job, managers, and leaders come and go. We interact with internal and external customers and meet with vendors and partners. So, my point is, “we” don’t have much collective clarity, do we?

Most companies have a sexual harassment policy and compliance training in place, but the conversation doesn’t go much further. I’m pretty sure some people, men and women alike are confused. I am glad brave women and men have come forward to speak up about their experiences and help us understand. But, I think we need to know the rules, and the consequences for violating them. Because according to the EEOC one in four experience workplace harassment and up to 94% do not report it. And, the way it's playing out in the headlines could carry over into the workplace. 

Men and women flirt, kiss, touch, make inappropriate comments and ask for sex often. When is it sexual misconduct? Where is the line? With harassment, the EEOC says the law “doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious" in other words, it needs to be frequent or severe.  No matter what we call it you may not be clear.

Companies can’t do it all. Even the most progressive employers can't be expected to fill in all the blanks. Many companies have, or will develop more specific policies as a result of the scandals and the #MeToo movement; others won't.  So, where does that leave you? More or less on your own, so take the initiative and protect yourself.  No one wants or needs a sexual misconduct incident to wreck their promising career. You don't need a lack of awareness or empathy to jeopardize work relationships either.

As Your Office Mom, I'm recommending that you take control of the situation. Here is my advice about what to do as a young professional or entrepreneur:

  1. Don’t engage in any talk or banter about the topic at work. Whether it’s offhandedly commenting about the scandals, or saying you don’t get it, or men are pigs, it’s a witch hunt, or anywhere on the continuum of opinion, just don’t, unless it’s in a facilitated, work sanctioned forum. This may sound extreme, but your words on this topic could offend or alienate. Remember, anyone who is within earshot is in on the conversation, whether they want to be or not.

  2. Educate yourself and learn what you can about sexual misconduct, assault, and harassment. Don’t just rely on Facebook and soundbites or how your friends feel to form your opinions on the subject. Seek out good references.

  3. Talk with non-work friends and family members to better understand the topic from different viewpoints. Ask how they perceive various behaviors and how they might react to different scenarios. Hearing their answers will help you realize how complicated the topic is and educate you to the nuances of perception.

  4. If you are a victim of sexual misconduct, your research will help you decide what steps, if any to take. There’s only one right answer on this one, and that’s the one that is right for you. Don't go it alone. Have supportive non-work friends in your corner.

  5. Know your company policies. You have a responsibility as an employee and as a manager if you have direct reports. But, don’t mistake HR for your friend or confidante. If you are a twenty-something this is what you need to know before reporting incidents. You may want to seek out another trusted advisor at work.

  6. If you are a manager or leader, find out what the company plan is. If there isn't one, sometimes all it takes is one person to light a fire. Note, I didn't say throw gasoline on anything. But, if you bring it up, be prepared to casually talk about the concept and steps. Do your research first and be ready to talk about your ideas, if the situation warrants.

  7. If you’re a small business owner, create a policy and establish clear rules for employee and contractor conduct when interacting with employees, other contractors and vendors.

  8. Pay attention to the training. No one likes compliance training, but you need to pay attention to anything and everything about harassment. Even if the examples are a bit dated, they still apply. If you have any questions ask HR or the training manager for guidance.

  9. If you are passionate about this movement, get involved. Check out #MeToo and #TimesUp.

This is a complex topic. In looking back over my career, this is the conversation, the spotlight, the movement we wanted for decades. It may not be what we expected, but it’s here. And as such, everyone in the workplace  has a part to play in facilitating change. 

The bottom line? No one is going to explain it all to you, so you better step up and figure it out yourself.