The following article has been published in May issue of First Line Magazine:
By Portia Stewart, Editor, FirstLine
Heâ€™s watching you. You canâ€™t concentrate, youâ€™re afraid to be alone with him, and the comments wonâ€™t stop. Sexual harassment can be relentless, consuming your work and your life. It happened to these womenâ€”and it could happen to you. Hereâ€™s what every woman (and man) should know about sexual harassment.
She was alone in the dark room when it happened. The lights were off, but she could feel him behind her, a presence standing close in the darkness. Anna paused in the midst of popping the X-ray film from the cassette. She felt the heat rush to her face and the slow cascade of sweat tracing a line down the back of her neck. He was close, so close, and he wanted her to know it. â€œOh my God,â€ she thought. â€œWhat am I going to do?â€ She heard him chuckle before he leaned forward, grinding the front of his body against her back. â€œYou know you like it,â€ he said, laughing. Too scared to scream. Embarrassed. Ashamed. If she did, the other technicians would know. What would they think? She was young, new, vulnerable. He knew it. Her stomach rolled with the sensation of his body pressing against her own. She whirled and kicked him in the crotch. He laughed again and stepped back. Then he left the room. Annaâ€™s experience may sound extreme, but itâ€™s not as unusual as you might think. About one-third of veterinary team members say theyâ€™ve experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a 2007 VetMedTeam.com survey. And itâ€™s not surprising. Ninety-five percent of team members are women, according to 2007 Firstline research, and women are much more likely to experience sexual harassment than men. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported males fled only 16 percent of the 12,510 complaints in fiscal year 2007.
Traditionally, veterinarians and practice owners have been male, and 2007 market research from the American Veterinary Medical Association shows 53.5 percent of veterinarians in private clinical practice are male. This demonstrates the pattern experts often see in sexual harassment cases: Women are more likely to face sexual harassment when they enter a male-dominated profession, according to research published in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Can you protect yourself? Some-times. Our experts agree these cases can happen to almost anyone, but you can decrease your riskâ€”and learn how to correctly handle any experience you face. Consider these true stories from readers like you and advice from legal and human resources experts.
When harassment gets physical Like many cases of sexual harassment, Annaâ€™s experience didnâ€™t beginâ€”or endâ€”with the confrontation in the dark room. She knew she had a problem from almost the first day she started her job. As a veterinary technology student, Anna was excited about the chance to work at a progressive practice in Chicago. The doctors and technicians were highly qualified and well-respected, and the pay was great. Dr. Smith was sharp-tongued and demanding, but Anna was eager to learn. Thatâ€™s why she and her co-workers often ignored the jokes he made about his sexual history, even though the comments made them uncomfortable. But the afternoon with Dr. Smith in the dark room marked a turning point. Anna faced a difficult decision: stay or leave. She was newly married and attending school, and every time she considered quitting, visions of her rent and school bills rose up to haunt her. She told herself she wouldnâ€™t give up, she wouldnâ€™t quit. And there was no one to go toâ€”he was the practice owner, the boss. Besides, a job as a clerk at a fast food restaurant wouldnâ€™t pay as much, and sheâ€™d be leaving a field she loved and a chance to learn from one of the most skilled veterinary teams in her area. She decided to stick it out. That is, until she discovered she was pregnant. The day she announced her pregnancy to Dr. Smith, he berated her, calling her names and telling her she was useless. He assigned her the most menial task, labeling pill bottles. Then, in a turnabout, he confronted her again that afternoon and sent her home, telling her not to come back until she had a doctorâ€™s note specifying which tasks she could performâ€”including whether she could work on the computer, a task he sarcastically told her he doubted she could perform because it might hurt the baby. Anna spent that afternoon in her OB/GYNâ€™s office. Tearfully, she explained the situation to her medical doctor, who told Anna she couldnâ€™t go back to work. The situation was so stressful her physician feared Anna was at risk of losing her baby. That afternoon, she began vomiting. Later that evening, her husband raced her to the emergency room. Anna was dehydrated and exhausted. Doctors put her on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy, and she never returned to work. Six months later, Anna gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Throughout her employment with Dr. Smith, Anna experienced physical and emotional reactions to the harassment. She suffered from stress rosacea for the firstâ€”and onlyâ€”time in her life. And she began to experience irritable bowel disorder, a symptom she continues to suffer from today.
Annaâ€™s complaints arenâ€™t uncommon. People whoâ€™ve suffered from sexual harassment report a range of physical and psychological effects, including depression, anxiety and panic attacks, shame and guilt, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders. In fact, research reported in a 1993 issue of the Journal of Vocational Behavior suggests sexual harassment may even lead to a mental illness called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Most commonly linked to traumatic assaults, disasters, accidents, or military combat, PTSD sufferers may exhibit symptoms including irritability or emotional numbness and even display aggressive or violent behavior. They also may suffer from flashbacks, where they relive the traumatic event again and again. And women are more susceptible to the condition than men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The sleazy vendor One day Carol, a practice manager, noticed a group of technicians clustered in the practice lounge. They were whispering and looking worried. Concerned, Carol asked what was going on. They told her Bob, a vendor, was visiting the practice, and they were hiding Sally, a technician. They explained that Bob had been asking Sally out on dates for the last six months. Although she always refused him, he continued to pursue her, leaving notes on her car and making sexually explicit comments. Carol found Sally and confirmed the complaints. Sally told Carol she was afraid of Bob, but she hadnâ€™t said anything because she didnâ€™t want to cause trouble and Bob might get mad. Sallyâ€™s comments launched Carol into action. She pulled out the practiceâ€™s sexual harassment policy and reviewed it with Sally and the rest of the team. Then she called Bobâ€™s supervisor and told him about Bobâ€™s inappropriate behavior. Bobâ€™s supervisor sent him to sexual harassment training, and Bob was only allowed to return to the practice when Sally felt comfortable again and gave her permission. Since then, Carol has given a special focus to the issue. Sheâ€™s confronted a few clients whoâ€™ve behaved inappropriately with team members and even fired two clients for harassment. Sheâ€™s also focused on training her front office team members to encourage professional behavior and eliminate any confusing messages clients might misconstrue. Small and mid-sized businesses may avoid creating a sexual harassment policy because these employers believe it might encourage complaints, according to a 1998 Commerce Clearinghouse report. But Caren Goldberg, a management professor with Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C., says that may not be true. She recently completed research that shows harassment training doesnâ€™t encourage lawsuits. Her advice to small business employers: Post your policy visibly. â€œThis may be an effective approach to remind potential offenders that theyâ€™re expected to behave appropriately,â€ Goldberg says. â€œIt also reminds potential victims that they have a right to a workplace free from harassment.â€ There are indications, she says, that sexual harassment is about power. So characteristics and behaviors, like being a female in a subordinate position or avoiding conflict, might increase your risk of being targeted. â€œYou may be able to minimize your risk by demonstrating power,â€ Goldberg says. â€œFor example, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, simply saying, â€˜thatâ€™s inappropriateâ€™ may make the offender think twice before repeating the behavior. â€œAs awkward as it may feel for victims, they are more likely to end the harassment by confronting the harasser directly. If that isnâ€™t effective, they should formally report the behavior and give their employer a chance to address the problem.â€
How to answer a complaint Employment attorney Jack Tuckner offers this quick guide for employers about how to respond when an employee complains of sexual harassment.
1. Thank the employee for the complaint: You might add, â€œWe take these claims very seriously, and weâ€™re an equal opportunity employer. Weâ€™ll investigate this situation, and please let us know if thereâ€™s anything we can do to make you more comfortable as we look into this. Weâ€™ll strive to keep this confidential, and we will not retaliate against you because of this complaint.â€
2. Consult your human resource and legal consultants: You need to conduct an investigation, which will include interviewing the alleged harasser and the person lodging the complaint. Your attorney can offer the best advice to handle this situation appropriately.
3. Consider offering paid administrative leave for the complainant: This ensures there will be no more confrontations while youâ€™re investigating the complaint. Itâ€™s also a nice gesture to offer to pay for counseling for the complainant.
4. Reach a conclusion: At the end of the investigation, you must reach a conclusion. If you determine that the employee was discriminated against, you must launch corrective action, from monitoring to firing the perpetrator, depending on the situation. Finally, if you havenâ€™t already, make sure you address sexual harassment in your employee manual: Explain that youâ€™re an equal opportunity employer and list the protected classes. This policy should also explain how to complain and who the employee should approach with the complaint.
The foul-mouthed client It started with a few sexual comments. Lisa, a receptionist, was proud of the 50 pounds sheâ€™d lost, and clients began to notice as well. The women all wanted to know how sheâ€™d done it, but a few of the male clients had a different response. As Lisaâ€™s weight changed and her clothes began to ft better, the comments began. Most were little compliments and some were clearly sexual. At first, Lisa wasnâ€™t sure how to respond. As a receptionist, she knows a warm, friendly greeting at the front desk is important to a practiceâ€™s success. But she was uncomfortable. She reached the breaking point when one client weâ€™ll call Joe took it to the next level. A firm believer in good eye contact, Lisa was watching Joe leave the practice when she saw him make a rude gesture with his tongue. Appalled, Lisa told her co-workers, who scoffed at her.
A few weeks later, Joe returned. Noticing him in the parking lot, Lisa ducked into the back of the practice. Undeterred, Joe started down the hall to look for her. Joe announced he was there to tell her some jokes. Lisa came to the front armed with an 8-pound bag of cat food across her front as a shield. Joe sidled up so close he rubbed her shoulder. And after every punch line heâ€™d give her a little squeeze around the waist. Lisa was so flustered, she didnâ€™t even hear the second joke. She was upset for the rest of the day and longed for a hot shower to wash away the bad feelings.
Until that point, her weight loss seemed like a blessing. Now she was ready to do anything to attract less attention. Was it her fault, she asked herself? Did she deserve it? Sure she was friendly and chatty, but wasnâ€™t that her job?
When she first mentioned the male clientsâ€™ comments about how hot and sexy she looked, her boyfriend told her to take it as a compliment. After the incident with Joe, he became concerned, and he encouraged Lisa to talk to her boss.
Like so many women who suffer harassment, in the end Lisa said nothing. She wasnâ€™t sure her boss would take her seriously. She couldnâ€™t imagine her doctor confronting Joe about his behavior. Instead, she decided sheâ€™d keep behind the reception counter when Joe came to visit. And the next time she saw Joe, she mentioned her boyfriend. After that, Joe stopped making comments, although heâ€™s still an active client at the practice.
Itâ€™s likely that thereâ€™s nothing Lisa could have done to avoid Joeâ€™s unflattering attention. But you can reduce your risk of facing a harassing situation using this advice from Harleen Kahlon, CEO and founder of DamselsInSuccess.com, a networking site for professional women. While Kahlon stresses harassing behavior is never acceptable, she says there are some simple steps women can take to head off inappropriate behavior.
Donâ€™t flirt. â€œBehavior like flirtation and touching isnâ€™t acceptable in the workplace,â€ says Kahlon, a Yale Law graduate who often speaks about sexual harassment. â€œWeâ€™re all human, and itâ€™s hard for people to walk through the doors at work every morning and say, â€˜There are things I do out there that I canâ€™t do in here.â€™ The workplace is supposed to be a gender neutral zone, and itâ€™s tough for people to turn off their normal impulses.â€
And remember, even if you do flirt at work, it doesnâ€™t mean you deserve to be harassed. While you can sometimes reduce your risk of harassment, there are some incidents you canâ€™t prevent.
Behave professionally. â€œI think every woman needs to learn the art of being warm and friendly in a professional manner,â€ Kahlon says. â€œThereâ€™s a way to behave that demonstrates youâ€™re not to be messed with while still being someone others can confide inâ€”with boundaries. Itâ€™s an art, and itâ€™s tough to master.â€ Acting professional also means dressing the part, so it may be time to take a quick stroll through your wardrobe and edit your work attire. â€œThe way women dress has always been something thatâ€™s been held against them in these situations,â€ Kahlon says. â€œIf you want credibility, start by dressing professionally.â€
Avoid sexual language. â€œDonâ€™t give the impression you have the stomach for sexual comments by engaging in banter,â€ she says. She recommends excusing yourself politely when conversations turn sexual, so co-workers perceive you donâ€™t joke around about these topics. And if the situation becomes a problemâ€”persistent and uncomfortableâ€”you may need to complain to demonstrate you wonâ€™t tolerate that behavior. Remember, theyâ€™re not your family. â€œWe would all like to work in a place where it feels like our co-workers are family. Thatâ€™s a great feeling,â€ she says. â€œBut itâ€™s always a risk to become that close with your colleagues. Your job is ultimately the place you go to earn a living, not a place you go to build personal relationships. So itâ€™s important to exercise boundaries in the office.â€
The big-mouthed doctor The comments started after Erin, a technician, had a minor conflict with Dr. Anderson, a female doctor at a large practice in Seattle. Erin is gay, and she enjoys the freedom of sharing this information with friends and colleagues she trusts. Dr. Anderson knew about Erinâ€™s sexual orientation. Always a bit of a gossip, Dr. Anderson started sharing Erinâ€™s private life with the public. A day after their tiff, Dr. Anderson was discussing manicures with a co-worker. Noticing Erin, Dr. Anderson said to her, â€œOh, I guess youâ€™re not into that, are you?â€ Erin avoided the questioning look from the co-worker and went back to work. Later that day, a new male extern joined the practice. Tall, blond, and muscular, he immediately drew the attention of several women in the practice, and they gathered to talk about him.
Dr. Anderson, who was standing next to Erin, turned and said, â€œWell, I guess he really isnâ€™t your type, is he?â€ The other team members overheard, and suddenly Erin found herself the center of attention. â€œWhat does she mean?â€ one of the women asked Erin. Thatâ€™s when Dr. Anderson announced to the group that Erin only dated women.
The news spread throughout the practice, and by the end of the week, Erin was barraged with gay jokes and uncomfortable comments. Erin decided she couldnâ€™t work in the practice any longer and took a new job at a different hospital soon afterward. Erinâ€™s story illustrates an important fact: Woman are harassers, too. And harassment can come from a variety of different sourcesâ€”from bosses, from clients, and from colleagues.
So what do you do when you face harassment? This is a highly personal decision, and it depends on many factors, including your tolerance and the severity of the harassment.
â€œI think itâ€™s wise to let one or two comments go, if theyâ€™re not really aggressive,â€ Kahlon says. â€œIf your boss just calls you â€˜honâ€™ once or twice, but not all of the time, you might write it off as an oversight.â€ However, she adds, if youâ€™re really uncomfortable, itâ€™s time to complain. So what are your options?
Confront the harasser. You might simply confront the person whoâ€™s making you uncomfortable and let him or her know how you feel. â€œYou might say, â€˜Hey, I want to talk to you about something, and I donâ€™t want to make you uncomfortable, but sometimes when you make these comments, I feel weird,â€™â€ Kahlon says.
Leave your job. â€œEach person has to decide, â€˜How much does this position matter to me, and what are the opportunities for me at this practice once I complain?â€™â€ Kahlon says.
Submit a formal complaint. â€œUnder the law, you must allow your employer to investigate the claim and launch corrective action,â€ says Jack Tuckner, co-founder of Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock and Sipser LLP, a law firm dedicated to womenâ€™s rights in the workplace advocacy in New York. â€œAnd sometimes they do the right thing.â€
If your boss refuses to address the situation, youâ€™ll need to decide whether you want to continue managing the situation, seek a new job, or consider legal action. Much like Anna, many women are afraid to pursue legal action because they fear the lawsuit will follow them long after theyâ€™ve left their employer. So how do you decide whether itâ€™s time to pursue legal action? â€œYou donâ€™t file a lawsuit until youâ€™ve given an employer a chance to respond and they fail to respond,â€ Tuckner says. â€œFirst you must file a complaint formally in a provable fashion.â€ The truth about lawsuits Lawsuits take a long time. Theyâ€™re miserable for everyone. And often, the victim faces public scrutiny that can range from uncomfortable to sheer humiliation.
Tuckner knows this firsthand. As an employment law attorney, most of his cases involve gender-based workplace issues. And heâ€™s successfully settled a case involving a veterinary assistant weâ€™ll call Julie.
Julie was attending veterinary technology school and working as an assistant. Jim, a kennel attendant, constantly bothered Julie, asking her out on dates and telling Julie what a stud he was. Julie went to Tuckner for help.
â€œI told her, â€˜You donâ€™t have a case yet,â€™â€ Tuckner says. â€œI asked her, â€˜Have you told him youâ€™re not interested?â€™â€
â€œYes,â€ Julie said. â€œIt doesnâ€™t work. He calls me a lesbian or a bitch. He tells me all I need is one night with him and Iâ€™ll be a new woman.â€
Tuckner sent Julie back to her practice with this advice: Tape record the conversationsâ€”a legal act in New Yorkâ€”and complain in writing to the practice owner, a veterinarian weâ€™ll call Dr. Jones. When Julie approached Dr. Jones, he was angry and dismissive. Why couldnâ€™t Julie just go along to get along? Julie explained she had a tape recording of the incident. Dr. Jones agreed to listen to the tape at home. A few days later he returned a broken tape to Julie. He told Julie heâ€™d listened to the tape, and heâ€™d shared it with his wife and a family member who was an attorney. They agreed that the conversation wasnâ€™t harassment, and Dr. Jones blamed Julie for the behavior, claiming she encouraged Jimâ€™s remarks.
Thatâ€™s when Tuckner came in. He sent a letter to Dr. Jones informing the doctor he was representing Julie. When Dr. Jones read the letter, he fired Julie. â€œSo once he fired herâ€”within weeks, in fact, of her fling a complaintâ€”she had a classic sexual harassment and retaliation case,â€ Tuckner says.
When Tuckner learned of Julieâ€™s dismissal, he wrote to the doctor again to try to negotiate a resolution. â€œAll I was trying to do at this point was to make sure the women who came after her wouldnâ€™t have to go through this and get her a nice little settlement,â€ Tuckner says. â€œSettlements under these circumstances are often modest. At the time it might have been a several monthâ€™s severance pay to tide her over while she looked for a new job.â€ Dr. Jonesâ€™ response to Tuckner: â€œDrop dead. Weâ€™ll never pay you.â€ Tuckner immediately fled a complaint in state court. Five years later the case finally went to trial. In the middle of the trial, Dr. Jones agreed to settle. The settlement wasnâ€™t resolved for another two years, but finally Julie received compensationâ€”roughly five yearsâ€™ pay.
Julieâ€™s case is unusual. Most cases donâ€™t make it to trial, and itâ€™s rare to see such a large settlement, but other aspects of the case offer a birdâ€™s-eye view into the process of litigation. Hereâ€™s a look at what you must do if you decide to pursue a lawsuit.
Know the law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states an employer must employ at least 15 employees for the employee to file a sexual harassment claim under federal law. Some cities and states have different requirementsâ€”for example in New York, the employer must employ at least four employees for the employee to have legal recourse in state court. Julie couldnâ€™t file a com-plaint with the EEOC, the government agency that reviews all complaints before they go to federal court, because her practice owner employed fewer than 15 people. But she was protected under her cityâ€™s and stateâ€™s law.Keep records. â€œItâ€™s important to keep a running log of the behavior youâ€™re dealing with,â€ Kahlon says. â€œBecause if, God forbid, you end up being fired over this and you want to receive back pay or pursue this legally, youâ€™re not going to remember every little thing the harasser said. Second, it reinforces your credibility. Your attorney or arbitrator will be more likely to believe your recollection because you wrote it down.â€
Tuckner agrees. â€œYouâ€™re the one who has to show that there was something about your employment or the termination that was discriminatory,â€ he says.
Submit a formal complaint. Legal experts agree you must complain about the behaviorâ€”and a written complaint is preferred. In fact, Tuckner suggests sending the letter certified mail, return receipt requested, or by courier service, such as United Parcel Service, Federal Express, or Priority mail, so you have proof of receipt. And itâ€™s also critical to record the dates and details of the harassing behavior. Courts are much more likely to believe you if you can provide specific details about the incidents you experienced, and writing them down shows youâ€™re not just relying on what you remember. â€œIn most sexual harassment situations, the practiceâ€™s liability stems from the employerâ€™s failure to remedy the situation,â€ Kahlon says. â€œNotice often triggers your bossâ€™s obligation.â€ Donâ€™t quit. â€œQuit is a four-letter word in plaintiffâ€™s employment law circles,â€ Tuckner says. Save for certain special and extreme circumstances known as constructive discharge, Tuckner says you must first file a formal complaint notifying your employer of your belief that youâ€™re being sexually harassed. You want to demonstrate youâ€™ve given the employer ample opportunity to remedy the situation, and he or she failed to take the appropriate action.
â€œIâ€™m always upset when someone tells me, â€˜Oh, by the way, I resigned two months ago and I never submitted any kind of letter of complaint,â€™â€ Tuckner says. â€œThese situations are a long, uphill battle with no proof.â€
What if youâ€™re fired? If the firing occurs after you submitted a complaint, the courts may construe this action as retaliation, which is illegal. If youâ€™ve been maintaining good records of the harassing behavior and the complaints youâ€™ve fled at the practice, you offer yourself the best chance for a successful case.
Seek legal advice. Each case is different, so itâ€™s best to seek legal advice and discuss the details of your situation with an employment lawyer. He or she can offer guidance on the appropriate action. Whichever path you choose, remember that youâ€™re not alone. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts women will make up 48 percent of the labor force in 2008. And a poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates shows 31 percent of female workersâ€”and 7 percent of male workersâ€”claim theyâ€™ve been harassed at work. Sadly, 62 percent of targets report they took no action.
â€œEveryone is entitled to feel comfortable at work, and if you donâ€™t feel that way, you need to do something,â€ Kahlon says. â€œSo start by talking to your boss. I know it can be awkward, especially in a small workplace, but you want to offer your employer a chance to create a safe, comfortable workplace.â€