Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: The pros & cons of speaking out

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Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new, but with the recent firing of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News, the rights of women (and men who are victims) is something people seem to be talking about again in earnest.

Some say there has been a shifting tide when it comes to people feeling comfortable when reporting sexual harassment, that inappropriate behaviour will no longer be accepted.

Now, it’s presumptuous to say that all cases of sexual harassment will be dealt with appropriately in the future, but the firing of Bill O’Reilly certainly gives me hope. Though I’m disappointed that it took advertisers pulling out of Fox left and right for Fox News to finally do the right thing, I give them credit for finally doing the right thing.

$13 million in payouts to women over a number of years should have caused Fox News to react sooner. To realize that Bill O’Reilly was a menace to women. But what about women who are working for less powerful people, women who face unwanted advances in the workplace at the hands of supervisors, superiors, and co-workers? Is it easy to speak up and report what’s happening?

This is a question I posed on Facebook last week, and I got a flurry of responses. Many women instantly said yes, of course. Without doubt, they would report any inappropriate behaviour. But is that a case of easier said than done?

Deciding to speak out requires serious contemplation and a lot of bravery. There are undoubtedly risks. Some women who answered my question pointed out the ugly reality of doing the right thing. Many times, the woman or man who speaks out is subject to character assassination, humiliation, and possibly threat of losing his or her job.

Some women spoke about the disappointment of learning that Human Resources was not the friend of the employee calling out the bad behavior, but the advocate of the company. They learned the hard way that HR would prefer to sweep the bad behavior under the rug if it meant keeping the company’s image intact. Of course, I can’t speak for all HR departments in every company, but many of the women who spoke out did say they found this to be the case.

There is a very real fear of possibly losing your job when you speak out. If you’re reporting a superior, he or she will have more power than you. Perhaps you’ll be moved to a different department or let go altogether if “dirt” can be dug up on you.

I heard a lawyer on CNN speaking about how in the past if a woman spoke out against her harasser, she tried to get as much compensation for that woman because it often meant the woman would not work again in her field. That’s a sad statement. 

I know that I’ve worked at jobs where I’ve ignored things that I shouldn’t have, for the sake of keeping the peace. If something truly egregious happened, I wouldn’t have ignored that, but it’s easy to be made to feel that you’re being too sensitive if you nitpick every comment, every inappropriate joke, every leering look. It’s sad to say that this is a reality, but it is. And I think for that reason, victims don’t speak out enough.

Interestingly, I must say that all the men who responded to my question on Facebook said It depends on how cute she is.” In other words, they would report the harassment only if they found the woman unappealing. They were joking (I hope), but there’s something interesting and disheartening about that response among all men who responded to my question. One woman was actually offended enough to say that some people weren’t taking the topic seriously and she deleted her own comment.

It is a serious matter, and there’s no doubt that women suffer sexual harassment more than men, but it would be nice to see men take this issue seriously. It’s the only way to truly change things going forward as a society. If men don’t see this issue as important, women will often be fighting an uphill battle.  

That said, women do have an excellent way to fight now that didn’t exist many years before. Social media. If we share our stories on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes outing the harasser, we can draw attention to the Bill O’Reillys of the world and empower other people who are suffering in silence to hopefully take the stand and speak out. It’s only when we all speak out about inappropriate behaviour that we’ll hopefully eradicate this pervasive problem.

What are your thoughts? Would you speak out against someone sexually harassing you in the workplace?

Kayla Perrin is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning USA Today and Essence best-selling author, with 46 books in print. Perrin is best described as passionate, fearless, motivated and self-driven to excel at whatever she pursues.

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