When or where does the line between harmless flirting and sexual harassment blur?
Maybe we should put the above terms in context.
It’s a Tuesday afternoon. You’re at work, bored and listless. A colleague of yours who’s a member of the opposite sex offers to make you dinner. You respectfully decline – and it’s smiles and harmless laughter.
It’s Tuesday afternoon. You’re at work, bored and listless. A colleague of yours who’s a member of the opposite sex offers to make you dinner. You respectfully decline – and the tone of the conversation changes, becomes threatening and uncomfortable. The colleague becomes hostile towards you.
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That’s sexual harassment.
Reality is – while it’s quite popular that sexual harassment travels down the chain of command (i.e. a junior staff member is more likely to be harassed by a senior staff member than vice versa), sometimes it also travels up it. And while it’s also quite popular that males are the usual aggressors, the reality is – females are as guilty.
So – where do we go from here?
Every day, stories of bosses sleeping with their staff/NYSC members abound. Lecturers who seduce students for marks, producers/directors who sleep with actors for roles, religious figures, and congregation members – the stories keep coming. There are also several stories about the aftermath of refusing a boss/lecturer sexual favors or reporting on them – how people are blacklisted in their own industry, how students are failed over and over again by other lecturers of other courses.
Can we address the issues?
In the context of a colleague harassing another colleague on the same level, it’s easily resolved. The matter can be taken to a senior staff member or to the welfare officer and a stern reprimand is issued, apologies are made, some sanctions are placed and the lesson is learned.
But in a situation where the harasser is senior to the harassed, what is to be done? How is the matter to be dealt with?
These matters need to be taken more seriously than at present. For example, it’s common gossip that bank marketers are given monthly targets and told to meet those targets ‘no matter what.’ All sorts of sordid tales trail these rumors, as jibes of ‘skirts getting shorter’ and the like hang in the air. If there is any truth to these allegations, shouldn’t people be punished? Should heads not roll?
But the question always is ‘who will bell the cat?’ Who wants to be pointed at as the sad student who cost a lecturer his job for doing something that has always been done and will continue? Who wants to be the staff quietly transferred to some other branch in a village somewhere where he/she cannot cause any more trouble? Who wants to become the pariah in the office for daring to speak up?
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It’s easy to tell people to speak up, to defend themselves, and not be silent about issues like sexual harassment in the workplace, but what happens after they speak? Who protects them from being blacklisted – from losing their jobs even?
Recall the Bill Cosby controversy in which a minimum of fifty-seven (that’s right, 57) women accused him of sexual misconduct among other things, with the earliest of these alleged incidents happening in the 1960’s? One cannot help but wonder why it took so long for it to come to light if those are all the women or there are still more. One wonders if really he is as guilty as they say. While it is important that the truth comes to light, it is equally important that people understand there are consequences for these things.
As certain things are expected of the employee, certain things are expected of the employer. The least of these, as far as I am concerned, is the salary. An employee should be protected from unsavory characters and experiences – on the job at least. Organizations should demand the best of behaviors from all the staff, particularly those in positions of power. Junior staff members of either sex are to be protected and enabled, not abused, harassed, and manipulated. Senior staff members are to be models of behavior to the up-and-comers, and if the only behavior a boss sees fit to put on display is sexually inappropriate behavior, what are the stakes for the company?
What are the stakes, indeed?
It would help if there was an independent body responsible for dealing with allegations of sexual harassment at work. This organization would be unbiased and free from all forms of influence; no favoritism or excuses in handling their responsibilities. An employee can remain anonymous when accusing a senior colleague; investigations are discreetly carried out and the truth verified. The accused is dealt with as is required, and work can go on without the risk of the employee being tagged ‘whistleblower.’
But the question remains: who will bell the proverbial cat?
How do you feel about sexual harassment in the office? Have you experienced anything like it? How did you deal with it? Let us know in the comments!
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