08/10/2010 09:14 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sexual Harassment: How to Protect Yourself and Your Organization

Another sexual harassment scandal takes its toll: CEO Mark Hurd loses his job, Hewlett-Packard stock takes a dive, employees lose an effective leader and the company's reputation is tarnished. Everybody loses when a corporate executive crosses the line with a contractor or consultant, an employee or a customer. And of course, Jodie Fisher (the woman who was wronged) also loses. It may appear that she "wins" because she collects money, but it's a pyrrhic victory. She got burned, too. There are no winners in situations like this -- everyone loses.

Like a bad penny, sexual harassment keeps turning up -- in executive suites and boardrooms, professional conferences and business trips, in offices and cubicles, in factories and warehouses, in the halls of government and even in holy places. It can happen anywhere, to anyone. Sexual harassment seems to be an issue that just won't go away.

Confusion about sexual harassment won't go away either. Despite high-profile cases and much written on the subject, misconceptions and confusion persist. Just what IS sexual harassment? Can flirting or asking for a date land you in court? Can someone sue for a "cheesecake" photo in your office? What kind of language is okay to use and what kind is taboo? It is acceptable to give someone a friendly pat on the back or a hug? The list of questions is endless.

The issue of sexual harassment is fraught with ambiguity. It's emotionally loaded because it's so intimate and personal, involving both sex and power. Many people have strong feelings about it; it is not a subject about which anyone feels neutral or apathetic. Sexual harassment affects people in a powerful way, both emotionally and professionally -- they sometimes carry psychic wounds for years after the event(s). Others who've witnessed harassment in their work environment (or other surroundings) also have opinions about the issue. And those who have been accused of sexual harassment have strong feelings as well, ranging from anger to confusion to guilt.

These are confusing and challenging times for women and men in the workplace. Norms about gender-appropriate behavior are changing. Workforce demographics are shifting and businesses are struggling with how to come to terms with these changes.

In the interest of shedding a little light on an issue that generates so much heat, a few solid facts might help:

Many people think that sexual harassment is something that men do to women

FACT: Ninety percent of sexual harassment reported is male to female, 5 percent is female to male, 4 percent is male to male and 1 percent is female to female. Sexual harassment is not just a "women's problem" -- it's everyone's problem.

Men and women perceive sexual advances differently.

FACT: In a recent study which asked both men and women how they would feel if someone of the opposite gender made sexual advances toward them, 75 percent of men said they would be flattered and only 15 percent said they would be offended. Among the women surveyed, 75 percent said they would be offended. Clearly, men and women can perceive the same act very differently.

Who is most likely to experience sexual harassment?
FACT: Women who enter predominantly male professions and men who enter predominantly female professions have the highest probability of encountering sexual harassment at work. There are no significant differences in the incidence of harassment between white collar and blue collar professions. Among women reporting harassment, the majority are between the ages of 23 and 35.

Are there different types of sexual harassment?

FACT: According to federal and state law, there are two types:
(1) Quid Pro Quo, in which the harasser makes his/her demands for sexual favors a condition of employment or benefits (promotions, salary increases, better working conditions, etc.). Threats of retaliation against the victim are also included in this type of harassment.

(2) Hostile Work Environment, in which unwelcome sexual demands, behavior, comments, jokes, posters and pictures/photos of a sexual nature create "an offensive, hostile, oppressive and intimidating workplace" which "unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance."

How can you stop sexual harassment?

FACT: About 80 percent of harassment is unintentional. If you point out to the harasser that the behavior is unwelcome or the situation is uncomfortable, it usually stops. Often, the harasser had good intentions in complimenting someone, but the recipient does not accept the comment in a positive manner. There is sometimes a big gap between intent and impact. Telling others in clear, firm language how you want to be treated and what kind of behavior is unacceptable is the best way to protect yourself. Confront any unwanted behavior as soon as possible in order to stop the situation from escalating.

Why do some harassment victims wait years before coming forward with their complaints?

FACT: Many victims don't want to rock the boat for fear it will hurt their career prospects within their company. The harasser may be a powerful person and the victim needs their support or approval for career advancement. Victims may also fear retaliation, blame or ridicule. Victims sometimes feel guilty or ashamed, even going so far as to blame themselves. There are many reasons why victims do not come forward immediately.

How can you protect yourself from accusations of sexual harassment?

(1) Ask yourself if there is equal initiation and participation during interaction between you and other people.

(2) Do not violate someone else's personal space without asking permission. That is, do not touch someone or stand too close without asking if it's okay with them, unless it's a close personal friend and you're both clear on the nature of your friendship.

(3) Remember that relationships can change over time. Behavior that may have been OK at one time can become not okay if the relationship changes.

(4) When in doubt, ask if you're doing anything that makes the other person uncomfortable. (5) Play it safe by complimenting others on their work, not their appearance.

How can your organization best address the complex nature of sexual harassment?

FACT: Education and prevention are the keys to eliminating harassment from the workplace. Many excellent training videos, workshops, books, consultants and other resources are available -- it's training money well-spent to prevent harassment before it happens.

Make sure your organization has a clear, firm policy statement outlining management's zero-tolerance position on the issue. You should also have designated systems and procedure for handling complaints and investigations. It is critical that those personnel designated to implement these procedures be trusted and credible in the eyes of both management and employees.

Management must be willing to take action if they discover sexual harassment in the organization. If management fails to take action -- because the perpetrator is a top sales person, a key executive, or even the CEO -- your organization leaves itself open to expensive lawsuits and damaging publicity.

Above all, everyone with the organization must work to keep lines of communication open and build trust at all levels. Employees and managers alike need to be able to air their concerns, clarify any confusion and work together to create a work environment that is safe, harassment-free and productive.

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