03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sexual Harassment: Just The Facts, Ma'am

Where's Jack Webb when we need him? As allegations, speculation, and conjecture about David Letterman and sexual harassment fly around on talk shows and blogs, many are wondering: "Just what is sexual harassment, anyway?" If the boss asks you out for a drink, is that harassment? If you tell a coworker she looks hot, will you get sued? If an important customer hits on you, should you call your attorney? Where's the line between flirting and sexual harassment?"

The issue of sexual harassment is fraught with ambiguity. It's emotionally loaded because it is so personal and intense - involving both sex and power. Many people have strong feelings about it: People who've experienced sexual harassment are often affected in a very negative way - both emotionally and professionally. They sometimes carry psychic wounds for years after the event(s). And those who have been accused of harassment have strong feelings as well - ranging from anger to confusion to guilt.

Perhaps some solid facts would be helpful in the face of recent hyperbolic, hyperventilating hysteria over Letterman in particular - and powerful men in general.

Many people think that sexual harassment is something that men do to women. FACT: 90% of harassment is male to female; 5% is female to male; 4% is male to male; and 1% is female to female. Sexual harassment is not just a women's problem - it's everyone's problem.

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 or her demands for sexual favors a condition of employment or benefits (ie, a promotion, raise, better working conditions). 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, and/or pictures, posters, photos or a sexual nature create an "offensive, hostile, oppressive and intimidating workplace" which "unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance."

How can people stop sexual harassment? FACT: About 80% of harassment is unintentional and is stopped simply by pointing out to the harasser that the behavior or situation is unwelcome and uncomfortable. Very often the harasser may have good intentions in paying a compliment to someone, but the compliment is not received positively by the recipient. Telling people in clear, firm language how you want to be treated and what kind of behavior is not acceptable to you is the best way to protect yourself from harassment.

How can people protect themselves from being accused of sexual harassment?
FACT: (1) Treat people as they want to be treated, not as you think they want to be treated. When in doubt, ask. (2) Ask yourself if there is equal initiation and participation during the interaction between you and other people. (3) Do not violate someone else's personal space without asking their permission. That is, do not touch someone or stand too close without asking if it's OK with them - unless the person is a close friend and you are both clear and comfortable with the terms of the relationship. (4) Remember that relationships change over time. Behavior that may have been OK at one time can become not OK if that relationship changes. When in doubt, check it out with the other person. (5) Play it safe by complimenting people on their work, not their appearance or attire.

Why are many people reluctant to talk about sexual harassment situations? FACT: People are often afraid they'll be branded as "troublemaker" and they don't want to rock the boat for fear it will hurt their career prospects. Or, they just don't know how to deal with the situation and don't know to whom they can turn for help. They may feel guilty or ashamed about the harassment - even going so far as to blame themselves. The harasser may be a powerful person in the organization and the victim may need their support or approval for career advancement. They may also fear retaliation. They may fear being blamed or laughed at. There are many reasons why people are reluctant to come forward to stop sexual harassment.

How can you address the complex problem of sexual harassment in your own organization? FACT: Education and prevention are the keys to eliminating sexual harassment from the workplace. Your organization should have a clear, firm policy statement outlining management's commitment to a harassment-free workplace. Regular training programs for both managers and employees can go a long way toward clearing up any confusion or uncertainty about sexual harassment.

Your organization should also have designated systems and procedures for handling complaints and investigations - it is critical that those resource people designated to be responsible for these procedures are highly trusted by both management and employees.

Management must be willing to take action if and when sexual harassment is discovered in your organization. Without a firm commitment to take swift action, management will lose credibility and leave itself open for expensive lawsuits.

Above all, everyone within the organization must work to keep the lines of communication open and build trust at all level so that people can air differences, clarify confusion, and make your business a place where everyone feels safe, supported, and productive.

That's it. Just the facts, ma'am. Any questions?