Ask SAFE: Sexual Harassment in the WorkplaceWritten by Katie Russell
From our experience working in the Austin community and beyond, we know that sexual violence lives on a spectrum. That spectrum includes invasion of space, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and escalates to death. In order to prevent the escalation of violence, efforts must be made at all levels of the spectrum.
As part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we’re answering questions about sexual harassment, specifically in the workplace. It’s where people spend much of their days and where there is a lot of confusion as to what is acceptable behavior. So let’s chat about how to create safe, respectful work cultures by preventing sexual harassment.
Recently, I was at a networking happy hour with a group of my coworkers and our executives. From across the bar, I could see an older executive aggressively hitting on one of my female coworkers. The executive was touching her lower back and my coworker’s body language was sending clear signals of discomfort. I felt frozen and wasn’t sure how to help the situation. What could I have done?
First off, I want to say you’re not alone. These situations of flirting, drinking, and unclear boundaries are super common in today’s happy-hour culture.
The first thing I would encourage you to do is to be an upstander in this situation by intervening. However, there are a few things I would think about first:
Safety – I would think about the safety of your coworker. Is her body language telling you she’s uncomfortable and needs help? Also assess your own safety – are you afraid if you speak up that something might happen to you?
Consent – This is a big one. Do you have your coworker’s permission to speak out boldly about the harassment happening to her? Consider that you don’t know how she wants to handle this situation. How can you help without making the situation worse for her? The exception to this rule is if her immediate physical safety is in question. If that is the case, I’d recommend that you or an appropriate party intervene immediately to make sure she is safe.
Power dynamics – You mentioned the person flirting with her is an executive, so power dynamics are definitely at play here. Consider how this factors in her ability to stand up for herself and how it could affect your job if you get involved as you consider how to intervene.
And lastly, our intervention options – The four we teach at SAFE are direct, delegate, distract, or delay. In this scenario, directly calling out the executive may not be the best response as it could affect both of your jobs. I would consider either the delegate or distract options. I would find my own manager or boss and ask their advice or if they are comfortable intervening. If that wasn’t an option I would distract. Maybe I would invite my coworker and the executive into a conversation or interrupt the flirting by telling my coworker I need her help with an urgent work project.
There are lots of options in this scenario, but the most important thing is to be an upstander, not a bystander.
I work at a local restaurant and one of my coworkers (and close friend) pulled me aside and asked if they could talk to me. They proceeded to tell me that another coworker frequently makes comments about “how good he looked in those pants” or asks him to take off his glasses “so they can see his face better.” The comments are taking a toll on him, and I had no clue how to respond to his story. How are we supposed to handle these conversations?
Responding to claims of sexual harassment are never easy, especially when you’re close with a coworker. The first thing I would do is start by believing. Make sure your coworker feels heard, understood, and believed.
He sounds like he may have been having a hard time, so empathizing with him is super important. Sometimes what people need most is just to be heard.
Next, I would reassure him that you are willing to support him in anything he needs. What does he want to happen? Does he want to confront the coworker? Does he want you to go with him to tell the manager? It’s important to not tell him what he needs to do now, but instead ask how you can help.
If he doesn’t want to report at this time, I’d recommend that your coworker start documenting these incidents. There is a great website called talktospot.com that can help your friend keep a running record of what has happened and can automatically provide a timestamp for each entry.
I’m just out of college and I’m trying to make friends in my new job. The other day I was chatting with a coworker in the kitchen and thought she was cool. I handed her my phone and told her she should give me her number so we could hang out. She got offended, said I was way out of line. I was frozen and was getting upset by her quick and angry response. I stormed off feeling insulted and confused. What could I have said to her after she was upset? I was just trying to be friends…
Ahh the blurry lines of workplace friendship, dating, and everything in between. This is another familiar situation that is mainly centered around consent and boundaries.
You may have had pure friendship intentions, but unfortunately, it appears your coworker didn’t perceive that. I could give you advice on how to prevent accidentally crossing boundaries, but that could be a whole other Ask SAFE. So let’s talk about ways to respond in the immediate situation.
Instead of getting upset and leaving, I’d challenge you to stay. Accept that you’ve made someone else uncomfortable and apologize. I would have said something along the lines of, “Oh, (insert coworkers name here), I’m so sorry. I did not mean to offend you. I feel like we’ve become friends and not just coworkers, which is why I wanted your number. But I should have asked you if that was OK before handing you my phone. I sincerely apologize.”
A simple, albeit awkward, apology can go a long way to repairing a working relationship and moving forward in a positive way.
Answers provided by Katie Russell, Demand Generation Manager at the SAFE Institute.
What else can I do to prevent sexual harassment?
I hope these responses help clear up some of the ambiguity around sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a big priority to SAFE, which is why we recently launched the SAFE Institute to help organizations build safe, respectful environments. BASE is the premier training and consulting program offered to companies that want to create healthy workplace cultures by preventing, interrupting, and responding to sexual harassment. If you’re interested in partnering with us to cultivate a healthier team or group, visit please contact safeinstitute.org.