Am I being sexually harassed?
November 26, 2009 10:28 AM   Subscribe

How does one define "sexual harassment"?

I have a colleague at work ("Mary") who seems to enjoy touching me. As far as I can tell, she only touches me. She has also in the past revealed parts of her anatomy to me that I did not wish to see, namely the inside of her thigh and her d├ęcolletage (I suffer from eczema, and she was on both occasions showing me a rash that she has). I have been poked in the area of my kidneys, grabbed around the waist (and she didn't let go, despite me moving), had my beard grabbed and had her put her "cold" hands on my face to show me how cold they were.

I have never given her any kind of encouragement to do this whatsoever.

I am 100% certain that it's not sexual on my side. I'm rather confused as to whether or not it is on hers - she knows I'm not going to be interested in her. I don't know if that makes a difference or not?

I am male, late 20's, openly gay. Mary is a married woman in her 40's (I think) with kids only a few years younger than me. I'm shocked and pretty appalled that a colleague would behave in this manner, but I don't want to start using terms like "sexual harassment" when talking to our mutual boss about this if that's not what this is. I haven't spoken to Mary, but I don't really feel comfortable doing that.

One other problem that I have is that our mutual boss has very few people skills and will try to avoid communicating with us at all, even to say hello and goodbye. I've spoken to him about various issues in the past (you may recall A), and he's basically done nothing about the problem. I think I may have to use the phrase "sexual harassment" to get him to do anything, but I don't want to throw that grenade into the discussion lightly. I'd rather not cause a scene unless I have to, given that I have to work with these people, but I do want the invasion of personal space to stop (Mary also took my personal mobile phone number without my consent from a list in an office that only Managers and Supervisors have access to - she occasionally works as duty manager).

Hence my question: when is it sexual harassment? Is there another magic phrase that I can use to get my boss to deal with this problem?
posted by Solomon to Work & Money (31 answers total)
You are likely being seen as a cross between one of the girls and a safe flirt in her mind. Obnoxious, but I don't think I would see sexual harassment there. Relevant questions are also is she your manager etc.
posted by Iteki at 10:35 AM on November 26, 2009

You're in the UK, and I don't know what the standard is there. However, here in the US, the standard to which I have been trained as a manager is this - "Does the behavior create a hostile work environment?". My answer to that question, from your description, is an unqualified yes.

Oh, and the genders and sexual orientations of the participants are irrelevant here - again, according the the prevailing standard in the United States.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:35 AM on November 26, 2009 [4 favorites]

It's OK to set boundaries and say "Hey please don't do that". It doesn't have to be difficult. Just be direct, simple and honest.
posted by krilli at 10:40 AM on November 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

I haven't spoken to Mary, but I don't really feel comfortable doing that.

You see, I think that's part of the problem. She doesn't know she's doing anything wrong yet. You need to make it known that you're uncomfortable with this touching. Anything that happens after that is unequivocally harassment, but until she knows what's up, she might just believe her touching/revealing herself is normal and friendly. Some people are kind of messed up like that, but you need to give her a chance to change this behaviour.
posted by sunshinesky at 10:41 AM on November 26, 2009 [10 favorites]

I'd agree with deadmessenger: what you describe is, at a minimum, a hostile work environment. Sexual harassment is in there as well, even if you are 'openly gay' and therefore "a cross between one of the girls and a safe flirt" - her behavior is inappropriately sexualized. If your manager is unable to handle this situation, then hopefully there is a higher HR rep who can be called upon to handle it.

Again, like deadmessenger, though, my experience is US-centric.
posted by LOLAttorney2009 at 10:44 AM on November 26, 2009

I agree with sunshinesky. Until you tell her that you don't like what she's doing, it's not anything, because she has no way of knowing that she's done anything wrong. If, and only if, she continues to touch you after you've asked her not to, you might then consider escalating the situation to your supervisor.
posted by decathecting at 10:46 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

And by the way, if the reason you don't want to talk to Mary is that you're worried that it will hurt her feelings or make things awkward between you, I have to point out that talking to your supervisor and having him talk to her is more likely to do both of those things.
posted by decathecting at 10:47 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ugh. Hard to say. Obviously it makes you feel uncomfortable. Probably, from Mary's side of the coin, she feels more comfortable with you because you're gay. In general, women would love to be close friends with men (and I think vice versa) but often cannot because of the sex part of it. To find a guy who they can be friends with, even OVERLY-friendly with, without having to worry about addressing sex issues can feel like liberation. But, the bottom line is, her contact with you makes you uncomfortable.

It sounds like from your other thread that your personality is naturally more reserved, less extroverted and that you don't really like your co-workers that much. There's nothing wrong with that but I think you'll have to start putting up more specific walls and being more direct with people. And I kind of hate to say that because women often get told in these situations that they need to be more assertive and they need to do and say things a certain way when it would be nice if other people would just act professionally and respect other's boundaries.

When you feel you're getting locked into an uncomfortable conversation it is okay to cut the person off and say, "wow - that's pretty crazy, sorry, I have to get back to work now." Or, you know, I'm just not a touchy kind of person, it makes me uncomfortable. Sorry, it's not you. Then after that you can be even firmer. It's possible that she may use this as an excuse to purposefully tease you and try to make you uncomfortable but then, at least, it's clearly actionable. You have told her that it makes you uncomfortable and then she persisted -- that will fall under harassment most definitely. Keep records of what is happening and go ahead and start working on you inaccessible demeanor. Be a bit more of dick and don't be afraid to openly express shock and even annoyance at unprofessional behavior -- showing a guy in your office your tits under any circumstances counts as unprofessional.

Also, has she called your phone? Was it business or personal?
posted by amanda at 10:50 AM on November 26, 2009

Take a look at this Q&A on sexual harassment from the EEOC.

I understand not wanting to have a heart-to-heart with her about this whole thing, but have you told her to stop in the moment, when she actually does it? "Do not touch me like that; I do not like it," delivered absolutely unsmilingly, in a lower register of your voice than you usually use.

In fact, part of the EEOC's advice is, "The victim should directly inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop."

If it continues after that, then yes, speak to your boss. Bring documentation of all the incidents, as well as that you've told her to stop. You probably don't have to use the phrase "sexual harassment," if you're not sure whether the circumstances rise to that level, but bringing a detailed list of incidents, with dates, will convey the same seriousness of purpose.

Hopefully, though, you can get her to stop by insisting in no uncertain terms that she do so.
posted by palliser at 10:52 AM on November 26, 2009

Oops, didn't realize you were in the UK, sorry.
posted by palliser at 10:54 AM on November 26, 2009

Seconding decathecting. You admit that it might not be intended as sexual on her end. Imagine her horror when the first she hears about it isn't a mild "I really don't like to be touched." by you, but a whole investigation by the Human Resources department asking her a litany of questions with the possibility of a mark on her record or some other punitive action.

Give her the benefit of the doubt and just tell her that some things she does make you uncomfortable. If she doesn't change, then you can rattle the HR tree.
posted by inturnaround at 10:56 AM on November 26, 2009

I don't count it as harassment unless
1. I have asked someone to stop the activity and
2. they have continued.

This was a lesson DH and I had to teach to our teen-aged daughter. She was uncomfortable with an action of one of her male teachers and started making comments about it to her friends and in her on-line posts. We made her discuss it with him directly and he was appalled to realize that he had been misinterpreted. And he learned to be very careful around teen-aged girls.
posted by SLC Mom at 11:04 AM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't necessarily agree with "it's not harassment if you don't tell her to stop" school of thought.

For example, if a man tells a woman "sleep with me if you want that promotion," that's wrong and he knows it's wrong, whether she says "stop that!" or not. That's a different situation, but there shouldn't be a burden on the victim to talk back directly, especially if it could result in retaliation.

However, in this case a) she's not your boss, and b) she may be genuinely unaware how much you dislike this touching. So I say, although you're not obligated, the polite and reasonable thing is to warn her at least once "Please stop, I don't like that!" before escalating.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:20 AM on November 26, 2009

Also, has she called your phone? Was it business or personal?

She called twice, but since I didn't recognise the number, I didn't answer. I got a SMS later on about a work issue. I've since changed my mobile number, after telling her off for taking it. I haven't passed my new number on to anyone.

She on occasion is my boss. It's at least once a week, usually more. The incidents happen whether she is in charge or not.

I realise that I should talk to her, but part of me is a little intimidated by the fact that she's my boss (and has shown in the past that she will make work awkward, to other people), and another part of me thinks that she should realise already that exposing one's cleavage to one's colleagues (this is on the shop floor, in view of customers!) is completely inappropriate. If I was exposing myself to her in that manner, I have no doubt that I'd be fired instantly.
posted by Solomon at 11:27 AM on November 26, 2009

Next time she does it, say casually: "Mary, you're great and all, but you got to stop being all touchy with me. Sorry, but it just makes me uncomfortable. I need my personal bubble."

That way it'll seem like it's your feelings/personality that make it uncomfortable and not her actions that are wrong (which they are, but it's easier to say the above).
posted by Neekee at 11:44 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Reminds me of a friends email signature that translates to something like:

"compulsory schooling is called 'an offer of education' while at the same time an 'offer of sex' is called sexual harassment..."

If you need to then tell the girl and not the boss that you feel uncomfortable of her actions before you go to your boss and make a big fuss out of it.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 11:49 AM on November 26, 2009

Nthing that you need to explictly tell her to knock it off. Part of the conversation might actually be to say that you feel that if it continues, you will consider it harrassment, just so it's perfectly clear to her how you feel about it.

The other thing, not yet mentioned, is documentation. This is especially important if she is your boss some of the time and could initiate retribution in other forms. Write down every instance you can recall taking place and when it happened. When you tell her to cut it out, write down exactly what you said, where, and when, and how she responded. Continue recording any further incidents going forward. You might give her one second chance, ie., a repetition of your request for her to stop if she doesn't comply with the first one, but after that, report what's going on, providing a copy of the documentation. In the US, you'd report to HR. If for any reason you are uncomfortable going to HR, US policies generally say that you can go to attorneys for the company. (The EEOC policy is unclear about whom to report to, but it's clear on the subject of communicating that the behavior is not welcome: "The victim should directly inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. It is important for the victim to communicate that the conduct is unwelcome, particularly when the alleged harasser may have some reason to believe that the advance may be welcomed. However, a victim of harassment need not always confront his/her harasser directly, so long as his/her conduct demonstrates that the harasser's behavior is unwelcome.")
posted by beagle at 12:01 PM on November 26, 2009

If I was exposing myself to her in that manner, I have no doubt that I'd be fired instantly.

If you exposed your neckline? I mean, that isn't really the same as taking off your pants or whatever you're thinking of that would get you "instantly fired." I agree you should be uncomfortable, but everything she's done doesn't sound so over-the-line that she should instantly know she's wrong. (That category is reserved for goosing someone, making inappropriate sexual remarks, that sort of thing in my mind.)

You really have to tell her you're uncomfortable. I would give the same advice to a woman.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:17 PM on November 26, 2009

If you exposed your neckline?

No, if I dropped my trousers and exposed my upper thigh to her.
posted by Solomon at 12:25 PM on November 26, 2009

Eh, I've had women in an office setting do similar, when we were both married and there's not sexual tension to it. If it bothers you, particularly the touching, say so, otherwise she can't know that it's bothering you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:46 PM on November 26, 2009

How is she "on occasion" your boss? The rules are different between coworkers and manager/employee. Do you report to her on the organizational chart?

Just tell her directly to stop. If you cannot, then you need to tell your boss. If she is your boss, then you need to tell her boss. Handling it directly is the simplest. You can always escalate it if she chooses to continue her behaviors.
posted by 26.2 at 1:11 PM on November 26, 2009

I get the feeling that you are seeking grounds to get her fired or removed with the magic of dropping the "sexual harassment" bomb, or expect everything to go away without a hint of awkwardness. It's just not going to happen.

I really think you need to be a grown-up and treat Mary similarly. She's annoying you and either doesn't know it or is dismissing your passive attempts as something lesser than genuine irritation. Yes, she's your sometime-boss, but you're in the right for speaking up for yourself about your boundaries. Judging from this question and your previous one about the bombastic ranter, you seem particularly sensitive to workplace annoyances, to the point where you stew and write impassioned questions on Ask.Me. It's understandable, as co-workers can be super annoying and treat their peers like therapists and fag hags and life coaches. But the only way to effectively resolve this kind of drama in the work environment is addressing your problems with forthright honesty.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:16 PM on November 26, 2009

How is she "on occasion" your boss?

The store I work at currently has only one manager (our supervisor is on three month work placement at another store). Given that the manager cannot work seven days a week, Mary becomes, in essence, my manager when the actual manager has a day off.

I get the feeling that you are seeking grounds to get her fired or removed

I don't know what kind of projectionism is going on here, but that's not the case. You obviously have little understanding of the situation.
posted by Solomon at 1:25 PM on November 26, 2009

From the link above (still US, sorry): Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute "hostile environment" sexual harassment

I'm not a lawyer at all, but if I was her lawyer, I'd probably claim that her rudeness is not "of a sexual nature." Showing you a rash might be sexual or it might not be.

Regardless, I feel bad that this thread is minimizing your discomfort and overlooking some of the bad power dynamics going on. On the other, I don't like the idea of you pulling some law down onto her without having tried some lower-stakes interventions. Could you start by asking your manager to step in? You could mention harassment on the second request.
posted by salvia at 1:47 PM on November 26, 2009

U.S. Federal law is very specific about what constitutes sexual harassment. It is not a matter of opinion or intent. I suspect U.K law may be the same. Don't put up with it. Don't be defensive about it. You are not the problem. Good lluck.
posted by charlesminus at 2:07 PM on November 26, 2009

I apologize if I misread the question, but I don't know how else you expect a situation to turn out if you accuse Mary of sexual harassment. Either your side wins out and Mary is fired, or no one agrees with you and you have a terribly embarrassed and upset sometime-superior on your hands. At least in the US, a successful sexual harassment accusation almost definitely ends in termination or at least removal. It's a grave accusation for most offices and stores because ignoring it could incur a lawsuit. Mary sounds like someone who has little understanding of appropriate behavior and who will bristle at a mature handling of the matter, but the sexual harassment accusation will incur a much worse dilemma full of all the discomfort you want to avoid.

Everyone in this thread seems to be saying the same thing: just deal with this as kindly and honestly as possible without . It genuinely sucks that you're stuck working with (and occasionally for) a person who wants you to be her surrogate BFF, but sometimes you have to be more mature than the people you work for. I'm sorry.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:13 PM on November 26, 2009

In the US, it can't be sexual harassment until you clearly state that the behavior is unwelcome and the behavior persists. You may not want to "make a scene" but you need to be clear that your boundaries are being crossed.

I don't think bringing your boss into it is going to make that important step any easier.
posted by meowzilla at 2:28 PM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

You say you're not comfortable talking to her, but really it's what you need to do. You're couching this as "sexual harassment" but there seems to be nothing sexual about it. She might be mortified if she thought that's how you see things. It's like you want someone else to make your problem go away - and you haven't done anything to solve it yourself first. The one who should do something is you.

There was a guy where I work - openly gay - who always touches people. He is VERY touchy-feely, and I know it isn't sexual harassment, it's just how he is. I didn't like it and one day when he came up behind me and put his arm around my shoulder I gently pulled away and nicely said, "Hey Joe, you know, I'm not that comfortable with people touching me, ok?" He started apologizing profusely and said, "Hey, it's cool, now you know" and quickly changed the topic.

IT WAS SO FREAKING LIBERATING! More than I thought it would be. And the best part is I got what I wanted, he doesn't touch me anymore!!!

So yeah, I know you don't want to, and it's going to be hard, but you really just need to seize the next opportunity with Mary and tell her nicely that you're not comfortable with all the sharing and touching. If she continues, then you can pursue other routes at work, but really, let her know it bothers you before you involve anyone else.
posted by NoraCharles at 4:07 PM on November 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

There are three possibilities here:

1) She's clumsy and clueless, and if she knew she was bothering you, she would be embarrassed and would stop.
2) She's kind of a jerk and doesn't really care if she's bothering you, but if you tell her to stop she will, because she doesn't want to get in trouble.
3) She doesn't care if she's bothering you, and even if you tell her, she will not stop.

You should give her the benefit of the doubt and start off assuming the answer's #1. Like other people have suggested, say something casual like "God, Mary, cut it out. I'm British (/Whatever): I'm not used to all this touching. You're way out of my comfort zone." Document this conversation afterwards for yourself, in case you need it.

If it continues, escalate with more firmness and be more explicit: "Mary I was serious before. You really need to stop touching me; it makes me really uncomfortable." Document.

If it continues after that, THEN you're in harassment land, and you need to talk seriously with your boss. But you also need to be prepared to find yourself another job. It sounds like you don't have a lot to work with where you are (ie., your boss is likely to be unhelpful, your workplace is small so there's no way to separate you and Mary), so the odds of this resolving well --assuming you can't make her voluntarily stop-- are low.

Most workplace harassment concludes with the harassed person leaving. Most don't sue, because they don't have the stomach for it, and/or the money. So, once you've reached the point of talking with your boss, you will want to be mentally prepared to start looking for another job.

Good luck.

(And just a quick note for clarity: I would give you different advice if this were obviously deliberate sexual harassment. But it could easily not be, so you really do need to give her the benefit of the doubt.)
posted by Susan PG at 4:51 PM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nthing everyone who says you need to talk to her first before claiming sexual harassment. I know it's awkward, and I understand the fear of retaliation, but this really is the first step, and my guess is that Iteki is spot on, and she is thinking of you as a "one of the girls/someone to harmlessly flirt with" type of person and will stop as soon as you say something. I'm not saying that her behavior is professional or cool, but if you're looking to make sense of the sittuation, then I'd start there.

I actually had to file a sexual harassment complaint in the (US) work place, and the first thing I was told to do was speak directly to the person and tell him there was an issue. I was 19, working a retail job in a relatively small but successful multi-national corporation, and hugely non-confrontational, but if I wanted the situation to change, I needed to address it with this person, who was occasionally my supervisor, first. It was scary and it sucked, but the basic idea is harassment is repeatedly doing something to someone after you've been told to stop, but first you need to be told to stop.

Unfortunately, he was predatory and he did escalate the behavior, which contributed to him being fired, but I would be surprised if that happened in your situation. I would say something along the lines of, "Hey, Mary, I know you don't mean anything by it, but being touched (and/or talking about these things) makes me uncomfortable." That bolded phrase is the key to avoiding retaliation, intense awkwardness, or offending her, and as an added bonus, you never need to suffer through these uncomfortable moments with her again. Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 5:02 AM on November 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can't say as to whether it's necessarily sexual, but it sure as hell is harassing you. Ask her politely to stop. Stuff like this, people get one chance with me. I don't like to be touched by coworkers or clients and neither do you. It makes us uncomfortable and that's okay. If she doesn't stop, pursue this with her (your?) boss.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:08 AM on November 27, 2009

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