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Do intentions matter when you’re being harassed at work?

How much do someone’s intentions matter when they’re harassing you?

When your harasser seems to generally enjoy the apparent goodwill or tolerance of everyone else in the office, it can be difficult to be the lone voice of dissent or the only person brave enough to speak up against the status quo.

The reality is that your harasser’s alleged intentions don’t matter when it comes to whether or not you’re being discriminated against or harassed. If it did, most cases of workplace discrimination or harassment would probably never proceed.

Except for a few truly vile individuals, most harassers probably don’t see themselves as the villain in the story — they may see you as someone who doesn’t appreciate their obvious generosity, a person who can’t take a joke or someone who is terribly oversensitive. Alternately, they may simply have a poor grasp of social cues and be utterly bewildered about why you find their conduct offensive or harassing.

None of that matters.

As a victim, you need to understand that your experience is legally more important than the harasser’s intentions. It’s the impact, not the intent, of his or her words or actions that has to be considered when a harasser is being held accountable.

If you’re experiencing harassment or discrimination due to a coworker’s or supervisor’s actions, you need to approach your human resource department or boss with the firm understanding of that fact. If the harasser is generally tolerated by the staff, you may hear statements designed to dismiss your complaints:

— “He’s just a big flirt. Everyone knows that.”

— “She’s just from a different generation. She’s not used to all this multicultural, diversity stuff.”

— “He’s just joking. You shouldn’t take him seriously.”

— “She just doesn’t have a good filter. Just tune her out like everyone else does.”

Those aren’t your problems — they’re management’s issues to handle. You need to remain firm in your stance that your harasser’s actions or words are not acceptable.

For example, it’s entirely irrelevant that the “office flirt” is a 60-year-old man that winks at all the young girls and talks about how pretty they are. Just because they tolerate his behavior or flirt back doesn’t mean that you’re required to do the same.

If you’ve attempted to handle a workplace harassment or discrimination issue without success, an attorney can help.

Source:, “Harassment: Distinguishing ‘Intent’ from “Impact’,” Sharon Bar-David, accessed May 25, 2017



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