What exactly is sexual harassment?
A Supreme Court justice once explained his view of what constituted something legally “obscene” by saying that obscene material couldn’t really be defined but, “I know it when I see it.” Many people consider acts of sexual harassment to be something similar. A hug from the boss might just be a hug — or it might be a coercive act that’s illegal. It depends a lot on the circumstances.
Unfortunately, men and women don’t exactly see eye to eye about what equals an act of sexual harassment. In fact, what people see as harassment can vary quite a bit based on their age, gender, education and political affiliation even if they’re all looking at the same event.
A study that recently delved into the issue had some surprising results with important implications for the corporate world. People often perceive an event in drastically different ways. What some people see as “no big deal,” others consider inappropriate in the extreme.
For example, the majority of male respondents in the study indicated that asking for sexual favors from a co-worker or looking at someone’s privates isn’t necessarily sexual harassment — while most women say that it is. Similarly, one-third of the women who responded to questions indicated that sexual jokes at work are always out of line, while only 17 percent of men agree. There were sharp differences in opinion about touching, as well. A hand on the back is largely considered inappropriate and sexual harassment by women — while most men seem to think it’s okay.
Essentially, what this study shows is that people are simply not all on the same page when it comes to what is (and is not) acceptable behavior in the workplace. What one person considers obvious sexual harassment, another may not recognize as problematic at all. This is exactly why companies need to have clearly defined policies and training programs.
If you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment and you find your company less-than-supportive (or outright hostile) to your attempts to be heard, it may be necessary to explore your legal options. You have rights — and an experienced attorney can protect them.