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Tips to deal with sexual harassment
Seema Goswami

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February 01, 2007

Part I: Are you being sexually harassed at work?

Convinced that you're being targetted sexually by someone at work but don't know how to deal with it?

According to Seema Goswami, author of Woman On Top: How To Get Ahead At Work, keeping quiet about it is definitely not the solution.

"The last thing you should do when it comes to sexual harassment is ignore it in the hope that it will go away," she says in her book.

In this excerpt from Woman On Top, Seema suggests how you can speak up against this menace at work.

Okay, so you know it when you see it. But if you are subjected to sexual harassment, what do you do about it? More to the point, what can you do about it?

First rule at work -- don't go looking for trouble (it will find you eventually, anyway). So, even if you are convinced that you are being targeted sexually by someone at your workplace, avoid the usual knee-jerk reaction. You may feel outraged, even violated, but raving and ranting is not going to serve any purpose. In most situations like these, it usually comes down to your word against his. And when it comes to such a serious allegation as sexual harassment, your word alone will never be enough. You will need to provide corroborative evidence to build up your case. So, don't make allegations that you can't prove. You may well be right, but that will matter little if nobody else believes you. You may name and shame your harasser, but you will not get off scot-free either.

If the only thing that is hurt in the process is your pride, you could live with it. But alongside your pride, your reputation as a professional will take a serious battering as well. The story will duly do the rounds, getting more and more lurid with every re-telling. And while some will sympathise with you, there will be others who will wonder whether you aren't a bit of a troublemaker. The more cynical will speculate that you may be doing this to deflect attention from your bad performance at work. And others will believe that at some level you must have asked for it.

Nor will these stories die a natural death. If you stay on in the same office, you will be kept at arm's length by everyone because you are a loose cannon. If you try and look for another job, the fact that you were involved in a sexual harassment case will always be a mark against you (not fair, I know, but that's the way it works). If you do manage to change jobs, it will be impossible to start off with a clean slate at your next place of work because of the rumours that precede you.

But does that mean that silence is your best defence against sexual harassment at the workplace? Most emphatically not. The last thing you should do when it comes to sexual harassment is ignore it in the hope that it will go away. It won't. Instead your harasser will interpret your silence as acquiescence or even fear, and will be emboldened to escalate the levels of harassment.

So, do speak up if you feel you are being sexually targeted at the office but articulate wheat you feel in explicit but non-threatening terms. Don't get emotional and teary. Remain calm, take a deep breath and tell your harasser exactly how you feel.

It is not enough to just brush his hand off your back when he propels you forward at a meeting. Turn to him with a smile and say, 'I'm sorry, but would you mind removing your hand from my back. I know you don't mean any harm, but it makes me a bit uncomfortable.' If he stands too close to you in the lift or presses up against the back of your chair, don't just edge away. Turn around, look him in the eye, and say, 'I'm sure you don't realise it ,but you are crowding me here. Do you mind standing back a little? I'd really appreciate that.'

Remain as non-confrontational as possible. Keep your tone apologetic, to convey that you believe that his action is inadvertent rather than deliberate. Indicate by your body language that you don't feel threatened by him. If he becomes defensive, assure him that you haven't taken any offence. If he becomes aggressive -- as some people tend to do when confronted -- don't respond in kind. Just reiterate that you just want to lay down some boundaries, so that there is no prospect of confusion and misunderstanding in the future.

It is preferable if you do this one-on-one. That way, the issue remains between the two of you. He doesn't lose face in front of his peers or his superiors. And if both sides display a modicum of maturity, then the situation needn't deteriorate any further. You can both tacitly agree to let bygones be bygones and go back to a cordial working relationship.

But if he persists in such behaviour, then you have no option but to up the ante. This means confronting him in public. This serves two purposes. One: there are enough witnesses around to testify on your behalf if you need to make a formal complaint. Two: if you put him on the spot in front of other people, he may be embarrassed enough to back off.

Of course, there is a good chance that this strategy could backfire. He may feel so humiliated that he decides to extract a bloody revenge. The best way to do that is to spread all kinds of stories about you, given that going on the offensive is often the best defense. The most common response is to tell everyone that you were coming on to him. But when he didn't show any interest, you turned nasty (you know what they say about a woman scorned). Be prepared for these kinds of stories to do the rounds, but stand and fight your quarter no matter what.

Will people believe these foul lies about you? Well, the office being the kind of place it is, of course some of them will. But there will be others who will be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt. And then there will be those who will be solidly behind you.

For your part, you can make matters easier for yourself if you take a trusted colleague or senior in confidence from the outset. Whenever any disquieting incident occurs, keep your confidante in the loop. Report every detail, every instance of harassment. Ensure that they can back you up. The idea is to build up your case as you go along in the event of your having to register a formal complaint.

If someone is harassing you, chances are that he has done this before. Ask around discreetly. Find out if anyone else is experiencing the same problems as you, or has suffered in the past. Make common cause with them. There is strength in numbers, so use that strength to your best advantage. Even if they don't want to rock the boat by registering a formal complaint, you will feel better for knowing that you are not the only one, that it isn't your fault, and most importantly, that it is not just in your head.

If matters get more unpleasant, try and sort them out through non-official channels. Get a senior to intercede and have a confidential talk with your harasser. If he listens to reason and agrees to back off, that is the most painless solution of all. But the odds are that he will deny the allegations and insist that you are imaging it all. He may even ask for a face-to-face meeting to confront you with the 'truth'.

Don't panic. Just stick to your story. Refuse to be intimidated by his bluster. Recount every incident of harassment clearly and calmly. If he says that he didn't mean to harass you, take this assurance at face value. Just make it clear that if such behaviour persists, you will have no option but to take it to a higher authority.

And if it does, don't fight shy of making a formal complaint. In accordance with the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment, a company is legally bound to set up committee to examine any complaint of sexual harassment. At least half of the committee members must be women, it should be headed by a female employee and have the representative of an NGO or an independent observer on it. So, unless something goes seriously wrong, you can expect a fair hearing.

For your part, you need to make sure that you present your case with as many corroborative facts as possible. If you feel that there is an element of character assassination at work, you could get sympathetic seniors or colleagues in the office to vouch for your integrity. If there are other women in the office who have suffered similarly, persuade them to speak up so that you can establish a pattern. Be prepared to be asked probing, even embarrassing, questions. Reply as dispassionately as possible. Try and retain an air of clinical calm.

If things go your way, and your harasser is shown the door, well and good. But don't take victory in the proceedings for granted. It is quite possible that the committee will decide that you have no case. In such an event, you need to have a Plan B ready. If you can continue working in the same office without being unduly stressed, then there is no reason why you should not do so. But if things get too embarrassing, or if it is suggested to you discreetly that you may be happier somewhere else, you will need to go looking for another job. So, keep a resume ready, get testimonials from those seniors who are on your side, and don't be scared to start over.

You may have lost the battle, but you have won the war by having the courage to speak out and stand up for yourself. And that warm glow of satisfaction will stay with you throughout your career, no matter where you work.

Better safe than sorry

What can you do to ensure that you don't become a victim of sexual harassment? While it is correct that a true harasser will not be deterred by anything -- demure dressing, missish behaviour, strong don't-mess-with-me vibes -- there is no gain in sending out the wrong signals at work either. When push comes to shove, at best, people will think that you were misguided and na�ve; at worst, they will believe that you asked for it.

At the workplace, image is everything. If you project yourself as a sexual being, the subliminal message that goes out is that you want to be treated as one. If you dress in a way that signals that you wish to be noticed, don't act outraged when people do notice you. If you behave in a sexually available manner, you can't really scream 'harassment' if you are treated as if you were sexually available.

When it comes to sexual harassment, like [Julius] Caesar's wife, you need to be above suspicion. That means behaving in a manner that commands respect rather than in a style that attracts harassment. Don't pay attention to all that faux-feminist nonsense about how you can dress any which way you like, and be within your rights not to expect any unwanted attention. That, with due respect to those ladies, is a load of tosh. There are some rules of decorum that need to be observed at the office, and just because you are a woman you don't get to flout them.

In theory, you have the right to wear a short skirt to work. But then, why should the men on your floor not have the right to ogle at your legs all day? You are at complete liberty to flaunt your cleavage in a low-cut blouse that is barely veiled by a transparent sari. But you can't impose an eyes-off rule on the men at your office just because their stares make you uncomfortable. The only reason they are starting at your legs or your breasts is because you put them out there.

Freedom comes with responsibility, and cannot be granted to one sex while being denied to be other. To say that women can wear what they like, behave any which way they want, while men have to stay within the bounds of decency, is sexism in reverse. In any social environment, you have to behave the way you expect to be treated, and the office is no exception. If you dress in a sexually charged way, you create a sexually-charged environment around you. And if anyone tries to take advantage of that, well then, you have to accept some responsibility for the situation.

That's not to say that you will never attract unwanted attention even if you dress modestly and conservatively. Of course, you will, but at least nobody will be able to turn around and say, `Well, what did she expect? Have you seen the kind of clothes she wears to work?' Your clothes may not be the cause of your harassment but they can be projected as a contributing factor, so make sure that they send out the right message.

I've said this before -- keep your sex life out of the workplace. This doesn't just mean that you should not date or have sexual relationships with co-workers -- though that would certainly help -- but that you keep your private life private. The moment you open that door by talking about your sex life -- or even about how you haven't had one ever since you started working these insane hours -- you give people the right to walk through it, with all sorts of offensive or inquisitive questions.

If your office is an overtly sexual workplace with people cracking off-colour jokes, passing around adult magazines which feature pictures of barely-clad lovelies, don't feel pressured to join in just because you want to be seen as one of the lads. No matter how many dirty jokes you crack and how many pin-ups you giggle over, at the end of the day, you will always be seen as a girl, and as such, a potential target. So, keep your guard up at all times. If you join in on the grounds that you can't beat them, you will be on very shaky ground if you complain when you begin to find the situation untenable.

Don't get all touchy-feely with work colleagues. All demonstrations of affection -- be it an arm thrown around a shoulder, a friendly hug, or a quick peck on the cheek -- can potentially be misunderstood. You may just mean to be friendly. But the person whom you are hugging may think you have something else in mind. So, keep your hugs and kisses to yourself until you're off duty; at work, restrict yourself to a handshake.

The key to avoiding the prospect of sexual harassment -- so far as you can -- is to maintain a professional front at all times. Even if you are at the annual office party, where the idea is to let your hair down and have fun, don't get pissed and jump on to the bar to give everyone the benefit of your pole-dancing routine. If you are attending an office retreat at a beach resort, don't pack that bikini that leaves nothing to the imagination. Wear a sensible one-piece instead.

Remember, these are the same people you will be seeing the next workday at office. And they will remember what you did even though you'd give anything to be able to forget.

Coping with sexual harassment

Part I: Are you being sexually harassed at work?

~ Tomorrow: Across the gender divide

~ Chat about your work-related problems with the author on February 6 between 2 and 3 pm.

~ Excerpted from Woman On Top: How To Get Ahead At Work by Seema Goswami, published by Random House India, Rs 200, with the publisher's permission.

~ Would you like to buy this book?

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