One of the more urgent questions raised in the “Gender/Sex Issues in Video Games” DragonCon panel was how to deal with sexual harassment at work when the company isn’t dealing with the issue.
People know how they should behave. Companies have procedures to enforce when people act inappropriately. The government has an entire commission dedicated to enforcing federal laws. But none of this means people will behave, or companies will enforce, or red tape will be cut. What to do.
First, it depends on the severity of the harassment.
If you are physically assaulted at work, call the police. Your company is not the ruling authority when it comes to criminal activity. They don’t have first dibs in addressing a criminal offense. Call the police immediately.
If you have criminal charges pending, a lawyer should advise you on any actions to take regarding your employment.
If you are being threatened, but not touched, with a physical weapon call the police. Your safety and life is in danger and the employer is not equipped to protect you. Weapons are guns, knives, box cutters, paper weights, fists, etc. Call the police if it is clear that an assailant intends to harm or kill you by threatening to strike or punch you.
Again, this is in the hands of the police and your lawyer.
Verbal harassment takes more time, persistence, and professionalism to address. The onus is totally on the accuser.
… With Harm
If you are verbally threatened with physical harm (sexual or violent; “I will assault you”) or professional harm (fired or ruined; “I’ll get you fired.”) without weapons, you should immediately go to your HR department, enter their office, sit down, and refuse to leave until you are safe. Your manager, the assailant, and the assailant’s manager should be called in to resolve the accusation (yes, we are in the verbal world now so you’re an accuser).
If you still don’t feel safe you must clearly express why you are still in danger and create a plan with HR and the mediating manager. Make sure you have a copy of your company’s harassment policy. Get the name and contact info for someone in HR who will be your representative.
In parallel to all of this, you should also go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) web site and study it. Like most government sites, it is difficult to navigate. Contact them immediately and be persistent.
If the company does not follow through and harassment persists, follow the exact same steps above and make sure that the harassment policy is being followed to the letter. If the harassment policy is weak or is just a straw man (a sham argument set up to be defeated), contact the EEOC, a lawyer, and the police.
… With Suggestions
If a co-worker is making suggestive comments or gestures that are inappropriate for the work place, the first line of defense is you. Respect your co-worker more than they are respecting you or themselves. Respond professionally and don’t use first-person pronouns. Say, “that’s unprofessional” or “that’s not appropriate for the work place.”
A common response to this might be, “I’m just kidding” or “you’re uptight.” Again, keep it professional and not personal. “That might get you in trouble at work with the wrong people and you’re more professional than that.”
If they shrug it off, I think they’ve heard you. It’s not your place to rub their nose in it or illicit a confession. Close the book and be happy if it never happens again. You made a difference.
If the conversation persists or the harassment persists, then it’s personal. You need to know your harassment policy and follow their guidelines immediately.
If harassment continues and HR is dragging their feet, work your way up through the hierarchy of HR. In parallel, contact the EEOC to get documentation and advice started.
If you make it to the top of the HR department without resolution, then go above them. If HR is not held accountable then you can conclude that the harassment policy means nothing to the company and harassment is tolerated. Things get tricky. Hopefully EEOC will step in.
I say put your head down, don’t say anything else about it, and do your job to the letter — all the time looking for another job. You have to get out of there. You might want to stay and be Norma Rae, but that’s a different article entirely.
The work place is not a unique or exceptional environment. Any time you’re not sure what to do, think about the situation if it were in a grocery store. What makes sense?
Company guidelines and laws can also be misused to falsely accuse co-workers. This is also an egregious offense and can do permanent damage. False claims negate valid ones and can potentially ruin careers. There is no justification for it.