Advice from the Harassed

Advice from the Harassed – by Terry Howard

The “ho hum,” been there/done that remedies for stopping sexual harassment have been sitting in seldom-read policy manuals and preached about in awareness workshops for decades. And yet harassment still raises its ugly head in organizations large and small, public and private. There’s no better validation than the recent “me too” movement and outed perpetrators who have seen their personal lives and careers go up in smoke.

So, what effective personal strategies should potential targets of harassment consider? How do they ward it off in the first place, or respond to it in the moment?

I took those questions out to a number of women who have adopted strategies to first, signal that inappropriate behaviors won’t be put up with and, second, understand how they’ve managed to get perpetuators to back off. I call them the forerunners with some practical stories to tell. They’re the ones who defy the myth that targets of harassment are typically meek and powerless, cower to their aggressor, live with the behavior or just leave the organization.

Here’s a sampling of what they shared:

“Early on I learned to read people in anticipation of who might eventually target me for unwanted attention. The clues I look for are their body language, whether they stare, the words they use in talking about women and how they seek and exercise power. “       – Shirley, Vice President

“A warning sign for me is when he starts complaining about how unsatisfying his marriage is. I immediately respond by briefly telling him how happy my marriage is and then shift the conversation to something related to work. I refuse to be his marriage counselor.”  – Bianca, Administrative Assistant

“Look, I’m in the rough and tumble sales field and have had to fend off more than my share of aggressive clients. When I casually mention that I’m married to a 300 pound defensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs who has issues with anger management, their behaviors immediately cease.”  –Marilyn, Marketing Director

“I put my membership certificate with the National Rifle Association on the wall in my office and that did the trick. In fact, I went to Office Max and had it blown up to the size of a poster to make sure it would not be missed.”     – Patricia, Store Manager

“Okay Terry, I’ll admit that this tactic stretches the truth, but when this one dude wouldn’t take no for an answer I casually mentioned that HIV runs throughout my entire family. He never pestered me again.”

–  Helen, Hotel registrar

When I casually mention how thankful I am for social media, especially hidden mikes and cameras, suddenly problematic behaviors disappear. “  – Anun, Engineering Associate

I told one guy that I’m not really a woman. You should have seen the look on his face.” –Polly, restaurant worker.

“My extremely loud voice and purposeful use of bad breath, outbursts of bodily gases and foul language will usually turn them off.”  – Erica, rental car agent

“Aside from having warded off unwanted attention myself, I now will pull both targets and aggressors aside and coach them. That way they both know that the behaviors between the two are being watched.”  – Dottie, Fitness Center manager

In the end, they all agree on the following:

  1. Establish and communicate your boundaries and expectations as early as possible in any relationship because as you size up others, know that they’re probably sizing up you.
  2. Avoid laughing at sexual jokes since that may be their way of testing you. Express clearly that jokes of that nature make you extremely uncomfortable.
  3. Although the way you dress does not give license for unwanted attention know that that may be the reaction. Dress professionally at all times.
  4. Have ready to deploy individual response strategies for both subtle and not so subtle behaviors that may occur. Develop a sense for when things are starting to turn to something unwanted and take control of it immediately.
  5. If your organization has support groups for women, employee resource groups, etc., initiate talks or panel discussions focusing on responding to unwanted sexual attention. Encourage men also to attend so that potential harassers can hear about behaviors that they may in fact be engaging in, albeit unconsciously.
  6. Work to ensure that both women and men new to the organization are assigned mentors and coach them on how to establish – and not to cross – boundaries that may result in sexual and other forms of harassment.

Okay readers (including men), let’s hear from you now. What else would you suggest we add to this practical advice from these women?

Terry Howard

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