I am frequently asked about sex discrimination. Until I retired last year, I was a member of Reserve/National Guard units for many years. Sex harassment was an occasional topic of concern. It is true that unwanted touching is clear sex harassment. But, what about invitations to dinner? What about persistent invitations to dinner? If the person says no, how clear must she be? How often does she need to say no? What if the harassment comes from co-workers? This is a very complicated subject, wrought with deep emotions on all sides.
There are generally two types of sex harassment: hostile work environment (most often caused by co-workers) and traditional sex discrimination (in which a supervisor treats an employee differently due to the employee’s gender). Hostile work environment refers to occasions when co-workers make a person’s work environment extremely difficult – and the co-workers(s) are motivated by the victim’s gender. This is when you hear stories of graphic pictures hanging on the wall or sex based jokes. As I used to tell my Guard/Reserve audiences, the only safe joke now is a good Aggie joke. There is no place for gender based jokes in today’s workplace.
Contrary to what some people, even some trained HR personnel, say, there is no easy formula for what constitutes hostile work environment. It all starts with the alleged victim. What does he/she say? What does he/she find objectionable? The HR/management team should complete a thorough investigation. The employer is not required to be perfect or understand everything, but it is required to make a thorough investigation and take effective action if necessary. One of the many challenging aspects of harassment, sex based or otherwise, is the employer must listen closely to the alleged victim. Sometimes, the harassment consists of relatively harmless acts, such as refusing to invite the victim to critical meetings or even lunch, refusal to greet the alleged victim in the hallway, or worse. So, it is important that the employer do something it may not often do: listen closely.
But, in the end, it is about retaining trained, qualified, motivated employees. So, the better the employer responds to one incident or one complaint, hopefully, the better *all* employees will perform. In the end, a well-motivated workforce is a profitable workforce.