Colleagues are reluctant to report him because he “needs the money.”
Q: I work for a staffing agency that places workers in groups of varying size, to work on specific projects, often at large firms. Recently, a member of a crew I am part of has engaged in behavior that could easily be construed as sexual harassment.
He has touched one person in the group inappropriately — running his finger down her neck, caressing her back, for example. He has also repeatedly asked co-workers for the phone numbers of women in our group. (In general, our crews are majority female.) He even asked a recent widow if he could move in with her.
Some of us are concerned since all of this pretty much violates the client firm’s sexual harassment policies. But I think there is a reluctance to report him because the job doesn’t pay well, and he needs the money. Any ideas? — Evanston, Illinois
A: As described, your colleague’s behavior is a serious issue. The fact that he “needs the money” is not a valid excuse. Nor is it a good reason to let this slide.
You should definitely take some sort of action, but the details might depend on a couple of factors. For general legal context, I checked with Amy Epstein Gluck, an employment lawyer in the Washington office of the firm FisherBroyles. Given the variety and frequency of this worker’s apparent behavior, she said, it should probably be reported to management at the agency that you and your fellow contractors work for.
“The agency should investigate,” Epstein Gluck said, and it should promptly talk to this employee and other relevant parties, handling the issue as appropriate. The specifics will depend on your agency’s policies, but the bottom line is that managers there should want to know this is happening — to make it stop.
Speaking broadly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers at companies with 15 or more employees from sexual harassment that creates a hostile work environment. If this worker ends up harassing employees of the client firm for which your group is working, those workers could have a Title VII claim against your agency (as well as their employer). Doing nothing is “risking a real problem” for the agency, Epstein Gluck said.
At the very least, confront this person and deliver an ultimatum: If he doesn’t straighten up, you’ll report his problem behavior to higher-ups at your agency. (Title VII, incidentally, forbids your employer from taking action against you for reporting such behavior.) Your colleagues who are being bothered and harassed deserve the respect.
An unwelcome “sweetheart”
Q: I have been working for a food-related business for the last two months, and it has been lovely. The atmosphere and my co-workers are respectful and dignified.
Recently, a new male employee I had never interacted with required assistance. The encounter was brief and strictly professional. Then, a few hours later, he called me “sweetheart.”
I was immensely distressed. I could not understand how this stranger could address a respectful female colleague in such a callous way, mere hours after our first interaction. Surely he is aware of the massive movement demanding equal treatment for women.
This has not happened to me in a very long time. I am not an emotional person, but I found it deeply upsetting and thus did not want to confront this man in a distressed state. How should I address this? — New York
A: If you’re now up to it, you can simply say: “I’m sure you didn’t mean anything by it, but like many women, I really don’t like to be called ‘sweetheart’ or similar words. I find it insulting. Please don’t do that. Thanks.”
Think of this less as a confrontation than as a straightforward statement that requires no further discussion.
If you’re not up to it, take the issue to your manager. On its own, this episode falls short of the pervasive or severe behavior that would make it a potential Title VII issue, Epstein Gluck said. But it’s the sort of incident, she added, that she advises client employers to address immediately and decisively.
“I tell them to take care of it the same way they would a severe and pervasive problem,” she said. “Make sure you have a clear policy,” and enforce it. In this case, that may simply mean directing this worker not to address female colleagues this way.
You mention that your interaction was professional and that your behavior was “respectful” — but of course you need have no concern about your own behavior here; that’s not the issue. It’s possible that this man had no intention of acting in a way that would insult or demean you. Regional, cultural, age and other factors can inform seemingly routine language decisions; that’s not an excuse, but it might take the edge off this incident.
It’s also possible that he would appreciate knowing that the way he came across is not what he imagined. “Most guys,” Epstein Gluck said, “want to know where there’s a line.”