Dear Harry and Louise:
An interesting, but sad, state of affairs seems to be brewing at my workplace. Apparently, “Derek,” my coworker and friend, has been bothering at least four of our female coworkers, who are all in their twenties. Almost every day, I am barraged with stories about how he is touching someone’s hair, giving impromptu and unwanted back massages, and making inappropriate comments and propositions. On one hand, this has become amusing office chatter. But on another hand, sexual harassment is no laughing matter. Derek is in his forties and married with two children. He says he loves his wife and has no plans to leave her, but claims they are not having enough sexual relations for his liking. I realize he may be very unhappy with the current status of his marriage, but this surely does not give him the right to manhandle any of our coworkers. Although I have not personally witnessed any of Derek’s escapades, I have seen some questionable behavior.
Since I am the oldest (and allegedly the wisest) of the lot of us, I feel I should take some action. And as a woman, I feel a certain obligation to protect the younger ones here at work.
My options include: (1) Mind my own business, do absolutely nothing, and let the victims fight their own battles; (2) take Derek out for lunch to try to talk it out and suggest he straighten up and fly right; or (3) have a chat with our supervisor, and suggest she handle this situation. Before I had knowledge of these circumstances, I had offered to help Derek find another job. But I’ve decided I just can’t put my reputation on the line if this is how he chooses to handle himself at work.
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Sexual harassment is, indeed, no laughing matter. It’s also extremely toxic territory for all of us. There is no other terrain at the workplace so littered with mines. Most of us know cases in which a man—or a woman—has crossed the line from flirtation to unwanted fondling. And we know of situations where someone has alleged sexual harassment for personal gain. Once the allegations are lodged, they’re hard to disprove, and they can do permanent damage to the accused.
Given that landscape, I would reject your three options and choose another. Fact is, Derek has not made advances toward you, so any action you take is based on hearsay. If you rat Derek out to his superior, he or she is likely to say: prove it. Ditto Derek. So take Option 4: counseling your coworkers who believe they have been harassed. Suggest they take notes of each encounter, with specific times, places, and events. Perhaps they will come up with a pattern of bad behavior, in which case they can take it to the next level of making formal charges. Your best place is in the background, supportive of those who claim they have been harassed, but out of the direct line of fire.
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You should have the talk with Derek. Lay it on the line. He may have no idea that his charm is leaving his young colleagues aggravated at best and uncomfortable at worst. It seems hard to believe he would have no idea that his touchy-feely approach is unwelcome, but he may just have no awareness of appropriate workplace behavior. While I have the attention of any men out there, please hear this loud and clear: No woman likes her hair tousled, rearranged, and styled by a man unless she has an appointment and is paying top dollar in a salon.
You provide two pieces of evidence that lead me to believe you are the one who can have the most effective chat with Derek. You call him your friend, and he tells you details about his marriage. While it would be great if he kept his trap shut about his physical relations, he does see you as someone he can confide in. And he will likely be more amenable to hear sour news from someone whom he considers a friend. He has come to you, and now it’s time to use your unique position in the office to advise gregarious Derek to tone it way down.
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If these women feel Derek has harassed them, the time for changing his behavior by friendly means is o-v-e-r. Trying to counsel Derek runs the risk of aiding and abetting his abuse.
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This friend is in the position to counsel (have a serious talk with) Derek. She may be the only one he will respond to. We don’t know if any of these actions bleed into sexual harassment. Let’s err on the side of reason before escalating the situation to the higher authorities. Derek may squirm in embarrassment during this chat and alter his behavior.