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What Is Subtle Sexual Harassment?

A manager is chasing a secretary around a desk. Demi Moore in Disclosure, pressuring Michael Douglas to have an office affair. Practically every early episode of Mad Men. Just the name “Harvey Weinstein.” These are the images many of us associate with workplace sexual harassment. The boss who threatens a job if their employee refuses their advances, groping hands, and a clear abuse of power. It’s easy when incidents like this occur--and they do still occur--to say “go to human resources.”

But what if the sexual harassment is subtler? Sometimes things may happen that cause a victim to question themselves. Am I too sensitive? Am I just making trouble? Is it wrong to feel this way? When the harassment is subtle, it can make an uncomfortable situation even worse.

Here are some examples of subtle sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Texts, emails, and private messages that are personal. With so many different forms of digital communication, the intonation or intention can be misunderstood. However, when they are of a personal matter, and the recipient begins to feel uncomfortable, it is harassment.

  • “Accidental” touching is another example. Perhaps a person uses their body to block a colleague's path, or sits too close in a meeting, or puts a hand on a shoulder. Yes, even hands-on shoulders can be harassment if it is making the recipient uncomfortable. And no, they aren't too sensitive.

  • Asking personal questions is another example. We like to get to know our coworkers. But sometimes personal questions can make you feel cornered or uncomfortable.

  • Looking someone up and down or staring, making comments about a coworker’s clothing, body, or looks.

  • Invading a person’s personal space, lingering for longer than necessary, or following a person at work.

As you can see, if a person experiences these at the workplace, it may not feel like a black and white harassment situation. What’s worse, it can make it difficult to report to HR or a manager. Maybe you feel worried that you’re stirring the pot over nothing, or that your complaint will become a company rumor with you as the villain. These fears aren’t unwarranted; they happen all the time.

In essence, instead of asking yourself if you're too sensitive, ask yourself: Am I uncomfortable? Do I feel safe? Do I dread going to work? Is this affecting my work performance and my personal life?

What to do if you're subtly harassed:

Write down everything that happens and what is said. Dates, time, location, and any potential witnesses. Make sure to keep copies of emails or texts. Don’t wait to make a complaint. Many states have laws that limit the time after an incident occurs for the victim to make a claim.

Contact a lawyer for guidance on how best to make your complaint.

It’s your job and subtle or overt, sexual harassment is illegal, and you’re allowed to protect yourself. Ready to talk to an attorney? We can assist you. Contact the Law Offices of Tanya Gomerman today at 415-545-8608.

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