Sexual Harassment at Work: How Abuses of Power Begin

As a legal HR consultant for businesses large and small, I have investigated some difficult harassment complaints.  Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.  The most difficult ones are the ones that begin as consensual relationships but then turn into ugly abuses of power.

At a company I consulted for, an employee filed a complaint against her manager.  The manager had been requiring sexual favors. If she refused, he threatened to fire her. This is pretty textbook sexual harassment.  It’s called “quid pro quo”, which means “this for that”.  It’s the stereotypical example of harassment where a superior bases employment decisions upon sexual favors.  (To learn more about the definition of sexual harassment, see this post.)  

When the employee reported this to me, she hung her head down and rarely looked up.  She began by saying, “I will probably be fired because I have had an affair with my boss for the past two years.”  She said that she was okay losing her job because she could not stay silent any longer.   

The affair allegedly began more innocently and did not involve such an overt quid pro quo.  She said that one day at work he asked her to go to dinner with him.  He gave her flowers on the date; she had not received flowers from a man in 15 years.  She said she willingly saw him again, and she became his girlfriend very quickly.

But after only a few months, it got ugly.  He began to text her during work or when she was at home with her daughter.  His texts used graphic language about what he wanted her to do to him.  If she did not respond fast enough, his texts became threatening and aggressive.  She began to tell him “no” in the text messages.  He threatened to tell HR about their relationship and said that he would fire her.

The victim here thought it was her fault.  Although I had led an anti-harassment training frequently at this company, she felt she was responsible and had broken the rules. As I interviewed her about what happened, she hung her head down, crying as she showed me the text messages she had saved.  

Her manager was a key employee at this business.  When I gave the final report of the investigation to an executive at the company, his face turned red.  He looked at me and said, “This man is a criminal.”  He terminated the manager on the spot. Then he found the employee who had been harassed and told her that he would make sure she was protected.  

When you do have to investigate claims of sexual harassment at your workplace, handle the investigation confidentially and focus on the evidence.  Neither the victims nor the accused want the situation being gossiped about.  Remember that a consensual relationship really cannot happen when it is a superior-subordinate relationship.   Make it known to your employees that should it occur, they can report harassment to you and that you will take care of it.

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