Turning the tables on sexual harassment

In the last year high profile personalities from entertainment, news, sports, politics and academia, have been called out for sexual harassment, and falling off their gilded pedestals.

Yet when referring to the women they harassed, many of those accused have followed their guilty admissions with a postscript like this:  “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I was hurting them.” That kind of statement begs the question – is it possible a person committing sexual harassment does not realize they’re causing harm, or that their behaviour is unacceptable – and illegal?

What is sexual harassment?

The Canadian Labour Code defines sexual harassment as “any conduct, comment, gesture, or contact of a sexual nature that is likely to cause offence or humiliation…”  The Code further defines sexual harassment as when an individual is led to believe that tolerating the sexual harassment is necessary for them to keep their job or benefit from training or promotion.

There may be people reading this who sometimes say and do things that meet at least some of the criteria of this definition, without fully realizing it. This is why it’s important for everyone to be aware of what  sexual harassment looks like, such as:

  • Remarks, jokes, or innuendo of a sexual nature
  • Taunting remarks about a person’s body, attire, gender or sexual orientation
  • Unwanted touching or any unwanted or inappropriate physical contact
  • Enquiries or comments about a person’s sex life or sexual preference, clothing, or physical characteristics
  • Making sexual or romantic advances to a co-worker after it has been made clear by the co-worker that this is unwelcome
  • Posting or display of materials, articles or graffiti etc. (including social media/online) that is sexually oriented

Don’t be that creep in the office

“I was just trying to have fun with you” or “Hey, where’s your sense of humour?” are not adequate responses when someone lets you know you’re being inappropriate and asks you to stop.

If you want to avoid being whispered about as the ‘creep in the office’, lose the respect of colleagues, face going to court and losing business – make sure your behaviour doesn’t fall into those categories listed above. It’s not difficult to know the difference between harassing behaviour and respectful professionalism.

Be aware that although many people will seem to tolerate or even appreciate your suggestive remarks, they may well be harbouring resentment and distaste that could turn into a formal complaint against you.  Review what defines sexually harassing language and behaviour and follow the guidelines. No one will mind if you refuse to make sexually inappropriate remarks!

Make sure when you do communicate – whether in person, via text, email or cell phone – it is done respectfully. If you are unsure what respectfully means, just imagine that your spouse, your manager, your colleagues, friends, neighbours and family, will hear or read or see how you communicate with others. If you’re quite comfortable with that possibility, you’re probably doing fine.

The Harasser

There are clients who will cross the line with you.  You will encounter Realtors who seem to think that without an employer to be accountable to, they can pretty much behave as they like with you. Probably the most difficult circumstance is when it’s someone in  your office with influence and power who sexually harasses you. This can negatively affect your reputation and your business.

Keep in mind that many people who sexually harass are aware that you are offended, annoyed and even disgusted by their behaviours. That may be what keeps them doing it – the satisfaction of making you uncomfortable gives them a sense of power and dominance that they crave.

On the other hand, someone saying or doing inappropriate things may not understand that they are crossing a line. They may need to be educated. However, ignoring their offensive behaviours or pretending that it doesn’t unsettle you is not enough. A first step to stopping a sexual harasser is for them to hear and see your complete disapproval.

Stopping a sexual harasser

The blow back people get for reporting harassment is not always fair or just. Fortunately, the fallout from recent high profile harassment cases and the resulting #MeToo social media movement has revealed the prevalence of harassment in workplaces, and the tolerance for it is fading fast.

For a Realtor, sexual harassment can occur anywhere: in the office, at a property showing, a Board event, or in your car as you review emails and texts—even over the telephone. Confronting sexual harassment is not easy. It can be a serious challenge for the person who is targeted.  The key is to ensure it stops.

  • Speak up, be assertive, and make it clear that you strongly disapprove of what is happening.
  • Judge the behavior, not the person. Tell them what they are doing that you don’t like (“You are standing too close”) rather than blaming them as a person (“You are such a jerk”).
  • Use the words ‘sexual harassment’ if you know that is what it is. The harasser must understand they are breaching policy and law.
  • Prepare and keep a detailed record of the incident(s); if it happens once it is highly likely to happen again.
  • Ask your office manager to help resolve the issue; keep a record of that request and the outcome of it.
  • If it is a manager who is sexually harassing you, keep a record of it including place, date, time, circumstances and what was said or done; enlist help from supportive colleagues to confront the behaviour.
  • Seek out a social service agency that assists people dealing with legal issues related to workplace harassment.
  • If the problem persists, consider filing a human rights complaint.

Here’s what NOT to do:

  • Avoid going along with the Offender(s) jokes and taunts as a way to manage the situation. It won’t stop the Offender from harassing you; in their mind this may amount to a tacit acceptance of their behaviour.
  • By the same token, don’t counterpunch with offensive comments or jokes of your own. Trying to fight fire with fire may just create an inferno of abuses. It’s preferable to demonstrate dignity and respect as a shield against offensive behaviours.
  • Don’t give up your work or business unless another better opportunity comes along. Depending on the situation, you may choose to leave your current office to avoid the harassment only to  run into another harasser in your next one.  It may be better to deal with the situation as best as you can with the support of friends, colleagues, management, counselors, a human resources consultant, or even legal experts.

The world has entered a new era where treating others with respect and dignity is an expectation of being a professional. The Board is asking members to engage in an open dialogue about workplace harassment in your office so that we can learn more about what needs to change, and how we can help stop this behaviour from affecting you, and your business.  Please share your thoughts with us. Comments will be kept confidential at your request. Email: communications@fvreb.bc.ca

Download these free guides:

Create a Policy Statement in your Office

Workplace Bullying and Harassment – People’s Law School

Helpful Links:

BC Human Rights Commission – Workplace Harassment

Sources Community Resources Centres