How To Deal With Sexual Harassment While It’s Happening To You
Photograph Danielle Dolson/Unsplash
An empowering step-by-step guide to quickly diffuse a bad office situation…
That manager who never talks to your face. The colleague who makes inappropriate comments disguised as a joke. The creepy IT guy you dread meeting in the lift. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a minefield. You’ve read the HR policy. You know you have the right to report it. You know that you probably should report it. But when it actually comes down to it, would you? Because…what if it makes things awkward? What if he makes things difficult for you at work afterwards? Was it really that bad…or are you just being ridiculous, oversensitive, hysterical even?
Is he just being friendly, or am I being harassed?
As women, our first port of call in an uncomfortable situation is often to doubt ourselves. Maybe he just grazed your butt with his hand, by mistake… but maybe not… Maybe he really was just being nice when he complemented your tight-fitting top. As women, we tend to worry about pleasing others, keeping the peace, giving people the benefit of the doubt. And agonising over what things really mean.
Which is why yelling, “Stop that!” feels embarrassingly aggressive and the thought of marching off to HR makes most of us cringe. We’ve taken politeness to the extreme – to our detriment.
Does this video feel uncomfortably familiar…
So when is it sexual harassment?
By legal definition, physical sexual harassment includes touching, sexual assault and rape, or a strip search by or in the presence of the opposite sex.
Verbal sexual harassment includes innuendoes, suggestions and hints (of an unwelcome nature), sexual advances, comments with sexual overtones, sex-related jokes or insults or enquiries about a person’s sex life, graphic comments about a person’s body or whistling at a person or group of people.
Non-verbal sexual harassment includes unwelcome and obscene gestures, indecent exposure and the unwelcome display of sexually explicit pictures and objects.
But trust your gut. If someone’s behaviour makes you feel uneasy, it’s probably off – even if it doesn’t make it onto this list.
What about this one? Is this video eerily reminiscent of your boss?
How do I make it stop?
If someone at work makes you feel uncomfortable, follow this guide from Charlene Robertson of the, an organisation focused on the assistance and support of those affected by domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse:
1. Communicate your disapproval
If you can avoid the colleague who makes you uncomfortable, do so. If you have to work in close proximity to him, avoid being alone with him. And tell him to stop his behaviour, but be specific: If he stands too close, you can say: “Can you stand away please, because such closeness makes me feel uncomfortable.” Or, if he touches you, say: “Can you please avoid putting your hand on my shoulder because that makes me uncomfortable.” If the person has sent you a joke through an email or SMS, reply through email or SMS when asking him to stop.
2. Keep a record
If your colleague isn’t getting the message, prepare to report him. Gather evidence to substantiate your claims. Note down the date, time and details of each incident, save any emails or text messages that contain inappropriate language. Try to use your phone to discreetly record his remarks.
3. Find a confidante
Share the situation with a colleague you trust in the office. She may be able to keep a watchful eye on the situation. But be picky about who you share this information with and ensure that your confidante is trustworthy. A senior colleague or mentor who carries more weight in the organisation would be ideal.
4. Lay a formal complaint
If the above doesn’t work, make a formal complaint to senior members of the organisation, with whatever evidence or notes you have. Make the complaint in writing and keep a copy – remember, an oral complaint can be hushed up. Often women don’t report sexual harassment for fear they might lose their jobs, but unless you are willing to take action, your problem will persist.
5. Get outside assistance
If your company doesn’t take any action on your complaint or doesn’t penalise the miscreant, you can approach the CCMA or labour court, or an organisation like or the .
6. Create Plan B
Leaving your job should be your last resort. But before you take this step, it’s best to start looking for another job. Leaving without options may result in a feeling of powerlessness.