A man and woman shaking hands in an office.

What Harassment Really Means – Mary T. O’Sullivan

By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL, business leadership writer

“The most unexpected provocation is unprovoked.” ― Tamerlan Kuzgov

Workplace harassment existed way before 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was enacted in the United States. In fact, harassment morphed into a big enough issue by 1980 to persuade the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to issue regulations defining sexual harassment and stating it was a form of sex discrimination. Looking back over years of work, I began to realize how pervasive this form of unjust workplace behavior occurred and how long it was tolerated.

Some memorable moments come to mind. I thought back to college days when a date often meant avoiding probing hands, and unwanted invitations to the men’s dorms. Then I heard of a young college student working as a waitress, when a manager consistently comments on the size of the young woman’s breasts. Many years later, a young, newly married woman faced insinuations about the reason for the few minutes she was late to work. A fellow worker stopped her in the hallway and remarks about the initials on her purse which are MTN and said they should read TNT.

These incidents all took place well after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, but not soon enough to be defined by the 1980 EEOC ruling. What were women’s options back then? Really nothing.  The normal reaction consisted of a shrug, a smirk, or silence. Employers certainly were not ready to jump in and reprimand the offenders, and the victims just had to learn to avoid certain people as they traversed their workday because their complaints would largely go ignored.

Harassment doesn’t stop when women mature into their 30s and 40s. An older married man, a boss, in a large corporate organization continually leered at women, especially attractive ones. One woman suspected he was calling her in the middle of the night and breathing heavily into the phone. He often regaled his exploits with other women in the office, sharing details no one wanted to hear. Other women experienced harassment when former husbands stalked a new house after remarriage, or the home of the couple’s babysitter.

A question in a recent issue of HR Magazine asked, “Can we discipline an employee for alleged sexual harassment after work hours?”  The question stuck me suddenly, as I recall being asked to review some work material in a male co-worker’s hotel room. I thought nothing of it at the time, until he moved the discussion to the bed. Then I decided our meeting was concluded, and the conversation was over. I left feeling very uneasy. He still contacted me from time to time, looking for an opening. It never occurred to me to report this incident as harassment. I just tried to avoid the person, even though we had many common interests and could have helped each other’s careers.

Even in close knit church groups, where women, married and unmarried, all knew each other, there was no end to the flirting and outright suggestiveness of the husbands to some divorced and unmarried women. These men followed women out to their cars and openly propositioned them. One way I found to discourage these conversations was to ask these men where they intended to spend their holidays. That quickly ended the discussion. Still, I thought people in a church group would have more integrity, but instead the group was used as an opportunity to seek out willing women.

Later, working in a new state, I received many phone calls from married men looking to meet me for drinks or dinner. A once trusted consultant insinuated that I invite him to my apartment after a business dinner. I can’t describe the shock I felt.

Yet again, as a seasoned professional, I witnessed swearing, yelling, slamming doors and objects, and intimidation towards women during work hours and at after-hours work sponsored events. Complaints were made but nothing was done to correct this behavior. In fact, the harasser ended up with a better office than the complainer. 

Should these incidents have been considered off-hours harassment? Apparently so according to the 1980 statute. The problem was and still is that women just didn’t know about the statute or were and still are too afraid or intimidated to report these types of incidents.  The HR Magazine article defines the reportable events and states that when a complaint is made “Employers must conduct an unbiased, thorough investigation to determine its validity.” And the main reason given is that the conduct “may put an employer in legal or financial jeopardy…” In fact, that may be the only motivator to teach people to behave as if they were at home and not in a position to take advantage of unwitting women who believe the intentions of the offenders are virtuous. Now it seems virtuousness doesn’t even exist in church, never mind at work.

“…we need to turn the question around to look at the harasser, not the target. We need to be sure that we can go out and look anyone who is a victim of harassment in the eye and say, ‘You do not have to remain silent anymore.” – Anita Hill

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Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member, Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.

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  1. Jeff Gross on September 18, 2023 at 2:12 pm

    I noticed that this is article is all about only women being harassed. In my prime and sometimes even today I get sexually suggestive comments from women. I even had one woman expose her breasts to me in the workplace on more than one occasion. I don’t have an issue with these situations. Personally, I think the actions by the opposite sex are funny and even a little flattering.

    • Mary O’Sullivan on September 18, 2023 at 5:01 pm

      That’s the general consensus among men. I know men are also subjected to sexual harassment, and many do not like it. Fewer men are assaulted by women, however, if men experience uncouth sexual behavior by women, most respond as you do. They think it’s funny, and even makes them feel liked. Most women do not share you opinion. I have not noticed any #MeToo or #Enough movements by men. Most women consider men’s unwanted behavior as offensive and demeaning. The hope is that men will learn to stop this bad behavior and not make a joke out of it.