The flip side of Sexual Harassment: Escaping cries of 'Wolf'

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

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Give or take, the narrative we are used to is the one in which the superior is the person who sexually harasses the subordinate.


The person in authority is the predator; the subordinate is the ‘unwilling’ prey. We whisper in corridors, about how “the secretary was not really fired because his tea lacks ‘twang’… but because he refused to give in to Madam’s ‘needs’”.

This would presuppose however, that there are never cases in which the subordinate is the predator, or no instances where the claims of ‘harassment’ by the subordinate are purely contrived cries of ‘wolf’.

Right??

Wrong.

***

You see… the average adult spends the bulk of their (working) day at work. Or at school. Naturally, bonds will be formed. Friendships would be developed.

True, familiarity may breed contempt. But first, it breeds fondness. A LOT of fondness.

In the case of a boss and a subordinate, such fondness may be reciprocal, which each party being consenting parties in an adult relationship.  In some instances, it is unilateral, with one person unaware or uninterested. It could even be an unrequited crush, which has never been genuinely acknowledged.

Or maybe a flame come to an end, with the superior walking away.

In any of these instances, the superior may be subject to harassment by the subordinate, failure to cave in which may result to ‘blackmail’, via false claims of Sexual Harassment. Where an actual relationship existed between them both, it could even be claimed by the subordinate that it was fueled by fear or coercion.

I see you rolling eyes and hissing “not my portion. After all… this is Nigeria. Who dey go Court?”

But things are fast changing. The populace is becoming more litigious, even as we get better informed daily. The National Industrial Courts – primarily responsible for Employment related disputes - have adopted principles of international best practices.

And then, there is trial by social media, resulting in an automatic “death sentence” in the (unhappy) event of ‘compromising photos’ being leaked.

There is the sheer strain one’s better half, where the superior is in a committed relationship. And the reputational harm of being the poster-Adult for “don’t crap where you eat” during office meetings. So that whenever you pass colleagues discussing in bunches, you can almost ‘hear’ them pause and look at you with side-eyes like:

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This is because society (rightly) expects that as a person in a position of superiority, you are better equipped to handle inter-personal relations between you and your junior. Naturally, if things get out of hand one way or the other, the primary instinct is that you take responsibility for it.

Would you not rather save yourself the trauma of being on the receiving end of a false Sexual Harassment claim? There are things you can do to prevent this:

1)    When working with subordinates, Shine Your Eyes. And Ears.

Be conscious. Be careful. Be deliberate.

Understand that people are at work for various reasons. You are there to eke a living; someone else may be there as an agent of seduction.

Like ‘Dr. Mark Sloan’ from Grey’s Anatomy

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(Focus!)

Your attitude at work to and with subordinates should be one of (deliberately) cordial formality. Thus, while you display respect for their person, it should be clearly communicated without equivocation, that relations between you both is formal, and borne out of work.

It is alright to share the occasional joke. But it should be a work joke. And the accompanying laughter should not linger unnecessarily.

You could actually emphasise a point without touching. A handshake IS a handshake. Not an elbow squeeze. Or a back-rub. Or a friendly cheek-tap.  

Remember, that the shoulder pad in blazer is not for your subordinate’s tears. Except you both have mutually crossed the rubicon of “blazing passion”, you are not their shoulder to lean on. That is what siblings/boyfriends/girlfriends/parents/nannies are for.

You are The Boss.

By all means, be a kind human… with a cup of tea, and their tears running into the handkerchief/serviettes you provide from across the table. And when the need for ‘consolation’ becomes one too frequent, recommend involving a better-equipped colleage (maybe the Welfare Department), or (in extreme circumstances), a professional Counselor.

You are not the Shrink. You are The Boss.

2. DO NOT FLASH LIGHTS, IF YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED

(There is a reason I used caps lock all through for this heading: I am e-Shouting)

Do not send mixed signals. Do not toy with their emotions, for the fun of it. Or simply because in their present mind’s eye, you are ‘god’, with infinitesimal wells of wisdom.

Do not test to see “how far this can go”, for the sake of it.

Do not ‘flex’ your captivating power over them, just for the fun of watching them swoon over you; with your depth of “wisdom” and sheer awesomeness.

Do not use innuendos, and puns, and allusions. Do not use any figure of speech covertly pointing to intimacy.

Do not flirt.

I repeat, Do Not Flirt.

Except you are genuinely interested in developing a relationship with the junior, do not engage in flirtatious behavior with them.

3. Make it official
Let’s presume that since the two weeks you both set eyes on each other, both of you have discovered that the one is the other’s missing rib. Carefully hand-crafted at the Garden of Eden. (Or any other garden)

You are genuinely in love.

(Rolls eye)

Rules exist for many reasons… other than to be broken (of course). In this case, if there is a policy in the Organisation on reporting relations between subordinates and superiors, it is important that before you swing into the relationship, you both should go to Human Resources. And formally document the relationship.

The rule is for YOUR protection, as a superior. This way, any future claims of coercion may be easier rebutted. Even where the Rule does not exist, report to Human Resource anyway. Make it formal.

Expectedly, there would be short-term inconveniences. Such as having people “all up in your business”. And probably requiring one of you being moved to another unit or department, so you no longer work directly together, and the work could suffer. One of you might even be required to leave the organization.

But the long-term alternative inconvenience of defending a future Sexual Harassment suit makes the short-term inconveniences worth the trouble.

And if the relationship is one that Human Resources cannot be formally notified of, such as where (for example) one person is already married…

(Ah … next please!!)

4. Leave trail

Letters. Documents. Text messages. Emails. Voicemails.

Leave trail showing that whatever relations between you both was borne out of and thrived on voluntary and mutual interests.

Where the ‘fire’ is unilaterally stoked by the subordinate, leave enough trail to show your consistent and unwavering rejection of their advances.

Do not let your story be told for you.  

5. Be the ‘Adult’

Remember when you enjoyed the ‘swag’ of being The Boss, and having all the juniors gawk in open-eyed open-mouthed wonderment at the glorious baskets of intelligence pouring like fountains from your lips at office meetings?

Well… that ‘swag’ comes with responsibility.

Irrespective of the particular circumstance, you would be expected as the superior, to know and act better. Whether it is in turning-down uninvited advances, or breaking-off an erstwhile consensual relationship with a subordinate. You are expected to display the utmost maturity and fairness to the subordinate.

In the case of altogether uninvited advances from a subordinate, you could be firm yet polite in rejecting the advances.

Categorically state your refusal from the earliest point, where the proposition is made or implied, and keep notes from that point onwards. If possible, speak to an equally matured confidante, who is kept updated on the circumstances. It is your responsibility however to ensure your confidante is not a tattle-tale, who disseminates the information, thereby bringing ridicule to the junior, or that same confidante does not utilise the information to seek to take advantage of the junior.

Avoid being rude, or unkind, or condescending.

In the case of an erstwhile relationship, the lines between personal and official relations have already been blurred such that the subordinate may not handle ‘going back’ to strictly formal relations well. You are the senior, so it befalls you to apply the utmost sensitivity and wisdom in easing you both into strictly formal relations. If it would help, take a leave of absence after the break-up, to enable some time for you both to ease back into formal relations. If one person has to change department or unit, that may have to be you.

Know that you both are bound to run into each other eventually; do not avoid them, or be rude, or ignore them. Depending on the cause of the break-up, a casual wave or ‘Good-morning’ may suffice. Whatever you do, bear in mind that society (which eventually, may culminate in the Court) would x-ray your actions through the lens of your being in a position of authority. Thus, you must be seen to (and should in fact) treat the subordinate in all fairness.

If, despite your best efforts, they persist in their advances for fresh, rekindled or continued relations, whether or not threatening false Sexual Harassment lawsuits, it would be pertinent to notify Human Resources or Legal - as the case may be.

(In Nigerian-English, this is where we say “Kasala don burst. Gbege don shele”)

6. Speak to your Lawyer

If at this point, you’re wondering whether to speak to a Lawyer, you NEED to speak to a Lawyer.

If you do not already have one, get a Lawyer. The Lawyer will enable you understand the legal implications of your actions, so that you will be properly guided on future interactions.

If you have not informed Human Resources already, you would have to do same as soon as possible. Whatever liability you incur would affect the Organisation. After all, you are its representative, and acted in your capacity as a person in authority.

(You see why the rule in #3 above is for your protection?)

If in a committed relationship, you may need to bite the bullet, and let your partner in on the imminent false claims at this point. If it is the fall-out of an erstwhile relationship… all the more reason to bite this bullet.

After all, you are already between the Deep Blue Sea and the Deep Blue Sea. Better your partner hears the story from you, than from anyone else.

***

(In Madonna’s voice) Have I said too much?

Ok. Bye.

Meg.




P.s.: You’re welcome.



Photo-Credits:
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4 comments

  1. This Sexual harassment topic is really more complicated than I had assumed. Point 2 will really save a lot of people from unnecessary drama.

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  2. This is absolutely a great eye opener for many. However, not every relationship between a superior and a subordinate has the coloration of one lording it over the other. Some are really genuine, mutual and level-playing and for these ones, they go on for months or even years without anyone knowing - usually, until they are ready to walk the aisle.

    On another note, there are many workplace policies that prohibit marriages between co-workers. And I do understand the business case behind these strict rules. However, these, to me, are a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association. Ditto, laws criminalizing relationship between lecturers and students.

    Sorry I drove attention away from the subject matter - harrassment. On this, I think the gavel should be brought down on employers who fail to provide a safe "work" environment for thier employees. Some jurisdictions have included "emotional" harassment as part of factors that constitute unsafe workplace that employers must ensure they prevent or face severe penalties.

    Thanks for keeping us informed on a matter that is usually swept under the carpet - workplace sexual harassment.

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  3. Leave trail = having receipt.. incase yawa gas.. lol

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