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Dear Workforce How Do We Curb Sexual Harassment Against Men?

September 7, 2011

Dear Anonymous:

The times, they are a-changin'.

It wasn't that long ago that women suffering in the "old boys' network" had limited recourse to pursue claims of harassment and hostile work environment. However, during the transition to today's zero-tolerance environment, it hasn't been easy for men who suffer from the same kind of abuse that women endured for so long.

Research indicates that nearly 20 percent of claims of harassment or hostile work environments are made by men, alleging harassment from both men and women. As women take on more powerful roles in organizations, and as gender- and sexual orientation-based discrimination lessens, "male bashing" is more prevalent. But cultural taboos often inhibit men from taking action, fearing they will be negatively labeled and bring even more trouble on themselves.

So what's a man to do?

Before taking action, it is important to know that the law is on the side of the harassed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is indeed filing suits against organizations on behalf of men who allege harassment and have not been able to find relief within their organizations.

It's also important to know whether the organization's policies and standards will help. It's often better to resolve the issue internally before resorting to legal action. Many organizations still have slim codes of conduct that don't address harassment or respect. They also may not have detailed policies outlining expected behavior. However, if the organization's code of conduct addresses respect issues broadly, these may influence how a victimized person responds.

People who feel victimized also must make pragmatic assessments of the downside risks of raising the issue. Taking action will certainly create new tensions in the workplace. It's hard to say whether the end result will be vindication, or a hard-fought victory that makes it intolerable to continue working for this company (which may in fact be a good thing).

You say you are unable to broach this topic either your boss or HR director. So what's the next step? You can escalate the issue. There are several options, each not necessarily mutually exclusive of the others. Nor is one option necessarily better than the others.

The first choice might be to go up the chain as far as is necessary. If the HR director isn't taking action, go to the CEO. Harassment isn't a matter of whining or complaining. It not only affects the productivity of the harassed individual, but also creates a cloud that hovers above the whole organization. Left unresolved, it can bleed over and affect customers and the public. Senior leaders need to be aware of the business risks of failing to take action.

State your case in a calm, professional manner. Obviously, this is a very serious issue with the potential for an adverse impact on your company's culture. The issue should be brought to the attention of the highest level of management in the organization.

If going up the chain fails to resolve the issue, it may be time to take action that will compel an investigation. If the company is public, it is likely to have an anonymous reporting process, either through a help line or through contacting the audit committee. In this compliance-oriented environment, raising this issue as an ethics or compliance issue should warrant a serious investigation. If the company is private, the best way to start an internal investigation is to contact the company's legal counsel, whether internal or external.

SOURCE: David Gebler, president, Working Values Ltd., Sharon, Massachusetts, September 20, 2007

LEARN MORE: Workforce Management's archive includes articles and other material on HR's role in curbing harassment in the workplace.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion. Also remember that state laws may differ from the federal law.

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