How to Deal with Harassment at the Workplace

This is an ugly topic, one that’s too hot to touch, or perhaps better off shoved under the furniture where it won’t bother anyone. Problem is, even if you bury it somewhere in the back of your mind, it will come back in the future. For a friend of mine, a harassment at the workplace incident came back to haunt her years later.

Incidents like these are not clear cut. It’s not like a diagram in which you can draw an arrow and label the bad guy and the good guy. Nor can you pinpoint the moment when the incident caused the damage. It’s not like identifying precisely when a sharp object cut your skin.

Her co-worker didn’t even have malicious intent. He thought he was trying to set a good example among the employees. What he didn’t take into consideration was my friend’s past experiences and how they would affect her perception of what happened that day.

That day, she was a new hire meeting the team for the first time. When the day ended, everyone started to say goodbye. The standard practice at the company was to hug each other goodbye, and the team promoted a family type of atmosphere.

That Awkward Moment You Don’t Forget

To her surprise, however, she was being judged on her technique. Her supervisor’s boss felt her goodbye hug was not satisfactory, and he told her his opinion in front of her coworkers. He said she had that loose armed type of hug that kept the other person at a distance. Then he took her aside for a talk on the first landing of the stairs.

He accused her of having low self esteem and poor attitude. A proper hug was a bear hug, because that showed a positive and friendly attitude to her coworkers, whether male or female. He spoke loudly, and other co-workers had to pass them and could hear whatever they were saying.

To her, this was harassment at the workplace. But perhaps he had a different idea about what he considered as workplace harassment. To him, a big hug showed that you towed the company motto that you were all family, and you hugged co-workers like they were family.

It was a horrible feeling to stand there and be lectured while people she knew passed by. It was also humiliating when he didn’t like her first hug and he had told her to redo the hug. He had demonstrated the “correct way” by hugging her again in a chummy, big brotherly way before taking her aside for a talk.

As the supervisor’s boss spoke, she weighed her options in her head. It was a startup company, so there was no HR department to take grievances to. Even if there was an HR department, she didn’t want to complain and be fired. After all, she was a new hire still on probation.

Live in the Present but Remember Your Past

Maybe the boss thought he was trying to encourage her to be more co-worker friendly, but as a man, he was also oblivious. That one incident triggered her memories of men in the past who used hugging for a power play. For example, the friend who wanted a girlfriend and when she turned him down, he insisted on a friendly, body slamming bear hug. Or the date who insisted on a big, smothering hug when he realized the first date had gone badly and she hadn’t liked him but he was crazy about her.

Had she been free to choose, she would have ended the first date with just a goodbye. At most, she would have offered a cool, formal hug. Things were awkward with her friend when he confessed his feelings for her. She felt sicker inside when she realized he mistakenly thought she was half his age – and he liked that even more.

When the boss’s boss insisted on that hug, her old memories rushed back, of men who exerted control in a physical way and disguised it as social etiquette. Sure, the boss was trying to promote treating your co-workers as your brothers and sisters.  However, people are not a blank slate.

They come with a past. In my friend’s case, a “talk” to promote a positive attitude at work felt like workplace harassment. It brought back memories of those men who didn’t take rejection well and wanted a goodbye gesture that made her uncomfortable.

She hadn’t spoken her true thoughts out loud. She accepted her boss’s lecture in silence. She was always accepting things when she should have spoken her mind. Those men had made her uncomfortable and tried to make it okay to invite themselves into her personal space.

It’s not like she’s a cold fish. She will bear hug a close male friend or relative because she feels they have earned her trust to be in that personal space. For male co-workers, it was the same. They needed to earn her trust first.

Bottom Line

The lesson she shares now, is speak your mind. Keeping a job is not worth the silence. One person’s comfort level is not the standard for everyone’s comfort level. If you’re not a “hugger” it doesn’t mean you have self esteem issues, and no co-worker can force you to change those types of values. Speak your mind, she says, because that’s what truly strengthens your self worth.

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