What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the modern office - Macleans.ca

What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the modern office

The creep in the cubicle next door


Justin Sullivan and Jacob Andrzejczak/Getty Images/ Richard Lautens/Toronto Star

Just as 1967 is remembered as the summer of love, 2010 will be the summer of sexual harassment—or at least of sexual harassment claims. The latest in an ongoing parade of allegations led to the resignation of Hewlitt-Packard CEO Mark Hurd earlier this month, after a contract employee who planned VIP events said he’d sexually harassed her.

HP investigated Jodie Fisher’s charge and concluded it “was not supported by the facts.” But Hurd was out in any case, on grounds that he had violated the company’s expense account policies and “misused” corporate assets. The probe also found that he had not reported his “close personal relationship” with Fisher, a former soft-core porn actress, which consituted a conflict of interest.

Of all the accusations lobbed in the workplace these days, sexual harassment remains the most fraught—and attention-grabbing. It also appears to be pandemic. Actor Casey Affleck is fighting accusations from two women who worked for him on a film he directed. In July, Steve McPherson, an executive with ABC, resigned amid an ongoing investigation.

Canada, too, has contributed to the pile-up. In June, a media firestorm erupted over news that the sudden resignation of David Davidar, the high-profile president of Penguin Canada, was linked to sexual harassment claims made public when Lisa Rundle, a former executive, filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the company. Later that month, Stacey Walker, a black 27-year-old medical imaging technologist, came forward about being fired from Toronto Western Hospital after she complained she was sexually harassed and subjected to racial taunts. The capper: a $2.3-million defamation case launched by David Cowling, a senior partner at Toronto law firm Mathews, Dinsdale & Clarke, known for advising employers on workplace issues, including sexual harassment. Two junior female lawyers who have since left the firm reported Cowling engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct at a nightclub after a company function last year.

The notion that we’re returning to the 1960s of Mad Men—even as we continue to be amused by the shenanigans of those anachronistic ad executives on TV—was reinforced by the lurid details that emerged from the recent class-action discrimination suit against the U.S. subsidiary of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. A jury found the company guilty of systemic gender discrimination in pay, promotions and pregnancy policy in connection to more than 5,600 women workers. Female employees testified one manager invited female colleagues to sit on his lap and showed them pornographic pictures; sales reps alleged they were expected to put up with sexual propositions from doctors. Pregnant women were routinely demoted and fired. The company was ordered to pay punitive damages of US$250 million.

So what, exactly, is going on here? It’s now four decades since “sexual harassment” entered the lexicon and companies began instituting policies and confidential tip lines to protect employees from creepy bosses abusing their power—and themselves from litigation and bad publicity. Yet the current spate of accusations and lawsuits reflects a new boiling point. The 1960s identified the issue, and the late 1980s and 1990s ushered in an era of awareness and outrage sparked by high-profile class-action lawsuits against Wall Street firms that revealed that female employees were subjected to chauvinistic behaviour and overtly shut out of the boys’ club. These days, when you’d think we should be beyond it, we’re in sexual harassment’s third wave, an era cloaked in the veneer of enlightenment and tinged with shades of grey.

And, for all of the studies and policies, very little has changed on the ground in 20 years, including the fact women remain the targets, says Susan Vella, a lawyer at Rochon Genova in Toronto. “We all know it’s a bad thing,” she says. But the underlying power dynamic remains the same: “It’s as hard for the woman to make the decision to call her boss out on the carpet as it was 10, 15 years ago,” Vella says. “You fear the same things you feared before: am I going to be believed? If I’m believed, am I going to be any better off? Am I going to have a job? If I’m not believed, I’m for sure not going to have a job. Who’s going to hire me? I’m going to have a reputation as a troublemaker.”

What is obviously different is the institutionalization of sexual harassment policies, which like most HR initiatives, protects the company first. But raised consciousness about this issue is itself used as a shield by those doing the harassing, notes Susan Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done. “A woman who complains is told, ‘Come on, you’re reading this wrong. Of course, I know sexual harassment is bad. I couldn’t possibly be doing anything that offensive by telling you how great your butt looks in that skirt.’ ” It’s the reality of a “post-sexist” society which sanctions boorish behaviour and then expects it to be understood as a joke, Douglas points out. And that can make it even more difficult to speak up.

The realities of the modern workplace complicate the matter. Lines can blur—and excuses can be made—in offices that are more casual than ever before, from dress codes to collegial relationships. Social and professional lives have become so entwined that people talk of their “office husband” or “office wife.” Douglas points to the new dilemma of an employee getting sent a sexually explicit YouTube video by a superior: “Usually they’re funny, too, so you’re supposed to be getting the joke and not pointing out that this contributes to an uncomfortable workplace environment.”

The climate, arguably, can be more insidious than the overt leering come-ons in the steno pool 40 years ago, because it comes with an additional barb: “Oh, don’t take yourself so seriously.” That’s a pattern in several of the recent cases: the woman complained—often about egregious behaviour—only to be told by her superiors or HR that the man was just being friendly, or complimentary, or funny.

It’s what happened to Stacey Walker after she went to work at Toronto Westen Hospital in September 2008. A co-worker assigned to show her the ropes began rubbing her shoulders when they were alone in a dark processing room. “He told me he wished I wasn’t wearing a bra so he could give me a better massage,” Walker told Maclean’s. She fled. When she told co-workers, they warned her not to rock the boat; the man was popular and had been there a long time. Other women said he’d done the same thing and it hadn’t bothered them. “They were like, ‘Loosen up, Stacey; you’re so serious.’ ” Her female supervisor was dismissive, she says: “She told me, ‘He’s a good guy; he’s not like that.’ ”

Calling out a superior is even more difficult for women in high-level positions, says a female publishing executive. “It’s expected you should just be able to handle unwanted overtures—physical, emotional, whatever it is,” she says. “You’re expected to roll with it.” And that was the very recommendation given recently by Slate’s advice columnist to a young female lawyer who complained about male co-workers’ unwanted compliments and obnoxious conversation. It sparked huge backlash online: one blog post titled “Do women in the law need to get thicker skins?” spurred virulent comments, one that suggested that women need to “toughen up.”

The other overriding message women get is that they’re misreading the situation. When Lisa Rundle complained to HR about years of sexual harassment by Davidar—receiving lovesick emails, his lurking outside of her home and kissing her against her will in a hotel room while they were at the Frankfurt Book Fair—he responded she’d misread his “friendliness.” (Davidar’s former assistant also complained to HR and was told the same thing.) The issue came to a head after Rundle received a promotion that required her to be in closer contact with Davidar. She asked for her old job back, but was let go. This isn’t surprising: she was the more dispensible of the two. Only when she went public after she was fired, and no longer had anything to lose, did Davidar get the boot.

In a statement issued through his lawyer, Davidar portrayed his relationship with Rundles as “flirtatious” but “consensual.” He called her his “closest friend and confidante at work” and admitted he kissed her but claimed she had not objected. The matter was settled out of court with a confidentiality agreement that prevents anyone from talking. In July, Rundle was rehired by Penguin.

Bobbi Olsen, a lawyer with Ricketts, Harris LLP, defended Rundle. She believes sexual harassment is what it always has been: “a vexatious course of conduct or behaviour that is known, or ought to be known, to be unacceptable.” In this new climate, asking someone in the office for a date is not, in and of itself, harassment, says Olsen, unless there is a clear power imbalance. A consensual relationship with a colleague is also not harasment, she says—as long as one doesn’t have power over the other. Problems can also begin, Olsen says, in a consensual relationship that ends: “Then the person dumped can possibly claim, with the benefit of hindsight, harassment.”

As the slew of cases this summer attests, sexual harassment policies offer little protection to the complainant. Toronto Western Hospital, for instance, is part of the University Health Network (UHN), which prides itself on its sensitivity to “diversity” and harassment issues. Yet the institution garnered headlines in the last decade after two female medical researchers claimed they were sexually harassed by male doctors. In 2004, the Toronto Star quoted a staffer at the University of Toronto graduate students’ union saying complaints from students working at UHN were routine but “a lot of people just suck it up or leave the program.”

In fact, shortly after Walker started, she attended a sexual harassment awareness seminar under UHN’s “Fostering Respect in the Workplace” intiative. Yet when she met with the senior manager of HR she was brushed off, she says, and told to take an “assertiveness training course.” After that, her life at work became “hell,” Walker says. She was snubbed and the target of vicious rumours. Co-workers uttered racist taunts, calling her “Shaniqua” and “LaToya.” She filed a formal complaint in January 2010 after the colleague who touched her was looking at a photo taken at the office Christmas party. He referred to her breasts as “ninjas” and asked: “How are you able to conceal them in your scrubs?”

At that point all the right steps were taken: a wide-ranging investigation resulted in a 45-page report that confirmed Walker’s allegations, concluded the workplace was “very poisoned” for her, and that the hospital had made no attempt to fix the situation. It revealed a big machine with broken parts: the senior manager of HR had thrown out her notes from her meeting with Walker and failed to pass the complaint to “workplace diversity” for investigation. And yet Walker was let go in June, a month after the report came out. She was denied her request for a transfer to another location, on grounds she didn’t have the qualifications, and was given three months’ severance.

That would have been the end of it, had Walker not taken her story to the Toronto Star. UHN president and CEO Robert Bell told the paper he could not comment on a “confidential” complaint (Bell was unavailable for comment for this story), but in a message to employees, Bell wrote, “We need to work with this area to re-establish a formal, collegial and respectful work environment for all of the staff.”
Yet the system chugs along: as at Penguin, no other employees have lost their jobs. Walker is skeptical change will come. “The hospital had all these procedures and policies on paper but you dare not use them,” she says. “You’ll be seen as an instigator and troublemaker.” She’s looking for another job, worried about her employability.

She’s also considering legal action. It’s an expensive last resort, but, as Rundle’s example attests, a way to be heard when there isn’t another. Katherine Kimpel, a Washington-based lawyer who represented the female employees at Novartis, agrees. She calls the Novartis victory “part of the cultural narrative to empower women to feel that they have the right to stand up.”

Vella says change must come from the top. “It requires better messaging from the bosses who have the power—and who are sometimes the culprits in these cases.” Law offices are not exempt, notes Vella, who says she has seen senior women take on the role of enforcers: “I know of situations in which women partners in a law firm get together once they get wind of bad behaviour,” she says. “They descend on him and close the door and say: ‘Hey buddy, you think this is fun. It’s not. Stop it.’ That’s often the best we can do.” In the absence of such vigilante justice, other women are finally figuring out they’re on their own.


What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the modern office

  1. This is a battle that will have to be fought for years….until we learn to raise our children differently, and eliminate these cultural problems.

    Until then there is only the Lisbeth Salander solution.

    • yeah…she got raped…but i like your way of thinking. actions speak louder than…another article about nothing.

      • And what did she do about it?

        • rape is a bit different from an uncomfortable remark (harassment) so her solution might be a bit over the top. but like i said, i like your way of thinking. the more women take responsibility for themselves, the better off they are. too bad macleans doesnt focus on writing a bunch of articles about women who are comfortable with taking responsibility for their lives. it would be way more interesting but maybe less "news worthy".

          • Articles like this bother men. Feel-good stories about women are preferred. What does that tell you?

          • i tells me that the articles are boring. any woman i know, including my wife, sister, girl cousins, cousin's wives is completely capable of taking care of herself and yet the media keeps running articles about victimhood (mind you, they get the most comments on those articles). as a woman, you must get tired of hearing all of the talk as well.

            are you sure youre not lisbeth salander? you seem to be a bit of a…not a man-hater…but a man-beater.

          • No, we don't find these articles boring. We've all gone through harassment, some more than others.

            I see the idea of Salander bothers you.

            Did you know the original title of the book was 'The men who hate women?'

            There's quite a crowd of them

          • no, the idea of salander doesnt bother me at all. i would hope that any of the women in my circle of family and friends would be inclined to follow her example if they were in the same circumstance.

            but im pretty sure that lisbeth would find the articles boring. she wasnt a very good victim. she was completely capable of taking care of herself, as alone as she was.

            if you dont find the articles boring…the continued view of victimhood…then im sure macleans will continue to write them.

          • It's not about victimhood….it's about winning.

          • boring articles about being a victim are not about winning.

          • joe..give it up

          • im so bored after discussing this with you, i think im going to end my time in this world. good luck with your…

          • Well since you've wasted all your posts telling me what I should and shouldn't like, and insisting an article about winning is about victimhood….and done yourself exactly what the men in the article do….it's nice to know you're moving on.

  2. Oh, I don't for one minute believe that this issue will ever be resolved in the workplace.

    Offices are hotbeds of awful behaviour. Just awful.

    I feel so judgy, but how does a female employee end up in a hotel room with her superior, who kisses her (he says she didn't complain; she says it's against her will) — how, why did you end up there?

    And why do men perennially believe that a woman's smile or friendliness means she wants to sleep with him?

    Forget work is work — office politics will never end, including sexual harassment and unfair promotions and firings; do what I did — hone your skills and start a business where YOU are the boss, and nobody messes with your space.

    • except if you're a man and you hire a woman. then you have to deal with it all over again. i had that choice to make. after leaving the company i was working for, i started my own company. it was a male-dominated industry with some physical work etc. but i hired women who worked alongside the guys. most were fine but one wasnt. she didnt last long. the rest stayed on much longer and were some of my best employees. the difference was that she took herself very seriously whereas the others, who were as intelligent, and valuable, didnt have the same issues. they seemed to deal with things more maturely whereas she was a bit of a prima donna…a diva and she wasted my time and money by hiring her.

  3. What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the state of media:

    I can guarantee you this article would not have been written if famous people weren't the ones committing sexual harassment.

  4. It's 2010. People who commit sexual harassment need to be locked up.

    • yeah…because theres none of that in prison. they'll all come out much more psychologically healthy after that.

  5. UHN is notorious for treating their workforce like garbage. Yet year after year their voted one of Canada's top 100 employers.

  6. Someone making innapropriate comments or gestures is absolutely not demonstrating the proper level of professionalism required in the workplace, or the respect they should have for their co-workers. Harrassment is overtly sexist, and anyone saying that a woman needs to 'lighten up' doesn't know what it's like to feel devalued and reduced to a sexual fixture. I should lighten up? No, you should learn how to treat me with the dignity and respect I deserve as a fellow human being, and not reduce to me to T&A.

    • I agree 100%. Great post!

    • i agree about treating with dignity and respect but there are women who are prone to over-react, whether its for the attention or a misinterpreted signal or response. i worked with a woman who seemed to be a chronic liar and loved the attention she got when she could cry that she had been harassed. no one called her on it so every once in a while, she would cry foul about one guy or the next. funny thing is, i could have called her on her sexual harassment of me but who would have listened? and besides, i didnt let her "devalue me and reduce me to a sexual fixture." you just do your job, knowing that you are responsible for your words and actions, and your psychological health.

  7. As a male who's only know the post-60's feminist movement era, I pine for a return to the good ol days where I could be a man and not be sued for it. We're just men being men; deal with it.

    • 'Being a man' doesn't equal justification to indulge your primal urges at the expense of somebody else, and particularly in the professional work environment. Trust me…women find grace much more attractive anyway. Find a girlfriend who appreciates whatever you feel your manly schtick may be.

    • I also pine for the good ol' days where a man could be a man….and then a stronger, more capable man could come along and violently club him into submission. Then that more capable man will urinate all over that beaten man's things in a primal exchange of ownership. Then that beaten man will serve the more capable man; or even worse, be forced into isolation as that "weaker" man.

      "Manliness" has its place until you realise how much sacrifice you need to make to maintain it. You're entitled to your desire but understand that mysogyny creates victims of even its greatest subjects.

      • gee, you've just described a version of the business world. maybe thats why men are slow to understand all of this. they are so used to your above mentioned scenario that they dont give it much thought when it happens to them whereas women tend to react very quickly to the unfairness of it all. women are more likely to feel like they were "devalued and reduced to a sexual fixture" as samantha pointed out earlier. guys shrug and carry on.

    • This is the cultural overlay of 'boys will be boys'.

      And while you get to do anything you want, other people are just supposed to put up with it.

      I'm afraid those days are gone for good.

  8. Agreed, we're just who we are. You can't legislate out the fact that men innately objectify women as a means of determining the best offspring. While our priority is of course our job, the reason we work is to create and support a family. So ultimately, we're always looking for that female; and work, just like anywhere else, is a place where we are in contact with women.

    If you want to ban men being attracted to women, separate the sexes and never let them meet.

    You cannot legislate the man out of men. Feminism is getting it's retaliation in the form of masculinism.

  9. So, we're all mammals with hormones; and that's not news. What would be news is listening to our ever better developed minds and choosing discernment and making wise choices. The thing that sets us apart from other species should actually BE the thing that sets us apart.

  10. So some men are letting their sexual urges rather than their brains dictate their behaviour in the workplace? No kidding.

    Could this, just perhaps, have something to do with the widely popular notion that it's unnecessary and unhealthy to repress sexual urges based on the dictates of reason?

    • Or could it simply, just perhaps, have something to do with thinking with the wrong head?

      • perhaps thinking "with the wrong head" is a result of the repressed sexual urges that gaunilon mentioned. if there were no repressed urges, there would be no reason to think "with the wrong head." maybe becoming less repressed would allow us (when i say us, i mean men and women) to use our "developed minds" more often, as you mentioned above.

    • repressing anything isnt healthy. balance and "expression" are. so balancing sexual urges against the use of your brain will make you a happier worker and person. too bad that people seem to be "expressing" sexual urges in the workplace in a fashion that leaves others uncomfortable.

    • i suppose the act of repressing sexual urges in the rest of a person's life may trigger a less than healthy response when it finds an outlet ie. work environment. sort of like a kid in a candy store when his parents aren't looking.

    • Normally I'm a big fan of your posts – but certainly not in this case. EVERYTHING we do in a civil and civilized society represses our more extreme urges. Whether I want to sleep with my coworker, take his/her new car on a joyride or just help myself to the cash in the wallet sitting on their desk: if they're not interested then it is not only necessary but healthy for me to "repress" those urges.

      • i should have clarified. "healthy" sexual urges shouldnt be repressed or they tend to come out as something unhealthy.

        just like a kid who gets no attention at home acts out in school.

        • No problem. My response was to Gaunilon, but applies to your post as well.

          As to what you wrote: your example refers, possibly, more to abuse or coercive persuasion than 'repression" per se, which speaks more to the influences on a person from their environment than to any repression from within themselves.

          Matter of fact, much of the coercive persuasion type of abuse (which could easily include the kid who gets no attention at home) sets the person up to act out, making it difficult to "repress" what they would be much healthier "repressing".

      • Oops. Mea culpa to Gaunilon – I misread his post.. Turns out I was more or less agreeing with him.

        For the record, I think this has more to do with conducting oneself appropriately in the workplace than it has to do with repression of sexual urges. Most people make the mistake of equating flirtation with harassment when they are, in fact, mutually exclusive. The former, if it is mutual and done discreetly and respectfully, requires little repression of sexual urges and rarely is harmful. The latter has nothing to do with respect, and has no place in any work environment.

        • ok. i think i get what you're saying regarding coercive persuasion. Is "thinking with the wrong head" as mary mentioned an example of cultural coercive persuasion, brought on by cultural expectations and exaggerations? and if workplace harassment is so prevalent, as it seems to be, then how do we, as a culture, clarify the difference between flirtation in the workplace (which will continue to occur) and harassment, which like you said, has no place in any work environment? neither men nor women appear to have any idea how to define the boundary between the two.

  11. Back when I was a young, and a 'reportedly' attractive woman, I had a boss who told me, in a performance review that "I would sell more if I learned to unbutton my blouse and wear shorter skirts". He was a complete pig, and this was just typical of his attitude towards me. I was happily married, and wore conservative clothing to work, so I was IN NO WAY "asking for it", so even the most blatantly sexist man couldn't use that as an excuse. cont….

    • "I would sell more if I learned to unbutton my blouse and wear shorter skirts"

      Hate to break it to you but he's right. Work is a business. It's about results. If he said "you would sell more if you learned to wear gloves and wear pants that don't show your figure" he would be blatantly lying.

      Look, you might not like this truth but it's simply the truth. Is it politically incorrect? Damn right it is but that doesn't change the fact it's true.

    • I hope that in turn you told him he, too would sell more if he wore pants tighter around the crotch, and unbuttoned his shirt lower AFTER he had his chest waxed?

      • Probably not actually, since any male customer would cringe. What's the problem with the fact that men view women as sexual objects more than women view men in such a way? It's just how we are, of course we are going to be more likely to buy from a woman with her breasts in our face. It's just how we are. Why is it so hard for women to accept that men are on top and are meant to be on top?

        • Women customers also cringe at T & A in a professional setting.

      • ya…no…that wouldnt have worked…definitely not. funny that it doesnt but it doesnt.

        • It doesn't work when you're a woman and it's said to you, either.

          • we're talking about selling, not talking. women can sell more if they have the confidence to wear lower cut tops and shorter skirts. its an instinctive reaction from guys, sometimes embarrassingly so. it doesnt necessarily mean that a customer is harassing her or even overtly aware of her dress but she will sell more. it has happened to me. i have become much more talkative and interactive without even being aware of it until after. like i said…not even aware. throw a pretty girl into a room full of guys and watch the dynamics change. they all become the funniest guys ever.

            but her boss telling her to do so when she obviously isnt comfortable dressing that way wont get her any more sales because she wouldn't show confidence in herself. so in the end, he's still an idiot.

          • What, exactly then, is she selling? I am well acquainted with a top female sales executive who doesn't show cleavage, wears appropriate length skirts or pants, and has outsold all her colleagues by 200%, male and female, at every company who's had the good fortune to have her work for them. It has nothing to do with her apparel. She's sincere, friendly, intelligent, and keeps her eye on the ball. She ascertains the clients need, and never tries to sell them more, or less than they need. She gets motherloads of repeat business because they know they can trust her, and she deserves that trust. She's had more great men ask her out than anyone I know.

            The appearance you describe might sell more beer or garner a larger tip. I guess it depends what you're selling, and the level of professionalism expected in those circles.

          • the reality that i have observed, having worked in a corporate environment for twenty years, and having observed human behaviour for longer, is that there can be pros and cons for a woman in the way they dress in a business atmosphere. ive seen them sell more and ive seen them suffer because of it. As Guest mentioned in her post below…"Normal" people want to make the object of their attraction feel better, not harm and humiliate them and make them suffer…so i guess it is that simple. like you said, just like a woman selling beer or looking for a big tip, a woman selling to a "normal" person will likely sell more because he wants her to feel better.

            is it a necessity? no. as your friend mentioned above has proven.

            and you made a great point above when you mention trust. that, to me, is the core of everything being discussed. i guess confidence is trusting yourself. that is the strongest defence against sexual harassment or any other bullying behaviour.

    • i hope you're not saying that women who don't wear conservative clothing are asking for sexual harassment. that would be a really unfortunate attitude for you to have.

  12. part 2 … This boss' own wife told him that evening that he'd better apologize to me, before I took him to court for harassment, so he called me into his office the next day and told me that he "hoped I hadn't misinterpreted his comments….". Eventually, I left that job because he was just such an insufferable jerk. The world has moved on, and nowadays, I would have sued him, and been compensated for the anxiety that dodging his constant approaches caused me. I have no problem with sexual jokes and inuendo in an office "pal" kind of manner, and I wouldn't have found those offensive, but being personally targeted by unwanted attention by someone with the power to fire me, and feeling that my job was on the line if I complained, caused me no end of stress, not to mention strain in my marriage, as my husband wanted me to tell the boss to take the job and shove it where the sun don't shine!!!!!

    • funny that your husband didnt have a talk with the boss as it really isnt about work at that point and is more of a personal matter.

    • i know that if my wife were being harassed at work and she wasnt comfortable dealing with the harasser in a low key manner or a public confrontation, i would be comfortable stepping in to assist her. after all, it would be our personal relationship that was being threatened. nothing physical is needed. just a talk about trust and respect.

      i doubt that your husband felt as strongly about your harassment as you did. otherwise, he would have likely done the same.

    • Accepting the sexual jokes and innuendo in the office "pal" manner likely leads to the more overt harassment. And you could sue, but most never win and instead become the focus of the investigation — well, you DID laugh at his off colour jokes, and one time you DID seem to have a push-up bra on, and you DID answer his joke with a joke, and that was suggestive of you.

      It's a bad deal. Young women, who are societally encouraged to showcase their assets, end up crying because they don't get promoted, or they get hit on — but on the other hand, as some of the men here are explaining, that backless blouse you wore, with the frilly little pink bra showing in the back — well, that turned them on, and made them think of sex while looking at you — and you're the one who thought it was a good idea to wear it to work.

      Don't dress sexy. Don't talk sexy. Aim for an a-sexual professionalism. And when that doesn't work, start a business and stay out of the jungle (sorry, I couldn't handle it).

      • thats a weak view of things patchouli. you're one step away from saying women should be in burkhas and should stay at home.

        there is always sexual attraction and distraction when you put the two sexes together, whether a woman "showcases her assets" or not. its more about being able to deal with things as they happen. dealing with improper behaviour is more powerful than running away. i hope you're not teaching your daughters this attitude.

        • If you think don't talk and dress sexy at work is the equivalent of recommending burkas, you are the problem personified.

          And that's exactly what I've taught my daughter. And my son too.

          • what my wife and i have taught my daughter is be a strong person and if she has any problems with anyone, handle it. she has done well so far.

            who's daughter will make CEO first, yours or mine? who's will live a life free of fear and misguided victimhood, yours or mine?

            i can guarantee you that i am not the problem personified.

          • You are all over this blog.

            I don't necessarily see becoming CEO the penultimate sign of success, but so far, my daughter has traveled, moved worked, taken education and lived all over the world — she is a much stronger person than I am. Currently finishing college in Oz. Travels and lives by herself most of the time; has friends from all over the world; has held surprisingly good jobs on three continents.

            I don't think you can teach strength; some people got it and some don't. You can model, I suppose.

            I wish your daughter all the best.

  13. Sexual attraction has nothing whatsoever to do with it; an ethical person would never use their attraction to another person to threaten them. We obscure the issue when we concentrate on sexual harassment &/or gender. And I'm saying this as someone who used to run a sexual harassment support group.

    Sexual harassment, racism, sexism, misogyny, misandry, xenophobia, mobbing etc… in the workplace are just various faces of 'bad behaviour', lack of professionalism, &/or bullying. It almost always involves one or more people willing to engage in manipulative behaviour targeted toward a perceived vulnerable victim. And we shouldn't forget that the manipulator can sometimes be the perceived "victim". Most importantly, it requires a workplace environment which is overly tolerant or encouraging of aggressive unprofessional behaviour.

    What we need to keep in mind is that a bully or predator will use whatever 'tool' is available and stands to be most effective against a potential victim. The victim may be sexually attractive, fat, socially awkward, the "out" race or culture, etc… The bully will pick the quality where s/he feels you're most vulnerable.

    • In your experience, if a person isn't vulnerable, will the behaviour continue or does it disappear or just get re-directed to the next person?

      • If a person has been picked to be harassed it is because they are vulnerable in some way (and that may include nothing more than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time). If you're interested, I'd suggest taking a self-defence course – perhaps one specifically for women. They will teach you that predators search for – – and execute small situational 'tests' to identify – good victims. They will generally pass over someone who isn't an easy target for someone who will be less trouble.

        FYI – here is an excellent article on victim selection: http://www.protectivestrategies.com/victim-select

        • If you've already been targeted, making yourself less of a target may help if it hasn't progressed too far, but odds are you'll need to use another strategy. There are some good websites on "Bullying". You're best to take a longer term view of this – you'd be best to consider to leave or transfer before your reputation takes too much of a hit, and then make it "legal" after you've safely moved on. FYI – most of the "advice" you'll get re: taking notes, reporting to HR, etc… only helps prepare you for 'battle' – generally the HR &/or legal battle you'll likely lose.

        • Two more resources for you:
          1) If the behaviour isn't that bad I'd suggest reading "The No A**hole Rule" by Harvard Business Press (B. Sutton I believe). There is a great chapter there on survival strategies.
          2) If the behaviour is serious (particularly if it's very subtle and insidious) I'd suggest reading "Snakes in Suits" by P. Babiak and R. Hare.

    • not sure what you're saying here. first, you say sexual attraction has nothing to do with it. but then you say it does. if that is the "quality" that they pick as a vulnerability, then it still has something to do with it.

      but i get what you're saying.

      dont be a victim.

      • Well, yes and no. You're right to say "Don't be a victim", and I think it's everyone's responsibility to defend themselves to the best of their ability. But that isn't always possible. Everyone in life goes through times of adversity that will make you vulnerable and therefore a possible target: death of loved ones, serious illness, divorce, etc…

        In my opinion, it's the workplace environment that coddles and encourages aggressive or abusive people that is important here. Most bullies can't get away with bad behaviour for very long in a truly professional environment.

        And yes, sexual attraction has nothing to do with it – except for those people for whom sexual attraction equates to wanting to hurt or destroy the object of their attraction. But this has nothing to do with sexual attraction itself. "Normal" people want to make the object of their attraction feel better, not harm and humiliate them and make them suffer.

        • As I said, I think it's everyone's personal responsibility to learn how to defend themselves. Unfortunately, we here in Canada (at least in the middle and lower classes) are socialized to be "tolerant" and "nice" to a ridiculous and dangerous degree. Ask most immigrants what THEY think of being that tolerant. They'll most likely have a good laugh.

          • good advice and a clear perspective. thanks for your posts.

  14. It's not really about "sex" at all. It's about abuse of power. Women will have a hard time fighting sexism in the workplace, and will be pushed from the Boardroom to the Bedroom by creeps as long as they remain in subservient roles in the company and, more importantly, out of the decision-making jobs. If what happened to Hillary Clinton, of all women(!), during the Democratic Party's infamous campaign is indicative, women with no power will always be "fair game" by these predators who know damn well they control the strings of power. Unless more women decide that politics is not a bad option for them and super-fem gay fashionistas drop their super-sexualization of their girly-models, hell, don't expect too much to change!
    It's a jungle out there and the only way to win over the beasts is to own the zoo!

    • Interesting perspective Memi. I agree with you, but from a male point of view. I am a registered nurse and therefore work with predominantly; women. I have worked in many other jobs, including a stint in the oilpatch and have discovered that in groups women are every bit as qualified, and in some instances even better qualified to be called "creeps" as men are. I am always prepared to "deflect" inuendos and sexually explicit jokes in the hopes of not creating a scene, but why should I have to? I am happily married family man with kids and have no interest in anything but a professional working relationship with any of my co-workers. Sexual harassment goes both ways. It is not just men who harass and it is not fun being the victim of this for either gender.
      Owning the zoo? Maybe get rid of the offending animals and make the zoo safer for all the others?

  15. I should say here that I worked in an office where a female director had a visible affair with her employee, a younger married man with a child.

    Was he harrassed? His marriage broke up; she left the province. Do you feel the same when it's woman harassing man? Or do you see it that way at all?

    It was a bad office; the male ED ended up being let go for several counts of sexual harassment, including one layed by the woman director who had the affair with her subordinate.

    Offices are awful.

  16. The problem with sexual harrassment is that it is often open to interpretation by the "victim". An offer of drinks after work is not considered sexual harrassment is the women is interested.

    The best solution is don't hire women and don't talk to women at work. They're trouble!

    • WOW- YOU'RE A PIG! I'd like to suggest that with your nasty sexist views that you also never marry a woman or have children. DO THE WORLD SOME GOOD AND STAY AWAY FROM ALL OF US.

    • Yeah, that's just silly. Hiring women and talking to women isn't. the problem. Sexual harassment of them is, and knowing or learning the simple difference isn't rocket science to the average person.

    • I'm glad you are only speaking for yourself! Perhaps you need a narrower brush?

  17. It is not just sexual harrassment, bullying and harrassment in the workplace is just as insidious. From what I experienced, there is no difference between sexual harrassment and other harrassment and bullying. I would like laws introduced that would make bullying and any king of harrassment a criminal offence.

    Others and myself have been recipients of workplace bullying and harassment in my Calgary Workplace, last year. I desperately tried to intervene from the inside using company resources but with no success. It seems the 'Tone' set at the top condones this behaviour in the workplace.

    I was bullied and harrassed by both a manager (insecure woman)and a senior manager (man who was intimate with her) until they forced me out of my job. These people suffer from mental illness and get their jollies from picking on others.

    • I absolutely agree with you Judy – ANY type of harassment at work, be it sexual, racial or bullying is completely unacceptable. I worked for several years for a fellow who was an abusive bully – Guess I should have questioned why 5 people had run screaming from my job in 3.5 years before I accepted the position!!!! In my case too, using in-house resources didn't solve the problem; I was put on sick leave by my physician for 6 months before any notice was taken. Even then, he was not dealt with appropriately and only lost his job 2 years later for something completely unrelated.

      Harrassment and bullying take a horrible toll on the recipient. I have always been a very strong, self-sufficient woman, more than capable of dealing with idiots. However, when that idiocy crosses into complete abuse, you often end up feeling helpless which compounds the initial problem. These creeps that indulge in harrassment and abuse know exactly how the game is played best, and seem to have their defences and excuses primed.


  19. Well, it certainly has been an interesting experience for me this last few days. My objective was to provoke a certain level of response while presenting myself as a man to this blog. I appreciate everyone's posts, especially those who responded directly to my comments. The experience has been insightful to "try on" a man's persona as we discussed the issues in the article. I especially wanted to come across as a blue collar man. That's why I chose "Joe" as my handle and refused to capitalize. When I needed to, I also posted as "susan from red deer".

    The most surprising result of all this effort (and it was far more effort than I first thought it would be) was the unequivocal bias against men. There is obviously some validity to this response, as predicated by some of the male comments but it seemed to me there was no differentiation between the reaction to outright chauvinism and an attempt to find uncommon common sense. No matter if I agreed with the post or not, the response was negative towards my comments. If I did not buy into the "victimness" of the comments, I was immediately vilified or as one commenter said, I was "the problem personified". If you care to, review the posts and I think you will agree.

    As an aside, I have a girlfriend who has suffered the same type of exclusion. She refuses to buy into the "victimness" of her friends (including me I have to admit) and she has been deemed a "bad" girlfriend (not by me). She helped to prep me for this project, just as my parents and my boyfriend did.

    Although I understand women's almost instinctual response to sexual harassment (I have been harassed in the past), I would like to make women aware that the same response should not be extended to men. It is counter-productive for US to see ourselves as victims. If we do so, then we will continue to be seen as such. I hope that if I have a daughter someday, I hope to teach her that there is no future in being a victim, and I hope that she will not be alone in her view of the world.

    Good luck to all.

  20. Women need to stand up for themselves and learn to speak calmly and carefully to the man who is offending them. They can memorize a sentence – Your touching me, kissing me joking with me is making me uncomfortable. Please do not do that anymore as I find it makes my work day upsetting, which means I am not adding to our company's bottom line when you are doing this xyz behaviour. Then make a report of 2 lines to HR and cc the man on the email.
    Also, dress to reflect the males in your work environment. If I am staring at your shirt, seeing your nipples outlined or cleavage, I am sure men at the board room table are too. There is very little sense of what modesty used to be in the 70's.
    Be consistent. If Tom Cruise squeezed your shoulders, be sure to tell him too in calm and clear terms that this is not appropriate for you in the work place.
    I had a senior woman tell me hw she is always sexually treated and I told her I never was but I do know men find me attractive. What is the difference? I put work first and I would not be in hotel room with a man. Well done to those women bringing suit. Affleck must be surprised.

  21. "What a season of sexual harassment suits says about the modern office" is that we've moved back to a preferred management 'style' where hypercompetitiveness and aggression is valued over collaboration and ethics, combined with sexual harassment being the preferred victim compensation "flavour of the day".

    As I mentioned in an earlier post, sexual harassment is always only one facet of a larger pattern of abuse, which requires an 'abuse tolerant' and 'corruption friendly' environment to exist. An excellent illustration of this can be found in the following article re: the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Note that the article, about $$ paid out to sexual harassment complaints, is followed by many comments pointing out a larger environment of corruption. http://www.philly.com/philly/news/homepage/201008

  22. Office predators might do well to reflect on how they would feel if their wives and daughters were subjected to the same exploitative practices he avails himself of…because they probably are.