Breaking Silence on Workplace Harassment
Published on •By Joey Davis
Silence will not protect us from the words and actions of others. That's what a professional said when I inquired how to deal with victim-blaming I've experienced several years after standing up against harassment. According to multiple sources, it was being said that I "threatened the livelihood" of another person unnecessarily, purportedly because I didn't want to work with them for no particular, or good, reason.
As a white male working in information technology, it probably seems unlikely that I would be harassed in any way. As a gay man, it might seem slightly more reasonable, but what would sexual orientation have to do with the workplace? After all, I work in IT, not the sex industry... and even there, harassment based on sexual orientation is inappropriate; just as it is in every other setting.
Shortly after graduating college and entering the workforce, I was the unfortunate recipient of harassment from two coworkers for an extended period of time. The harassment crept in slowly under the guise of friendship. Naivety regarding grooming tactics and harassment made it difficult to recognize and speak about my own experience. Too often, we allow ourselves to be silenced; we don't say what needs to be said.
I always thought the harassment training workplaces provided was blatantly obvious. Of course, that's harassment, I'd think. That said, it would be ignorant for me to assume everyone was raised with the same ideas, beliefs, or integrity that taught me to lead my life with kindness and humility. Undoubtedly the training served its purpose. One time, I came across the first LGBTQ+ example I'd encountered in any standard annual harassment training and it gave me pause because it was something I had personally experienced.
The particular scenario in the training involved a gay man being harassed by a coworker. The victimizer would regularly and consistently badger the man about his orientation and conformance to particular stereotypes, such as if he'd be wearing a dress anytime soon. It seems simple and harmless, right? It must all be good fun and well-intentioned.
Harassment is never fun for the victim and it's certainly not well-intentioned. The example aligned directly with statements that had been made to me in the past within a professional setting. Not only that, but it was the most watered-down example of harassment experiences that I had been a victim of.
Here are instances of LGBTQ+ harassment I'd experienced:
A coworker greeting me on multiple occasions with questions like "no dress today?" Then badgering me on why I wasn't wearing one, even though I never had. They were playing off a stereotype.
A coworker consistently referring to, and misgendering, me as their "workplace wife."
When going to lunch with 2 particular individuals, I would be subjected to, and the topic of, lewd locker room talk during the lunch hour and in the parking lot when leaving for the day.
Naming and asking what parts of a woman or man I'm attracted to.
Remarking on different sexual acts or positions and attempting to measure my response.
What was my sexual orientation? Over and over.
Did I have a woman or a man sitting on the kitchen counter at home, naked, waiting for me when I got off work?
One of my harassers followed me home after they'd berated me as to why I hadn't invited them over to my house or talked about where I lived. After all, they had invited me over to their home for game nights on prior occasions.
At a party hosted by a coworker, whom I had become friends with, another coworker made harassing remarks throughout the day about sexual orientation and masculine/feminine qualities. I expressed my distaste at the remarks earlier in the day, only to be told not to ruin the day in the name of "teasing." Towards the end of the day, the individual became angered and attempted to punch me, shouting "I'll f*cking kill you." Thankfully, he was held back by another individual present.
Odd propositions and proposals on a number of occasions. The cake being taken by one harasser suggesting and asking me to “seriously consider” living in a separate house on their property, on multiple occasions. Perhaps driven by their own personal struggle of living with their own truth, whatever that happens to be.
In sharing my harassment experiences with a professional, he told me that we needed to start by identifying it correctly. When he referred to it as "sexual harassment," I was quick to shrug it off. Then he elaborated on how we define sexual harassment and the fact that nonconsensual physical contact is not a requirement.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says:
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex, including the person's sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy. 1
Although the law doesn't prohibit minor teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not frequent or serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment. 1
The commission goes on to say:
It is unlawful to subject an employee to workplace harassment that creates a hostile work environment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 2
When the instances I described violating these descriptions occurred, I made my best effort to address them and indicate they were inappropriate, unwelcome, or frankly none of their business. Since the coworker who had seniority was present when I had been physically threatened, I approached them to discuss how I should handle the situation. I was told not to go to my manager or HR because it would cause problems for the department, reflect badly on me, and betray the trust of people at work for any future activities (both inside and outside of work). In my naivete, not only did I seek the wrong source for advice (someone who participated in the harassment I'd received) but also heeded their advice.
At several points, I even asked one of the victimizers if they or the other person had any particular issue or dislike of me. "What would make you think that? We're just having fun." Yet, I'd indicated time again it wasn't "fun" for me.
Here are some other responses I'd receive when addressing the harassment directly:
"It's fine, this is lunch!"
"I'm just trying to get to know you better, this is a safe place."
"What's said at lunch, stays at lunch, I won't tell anybody else."
In attempts to address the issues later or at the end of the workday with the victimizers, I'd be gaslighted:
"I don't remember hearing/saying that."
"You misinterpreted what was being asked."
"You didn't answer and that's fine, just drop it and move on."
I couldn't just drop it and move on, though, because when I took steps to limit opportunities for the harassment to occur, it simply changed form.
Counterproductive Work Behavior
Over time, the harassment I received began manifesting in dimensions described by researchers Robinson and Bennett in their work "A Typology of Deviant Workplace Behaviors: A Multidimensional Scaling Study."3. Workplace harassment & bullying is a form of counterproductive work behavior (CWB) falling in the personal aggression dimension. With the victimizers I dealt with, I experienced the behaviors of favoritism, revenge, gossiping, and blaming others; activities that fall under the political deviance dimension.
CWB activities I experienced personally from my victimizers were:
- Knowledge hiding, knowledge hoarding, and knowledge sabotage
They manifested in these ways for me:
- Being provided false due dates for projects/tasks.
- Being excluded from meetings involving projects that I was actively working on and affected that work.
- Having key information about a project withheld from me.
- Being excluded or prevented from accessing opportunities, physical or social isolation, and keeping me out of the loop.
- Being told by the victimizers I could not attend lunch on particular days or was not privy to it, then having this refuted by other coworkers who attended the lunches.
- Creating unrealistic demands (workload, deadlines, duties) and applying undue pressure for completing tasks. Incessant check-ins throughout the day when workplace performance was not an issue.
- Unjustly discounting thoughts and input in meetings.
- Objecting to ideas in a 1:1 setting and then presenting those ideas publicly as their own.
- Having a victimizer repeatedly indicate they were making progress on their portion of project(s) but actually having done nothing and leaving all the work to me.
The Struggle of Speaking Out
What the Statistics Say
Working as a Data Engineer, I care about data and analysis greatly. While I don't need to look at the data to know that it can feel impossible to speak out against harassment, the numbers give us a good overall understanding.
Here are some statistics according to a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) report 4:
- 51% of LGBT workers hide their LGBT identity from most people at their workplace.
- 58% of LGBT workers say someone at work makes a joke or derogatory comment about LGBT people at least once in a while.
- The vast majority of LGBT workers do not report instances when they hear an anti-LGBT remark to human resources or management. On average, 67% ignore it or let it go, 9% raise the issue with a supervisor and only 5% go to Human Resources.
- 66% of LGBT employees say one reason they are not open to everyone at work is because "it's nobody's business." Further analysis by HRC of the survey results revealed that this feeling was strongly tied to the reported incidence of negative climate.
I subscribed to the idea laid out in the HRC report: "it's nobody's business." Since I had already received harassment over sexual orientation without disclosing any personal information on sexual preferences, how that information would be received if I spoke up about my harassment was unknown. I wasn't too keen on having additional negative experiences merely from speaking up. This made it difficult to determine what extent I would be willing/able to speak with an appropriate authority figure.
The Worth of Your Word
According to the "Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace" conducted by co-chairs at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 5:
Employees who experience harassment fail to report the behavior or to file a complaint because they anticipate and fear a number of reactions - disbelief of their claim; inaction on their claim; receipt of blame for causing the offending actions; social retaliation (including humiliation and ostracism); and professional retaliation, such as damage to their career and reputation. 5
My victimizers included a person who had seniority by several years and, through extensive efforts employing workplace politics, portrayed themselves as everyone's friend who could accomplish anything. The other sought to maintain a religious, family man facade (though derogatory remarks he made about his family in private gave that away). Surely neither would harass a coworker or participate in lewd discussion at someone else's expense, right?
The EEOC report discusses victimizers who are "superstar" employees:
When the superstar misbehaves, employers may perceive themselves in a quandary. They may be tempted to ignore the misconduct because, the thinking goes, losing the superstar would be too costly. They may wager that the likelihood or cost of a complaint of misbehavior is relatively low and outweighed by the superstar's productivity. Some employers may even use this type of rationale to cover or retaliate for a harasser. 5
Along with the role someone holds, halo bias also comes into play. Halo bias is a cognitive, unconscious bias in which evaluators are influenced by previous judgments, or the overall impression, of a person. The overall impression of my victimizers with others was generally favorable, thus it would be more difficult for reports of their harassment to be accepted.
With my experiences being limited to one-on-one interactions or interactions with both victimizers, it followed there would be a situation where it would be one person's word against another's. The two people involved in my harassment were good friends with one another, so it seemed likely my words would be outnumbered. Since the victimizers gaslighted me when I had confronted the harassment instances directly, it wasn't unfathomable to think they would do so to a figure of authority.
While my discomfort grew over time, I still enjoyed and respected every other coworker I came into contact with. For a while, I held on to the fact that my overall experience was generally positive despite the acts of a select few in the grand scheme of things. I decided to exercise more deliberate control over my own experience to limit the opportunity for harassment to occur. When given the option, I began declining all lunch offers and other opportunities to socialize. I waited until my harassers had left for the day to walk out in order to avoid negative interactions in the parking lot. Surely the harassment would go away.
I knew the victimizer that had threatened my physical safety was looking for another job. He ended up taking a position at another company, which reduced the urgency of speaking out. The other harasser remained, however, and without proper disclosure of the persistent counterproductive work behavior, it had no visibility beyond my own experience.
Avoidance is Not Bliss
One morning, I arrived at work to discover my manager had changed overnight, effective immediately and without notice. I was now reporting to one of the individuals involved in the harassment and counterproductive work behavior I'd experienced. I had yet to speak up, so no one could have known this would be a compromising position for me.
Avoidance is never a solution for anything, especially dealing with harassment. Avoiding things only works for so long and is neither permanent nor effective in resolving the root issue. While changing my own access and availability helped limit personal aggression, it did not help with preventing other behaviors from manifesting in the ways that they did.
My avoidance of the harassment led to these mistakes:
Not speaking up sooner.
This allowed the harassment to continue without correction beyond my own identification and discussions with the victimizers.
Not sharing all instances or the full extent of events.
This limited the method and means of the proper authority to respond and offer resolutions for the harassment.
Not reaching out to a 3rd party sooner; specifically a professional in psychology, a coach/mentor, or someone who could provide impartial insight.
It can be difficult to identify harassment while in the midst of receiving it over an extended period of time. When I finally decided to speak up, it was a product of discussing my experience with an expert in workplace psychology and behavior.
Not making a public statement and not refuting gossip by 3rd parties.
This provided the perfect opportunity for victimizers to erroneously share/repeat a narrative that was untrue, make attempts to tear down my character (either by them or their associates), etc.
Why Speaking Up is Necessary
When we think about speaking up, one of the impacting factors is climate. Talking about climate, it's a common mistake to lose sight of the individual and focus purely on the organizational-level aspects. Typically we see this in business articles with tips or methodologies on how to improve climate, but climate is personal.
Here's how climate has been defined in the Journal of Organizational Behavior:
Psychological climate is deﬁned as the individual employee's perception of the psychological impact of the work environment on his or her own well-being (James & James, 1989). When employees in a particular work unit agree on their perceptions of the impact of their work environment, their shared perceptions can be aggregated to describe their organizational climate (Jones & James,1979; Joyce & Slocum, 1984). However, it is important to note that climate remains a property of the individuals regardless of the agreement or disagreement in the individuals’ perceptions. 6
No one should ever feel miserable going to work because of what a few bad actors may say or do. No one should have to worry about navigating counterproductive work behaviors in a professional setting. No one should be berated with personal or inappropriate questioning/comments after protesting and objecting to them. No one should be subject to a hostile climate that makes work, and their own well-being, difficult.
I've never worn a dress, but if I ever do, that'll be my business and no one else's. Purposefully misgendering someone and referring to them in terms of a committed relationship is inappropriate in the workplace. Threatening the safety of another person is unacceptable. Isolating an individual and creating a hostile environment for them, deplorable.
The HRC report surveyed LGBT employees on the effects of harassment over the last 12 months. The diagram is provided in the "Resources" section of this article and compares the different effects, listed below, of workplace climate for individuals with or without workplace policies including sexual orientation 4:
- Having to lie about personal life
- Feeling depressed
- Avoiding people
- Avoiding social events
- Feeling distracted
- Feeling exhausted
- Job searching
- Avoiding clients/customers
- Staying home from work
- Avoiding a certain project
There are innumerable effects of harassment outlined in both the HRC report and the EEOC report, including both personal and business costs. I highly recommend reviewing them.
The EEOC special task force found that "approximately 70% of individuals who experienced harassment never even talked with a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct."[5:3] Common workplace-based responses from those who experienced sex-based harassment are:
- Avoiding the harasser (33% to 75%)
- Denying or downplaying the gravity of the situation (54% to 73%)
- Attempting to ignore, forget or endure the behavior (44% to 70%)
Harassment in the workplace will not stop on its own. [...] It is on all of us to be part of the fight to stop workplace harassment. We cannot be complacent bystanders and expect our workplace cultures to change on their own. 5
Mitigation & Aftereffects
When the situation occurred that caused me to speak up, I asked for it to be kept quiet; I merely wanted a solution. I didn't want to drag anyone through the mud (especially ones I’d considered friends at some point) or ignite unnecessary drama in the workplace. All I disclosed were the counterproductive work behaviors and referred to the rest as a dissolved friendship / personal differences. My first instinct had simply been to remove myself from the situation; to seek a job elsewhere. Even though the next day I began receiving interview requests, I realized that being the victim of harassment shouldn't mean that I needed to punish myself by leaving. I'd come to highly respect and enjoy working with talented peers.
The response to me speaking up to the appropriate individuals was swift. I felt heard. While my manager had changed overnight, that was effectively reversed immediately. I was to transition to a new role. Eventually, all communication and interaction between myself and the remaining victimizer were unnecessary (the other had voluntarily left the company at that point).
There was one final meeting with the remaining victimizer that occurred, though it should not have, due to them pretending as if they had no idea I would not be reporting to them after all, despite information from superiors saying otherwise. In that meeting, I was told I should consider taking a job elsewhere and that "nothing would change for me" if I remained at the company. The threat of retaliation; one of many manipulation and intimidation tactics I'd experienced.
Coming forward did come with sadness; speaking up is no vindication. When harassment and abuse are involved, victim-blaming is a common tactic employed by victimizers to shift the blame of their actions onto the victim(s) themselves and discredit the victim's narrative. It was apparent victim-blaming was in play based on information received through mutual friends or when certain people who associated themselves with the victimizers stopped talking to or avoided me altogether. When someone says they'd "love to be friends with [me] again" but didn't feel they could due to the situation they heard about, it makes things pretty obvious. A few coworkers acted guarded around me from then on, either as the result of hearing a false narrative or simply being uncomfortable with the fact that I was gay, if they'd heard.
As the Human Rights Campaign report says, there's clearly more work to be done.
Survivor, Not Victim
We use the term victimizer to describe people who victimize others. Speaking with professionals about harassment and abuse, I've become familiar with the distinction of us being labeled as survivors, rather than just victims, of the experiences we've had. A survivor is a person who is a victim of another person's actions but continues on. It's a simple way to say: this isn't where your story ends; there's so much opportunity to look forward to.
Until now, I have never shared the full extent, nature, or duration of the harassment I experienced. When I spoke up, I kept one finger on the mute button. At the time of my harassment, the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court in 2020 protecting gay and transgender employees' civil rights had not yet occurred. In a social media post celebrating my job change, I referred to the harasser's statement telling me that I should take a job elsewhere because "nothing would change for me." Things were changing for me and I was proud of that. Later, I was asked to make the post private and complied. Remaining silent or allowing oneself to be silenced is a mistake. There cannot be change without visibility and accountability.
For some of us, workplace harassment is more than just something we see in yearly trainings. If we all stand idly by and allow injustice to occur, we are no better than a victimizer for allowing a victim to be made. We must take pride in ourselves, our abilities, and our right to work free of harassment. We can't trivialize harassment with victim-blaming or gossip. The tough discussions need to be had. The work needs to be put in.
- Within 180 days, if you are a U.S. Citizen and believe you have been discriminated against, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows you to take action to protect your rights under Title VII by filing a complaint.
- Ending Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Workplace from National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC)
- Project WHEN is a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on ending harassment in workplaces everywhere.
- Check your state or government website for additional information specific to your area.
Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace | U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (2021). Retrieved 25 September 2021, from https://www.eeoc.gov/select-task-force-study-harassment-workplace#_Toc453686303 ↩ ↩2 ↩3 ↩4
"The cross-level effects of culture and climate in human service teams". 2021. Onlinelibrary.Wiley.Com. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/job.162. ↩