Years ago, when I was new to the workforce, a co-worker made several flirty, suggestive comments to me while I was on the job. This co-worker:
- Was not a close friend
- Had years of seniority over me in the company
- Was a taller and larger person than me
- And was married.
So it was uncomfortable, to say the least. I always tried to give the most neutral, inoffensive response, because I didn’t want to make him mad or get in trouble. Usually it would just be an empty laugh and avoiding eye contact.
I confided with a co-worker who I was much closer to, and with the best of intentions, he spoke to this guy. Didn’t mention my name at all, just gave an off-hand, general comment to be careful with how he speaks to other people.
His response to being called out (though he was barely even called out) was to corner me in a closed room while I was working alone, stand right behind me, and berate me for making brash accusations. I don’t remember much of this lecture, just that it was in a harsh, scary tone, and that he said “Ni minsan, hindi kita hinawakan.” (“I didn’t touch you, not even once.”)
In the end, I apologized to him. Because I didn’t know what I was supposed to say or do. Because although he didn’t threaten me, the tone of his voice did it for him. Because I was terrified and trapped and thought that if I didn’t apologize, this talking-to might escalate to something much worse.
Now, many years later, I know that my fears were irrational. Had I spoken to a superior about it then, it might have been handled, or it might have not, but it definitely wouldn’t have gotten me fired. Even if I had talked back to him when he confronted me and told him he had no right to make me feel like I was wrong for how I responded to his behavior, it wasn’t likely that he would have tried to hurt me physically then. After all, that was the whole foundation of his defense: it wasn’t physical.
What is sexual harassment?
But harassment isn’t just physical.
This isn’t just my personal opinion. According to mental health organization ReachOut (emphasis mine):
Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour that’s offensive, humiliating or intimidating. It can be written, verbal or physical, and can happen in person or online.
Sexual harassment is covered in the workplace when it happens:
• at work,
• at work-related events or where people are carrying out work-related functions, and
• between people sharing the same workplace.
A single incident is enough to constitute sexual harassment – it doesn’t have to be repeated.
I’m writing this because no one should feel like it’s okay to be harassed at work. (Or anywhere, of course, but this blog post is about work.) I have the privilege of working in a field that I’m passionate about: communication. Whether I’m doing my radio show or putting together an article or hosting an event, I’m always honing my skills. I get to interact with interesting people, be creative, and earn money for doing things I find fun. When I’m working, I am preoccupied but productive, tired but satisfied. I want to give my audience the best entertainment I possibly can. And I don’t want to be distracted by people implying that they would enjoy spending a night with me.
When you work in media, this can be hard to avoid. People have a way of thinking of public figures as public property. That is, you can say anything to them and it doesn’t really matter how they might feel about it because they’re fair game – like writing a review of a resort where you had a bad holiday. This is why it’s so easy to say rude, horrid things about actors, models, and musicians, even in the comments of their own social media accounts. You think you’re just expressing an opinion, not talking to another human person.
That’s how it is with the audience. It’s tough, but you can anticipate it. But it should never be like that in your own workplace. When you’re trying to learn your trade and better yourself, you should be able to focus on self-development and serving your team and making connections. You shouldn’t have to worry about whether you can enter the break room without someone ogling your legs.
Is it wrong?
Morally? Yes. You’re making another person feel scared or offended. You’re disregarding their personal space and/or feelings. Harassment is something that people do when they feel entitled to others’ attention. It’s something you do when you feel physical attraction and don’t have the maturity to handle it appropriately, like adults should.
In the context of your workplace, different companies have different policies on sexual harassment. It’s a good idea to ask about this early on. If you feel awkward about it, consult your company manual or ask someone impartial who works in human resources rather than your co-workers or boss.
In the eyes of the law, it is unequivocally wrong. Per section 3 of the Republic Act 7877 or the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act of 1995 (emphasis mine),
Work, education or training-related sexual harassment is committed by an employer, employee, manager, supervisor, agent of the employer, teacher, instructor, professor, coach, trainor, or any other person who, having authority, influence or moral ascendancy over another in a work or training or education environment, demands, requests or otherwise requires any sexual favor from the other, regardless of whether the demand, request or requirement for submission is accepted by the object of said Act.
Anyone in a position of power over a co-worker can be held accountable for sexually harassing them, even if that person isn’t the other party’s direct up-line. Some companies have policies protecting their employees from harassment by co-workers on the same level or a lower level, as well.
Although the quote above doesn’t specify it, harassment isn’t limited to asking for sexual favors. It can also be:
- Verbal – innuendoes, suggestive comments, jokes of a sexual nature, sexual propositions, lewd remarks and threats, requests for any type of sexual favor (this includes repeated, unwelcome requests for dates)
- Nonverbal – the distribution, display or discussion of any written or graphic material…that are sexually suggestive or show hostility toward an individual or group because of sex; suggestive or insulting sounds; leering; staring; whistling; obscene gestures; content in letters and notes, facsimiles, e-mail, photos, text messages, tweets and Internet postings
- Physical – unwelcome, unwanted physical contact, including touching, tickling, pinching, patting, brushing up against, hugging, cornering, kissing and fondling and forced sexual intercourse or assault
What steps can you take if it happens to you?
If a co-worker harasses you, you have the option of escalating it to your HR department. The law requires employers to implement rules and regulations around sexual harassment cases and the investigation thereof. You can make a legal complaint within three years of the time of the incident, but it’s usually best to do it sooner rather than later.
When you make your complaint, be prepared to recount the details of what happened or what has been happening, if it has been recurring. If you’re able to, provide screenshots, emails, pictures, or anything that will back up your story. These are not necessary, but they will make the investigation easier.
You may be asked to make clarifications or answer follow-up questions related to the case. Just cooperate to the best of your ability. Amid all of this, I would also suggest limiting whom you tell about the case. A lot can be misinterpreted if you, for example, post about it on social media. It’s also tiring to field questions that might come up, especially when you have to defend yourself and your decision to file a complaint, as some people might unfortunately ask you to.
You can also opt to file a case against the person independently. Section 6 of the Republic Act 7877 states, “Nothing in this Act shall preclude the victim of work, education or training-related sexual harassment from instituting a separate and independent action for damages and other affirmative relief.” If you choose to take this path, you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do so. Convicted sexual harassers can suffer one to six months of jail time, or be required to pay a fine ranging from Php10,000-20,000, or both, depending on the ruling of the court. As with complaining to your HR department, it helps to provide evidence when possible.
What if it happened to my friend?
Your best course of action here is to comfort them when they’re distressed and support their decision on how they handle it. If they decide to file a complaint, remind them that they have your support, no matter what way it goes.
As frustrating as it may be, you cannot file a complaint on their behalf. This is for two main reasons. The first is that the case is much weaker because it’s not coming directly from the person who was harassed. The second is because doing this takes away from your friend’s agency.
It’s a normal, human reaction to be angry that someone hurt your friend. However, you can’t respond on their behalf. Your friend needs to process what happened in their own time, and more importantly, on their own terms.
But this doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything at all. People who have gone through harassment may need someone to talk to about it. On the flip side, they may prefer to be distracted from what happened. This is where you come in. If your friend is okay to talk about the incident or incidents, let them know that they can open up to you without being judged. If they aren’t ready yet or they just want to put it out of their minds, invite them out to coffee or a movie, or suggest a night of snacks and board games at either of your houses.
You are not a bad friend for letting them deal with the situation without filing a complaint against their harasser. You don’t need to feel guilty that the person “got away with it”. Your top priority should be your friend’s wellbeing. Whether or not justice will be served is secondary.
I don’t want to take action against the person who harassed me.
It’s alright. You are under no obligation to do so. If you don’t feel comfortable or confident reporting your harasser, you don’t have to.
If you are financially and practically able to do so, you may want to consider looking for another job. You should not have to make such a huge adjustment in your life because of a harasser, so I don’t generally encourage taking this route, but you know yourself and what you need best. If you feel that it is in your own best interest and you’re in a good enough position pragmatically to do this, it could benefit you.
Whatever the circumstances, it’s good to seek a healthy coping mechanism for the negative feelings you have about being harassed. It’s okay to talk to someone you trust, or arrange to see a counselor, if the harassment has a big impact on your mental health. Silakbo.ph offers an extensive list of facilities and hotlines for those who need help with their mental health, whether you’re dealing with harassment or any other distressing circumstances.
Harassment is no joke.
It’s widely and far too often said that women are just “too sensitive nowadays” and they “can’t take a joke anymore”. This implies that harassment was previously acceptable and suddenly became a bad thing one day.
Harassment has always been annoying, embarrassing, demeaning, threatening and disruptive. The only difference between now and the “good old days” is that people are less afraid to report it. This is due in large part to those who have done exactly that, and those who have believed and supported them. The less tolerance we have for sexual harassment in the workplace, the less it will occur, but we can only get to that point if we take every case seriously.
Every employee should be able to pursue a career in a safe, comfortable environment. If they are challenged, let them be challenged by bigger projects and higher goals – not by the fear of getting groped.