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The first step you should take in response to sexual harassment

What's the first step you need to take in response to on-the-job sexual harassment?

Most people don't know.

Companies that provide education on sexual harassment in the workplace tend to focus on defining what it is and explaining how victims can report it through official channels.

They skip the most important step in establishing that something is actual sexual harassment: Telling your harasser that his or her overtures or actions are unwelcome.

If you eventually have to take a sexual harassment claim to court, this step is the proverbial "line in the sand" that you told someone not to cross. Once he or she crosses that line, it is much easier to establish those actions as sexual harassment.

Why is this step so important? Simply because human beings are complex, social creatures. Office romances can happen. A co-worker who is socially awkward may not realize that his or her "adult" joke is actually offensive to others. The office gossip can get carried away while discussing his or her sexual escapades and not realize that other people are uncomfortable.

The law makes allowances for this by requiring the offensive conduct to be either persistent or severe.

Only in rare cases -- like attempted rape -- does a single event qualify as severe enough to meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.

Similarly, a single pass from a co-worker who mistakes your polite conversation as romantic interest isn't enough to meet the definition of persistent, pervasive conduct that's harassing. One off-color remark or suggestive gesture may be rude and create a little tension, but it's unlikely to create a truly hostile work environment or affect your ability to do your job.

In fact, unless you make the other person clearly aware that his or her advances, commentary, conversation, jokes, gestures or stories are unwelcome, you're essentially condoning the behavior.

Many people find it difficult to assert themselves in situations where someone's behavior has crossed a line. If you find it difficult to speak up and establish a boundary line with a co-worker or supervisor, you aren't alone.

Unfortunately, it's important to find a way to firmly and clearly let the offender know that his or her conduct is unwelcome. If necessary, turn to a supervisor or someone in human resources for help.

Hopefully, simply addressing the issue will be enough to stop the behavior and let you get back to work.

Source: Equal Rights Advocates, "Sexual Harassment At Work," accessed Dec. 19, 2017

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