Taking Action: Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace

“Is your manager here?”

“Thanks, sweetheart.”

“Did your husband give you permission to give your number to other men?”

These common phrases are just a few heard by women in the workplace. After experiencing encounters like these, women often suppress the uncomfortable sensation provoked, hide the anger, or choke back responses, because we are either in shock at what we are experiencing or have been conditioned to believe it is normal, well-intentioned, or any reaction from us would be deemed emotional or magnified. It is not. Familiarity is not permission for unprofessional behavior.

Actually, I am the manager.

I did not do anything special for you. This is a professional relationship, and my actions are not in order for you to take special notice of me.

I don’t need my husband’s permission to give my number to anybody. I’m providing my number to you since we are coworkers attending a conference together. In fact, if you need to communicate with me, please do so by e-mail instead.

While the world is moving toward bringing harassment issues to light, there are a few actions we can do to participate in the movement or simply keep our own workplace accountable. After all, we will spend an average of 1/3 of our life in our workplace1, and 60% of women will experience sexual harassment2. It needs to be safe and conducive to the tasks at hand.

So, how do we navigate experiencing harassment in the workplace? How do we encourage appropriate behavior? How do we possibly take any action and still remain comfortable with ourselves, those around us and not place our professional career at risk? Here are a few actions we can take on behalf of ourselves.

  • Walk away.
    • No matter what is said, and no matter the means by which it is delivered, you always have the right to simply walk away and disengage. Whether this is a client or a coworker, your presence has power and removing yourself from them has power too.
  • Document it.
    • This is the most important action for any situation. Please, document the experience. Draft an e-mail. Make a note. Write it in a journal at home. Make sure that you have a recording of the incident that you can reference back to at any time. In the very least, this allows you to begin to build a trail of experiences and can show a pattern with a particular person or organization.
  • Report it.
    • Whether it is a single incident or several, take your experience to leadership. Be sure to document this as well, because if nothing is done you can show that you tried to have it resolved by those in the organization who should be your advocate. If the person you take the situation to does nothing, or writes it off, take it to the next level up.
  • Speak out in the moment.
    • Whether it’s a defiant or a simple correction, you have the right to ask them to change their behavior in the moment. Responses allow us to use that immediate moment to educate the person so they hopefully recognize the error, apologize, and correct their behavior.
  • Speak out later.
    • You can always allow yourself the opportunity to collect your thoughts, construct a response, and revisit the conversation at a later time. Delaying a conversation can also allow you time to involve a superior or leadership to either witness or delegate the conversation.

Although not everyone is in the position to be able to leave their current employer, it is an action you can take. This might be a long term plan or a short term one. Regardless, you have the freedom to take this step. If you document your experiences, this is a time where you can present that documentation .

Know that you have great power, and no one can take that power away from you. You also have the freedom to change the level of your response at any time. If a few comments here and there do not spike concern for you, but the third one is enough, you are allowed to take action. And most importantly – you are never, ever overreacting. Those who are making you uncomfortable need to be educated on the seriousness of accountability when it comes to provocative speech and behavior in our society.

Unfortunately, the shift towards a harassment free and communication encouraged environment is still in a phase that brings risks. You might be told that reporting someone will put a kink in your professional aspirations, and this is a striking reminder that women still have a long road ahead before we have true equality without discrimination within the workplace. There is still a cultural shift that is required to reach that goal, but these actions can serve as the foundation of making that shift happen.

Thankfully, we do have more resources than ever before to assist women who wish to take action, and communities of support and action are building. Here are just a few:








(Please, please – if you feel as though you are in a situation where there is potential for physical assault or abuse, immediately seek professional assistance and know that you have resources to help. And remember: Having a drink is not an invitation and a smile or hello is not consent. Whatever your experience, you are believed!)


1      http://www.gettysburg.edu/news_events/press_release_detail.dot?id=79db7b34-630c-4f49-ad32-4ab9ea48e72b

2      Quinnipiac poll, November 21, 2017, https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=2502




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