Can weird behavior equal harassment in the workplace?

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Q: I work in a white-collar office in downtown Boston and this is my first job out of college.  Most of my colleagues are chill and professional.  I am a woman but I work in a male-dominated industry.  There is one guy, who is a higher up, who is weird.  He lingers around my desk too long.  He asks me questions about my private life.  He asks if I have a boyfriend.  Now, I just try to avoid this guy but he is odd.  I am not sure if he does this to others but it makes me feel uncomfortable.  I don’t want to tick him off but I want the behavior to stop.  What do you suggest?  Does it matter if this man is an outside consultant?

A: I can understand how you would feel uncomfortable.  It sounds like this man is crossing the line.  We expect our colleagues to be professional and respectful in the workplace.  His behavior may even be illegal and may be harassment.

In Massachusetts, employers are required to provide a safe workplace, free of harassment.  Harassment can come in many forms but one category of harassment is called a “hostile work environment.”  It does not matter whether this man is an employee, a vendor, an outside consultant, a client or a patient.  The rules still apply to him. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides some examples of behavior which may be considered sexual harassment, if the conduct is unwelcome.  The examples are:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances – and these do not need to include physical touching
  • Sexual epithets, jokes, written or oral references to sexual conduct, gossip regarding one’s sex life; comment on an individual’s body, comment about an individual’s sexual activity, deficiencies, or prowess
  • Displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures, cartoons
  • Unwelcome leering, whistling, brushing against the body, sexual gestures, suggestive or insulting comments
  • Inquiries into one’s sexual experiences, and
  • Discussion of one’s sexual activities

Check out your company’s internal policies or employee handbook.  Your company should have a written harassment policy.  Your internal policy should outline the steps to raise a concern.  If you have a Human Resources function, you may want to start with that office.  You can also file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

You can also find more info about harassment at https://www.mass.gov/service-details/about-sexual-harassment-in-the-workplace.

It is important to speak up.  His behavior could be illegal and your company is liable for his behavior.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

 

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