It was one of the most difficult moments of my professional career.
At the age of 38, I obtained a position in a federal office. It wasn't long after I began when a female employee with status above me started to flirt -- saying things that were inappropriate and asking if I had ever had an affair. At the time, I was married with four young children. I tried to avoid the woman, who was several years older than I, but we were both assigned to a particular matter to work on. While driving together to another office location, she asked me if I was attracted to her. I reminded her that I was married and that she shouldn't be asking such things. A few weeks after that uncomfortable encounter, she walked into my office, sat on the edge of my desk in a short skirt, crossed her legs and asked me if I'd like to have an affair. She was extremely confident and her boldness in asking such a thing caught me off guard. I told her that she needed to leave my office, and that the answer was clearly no.
My immediate supervisor was a man of considerable status and had been a long-time federal employee. I had heard through office chatter that he -- a married man -- had previously had an affair with the same woman who approached me. I didn't feel that I could discuss with him what was occurring, so I approached another person in a supervisory position and informed her of what I had experienced. She was approaching retirement and didn't want to get involved because she didn't want to jeopardize her record and standing. Suffice it to say, I stopped seeking help at that point.
I continued to decline the advancements of the woman who clearly wanted to have an inappropriate relationship with me, and after some time I noticed that my immediate supervisor began to be cold toward me. He no longer said hello when we passed in the hallway and when I submitted my reports he would no longer discuss those with me. In short, he distanced himself from me in an obvious way. It was clear to me that he was aware of what the woman -- his former secret lover -- was doing. After several months, I was called in to my supervisor's office and encouraged to step out of my position. In other words, I was asked to voluntarily resign. During that meeting, the woman who had sexually harassed me walked in and stood next to my supervisor. What was made clear to me is that they were a 'team' of sorts and she apparently was going to continue in an unprofessional and inappropriate relationship with him. I was simply unwanted weight in the office. What I understood is that if I didn't leave voluntarily, she would file sexual harassment allegations against ME -- and it was clear that she would have my supervisor (her once again 'affair' partner) in her corner just to make sure I was leveraged out. I felt I was in a no-win situation. I left the office and was suddenly unemployed with four young children.
Sexual harassment is considered illegal sex discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark federal employment discrimination law enforced primarily by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is estimated that 90 percent of workers who experience sex-based harassment never formally report it. I am one of the workers that didn't formally report it.
By definition, sexual harassment is harassment that is sexual in nature and generally includes unwanted sexual advances, conduct or behavior. Examples of sexual harassment include: sharing sexual photos (pornography); posting sexual posters; sexual comments, jokes, and/or questions; inappropriate sexual touching; inappropriate sexual gestures; and, invading personal space in a sexual way.
When it comes to the jurisdiction I was in -- Federal, there are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a supervisor or other person with apparent authority to confer or withhold an employment benefit demands sexual favors from an employee in return for continued employment or some employment benefit. For example, quid pro quo harassment occurs when an individual is forced to submit to unwelcome sexual demands in order to avoid negative work conditions.
Hostile work environment harassment occurs when an employee is subject to unwelcome sexually offensive conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter employment conditions and creates an abusive or hostile work environment. To determine whether a workplace environment is hostile or abusive, one must look at all the circumstances, including:
- the frequency of the discriminatory conduct;
- the severity of the conduct;
- whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and
- whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance.