Is A Regular Insult Sexual Harassment?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about insulting a coworker by saying “it’s no wonder you’re not married.

I got into a heated argument with a co-worker. Five other people were in the room. During the argument I said to my co-worker, “You’re such a liar, it’s no wonder you’re not married!” The witnesses heard this. Later, I was accused of sexual harassment and received a written warning. Is my comment considered sexual harassment?

Signed, Angry

Dear Angry:

Your comment, on its own, does not appear to have elements of gender bias, a sexual connotation or a workplace permeated with sexual or gender based references. HOWEVER, my judgment about it refers only to the one comment, taken out of context and without knowing any of the history between the two of you or the argument in which the statement was made.

If a woman or man has never been married and a comment such as you made seemed to be mockingly directed at their status, especially if there is sensitivity about it, that could more easily link to gender issues or a desire to set the person apart because of their gender. If you are a man and you were the only man in the group–especially if you have said similar things before–that might also have led to the accusation of sexual harassment, because it appears you are often picking on women or one woman specifically.Or, it could be that your remark, which you must admit is insulting and had no apparent motive other than dislike and anger, was so inappropriate it was decided to charge you with something that, if a similar thing happens again, can more easily lead to you being fired.

The bottom line is that it was poor judgment to say it and probably flew out of your mouth before your brain could shut yourself up. Anger will do that. And, it could be that you felt you were being beat-up on too. The person you said it to may actually have been lying. Or not.

Now, however, the best thing you can do is to write a letter to your supervisor and ask that it be forwarded to the appropriate person or group. In that letter say that you realize you were wrong to let your temper overcome your good judgment and that you won’t let it happen again. Then, you can say something like, “I do want to emphasize that my remarks weren’t directed at Susan as a woman or against women in general and I certainly do not have any bias about women in our work. I used bad judgment but I hope I won’t be viewed as a harasser based on this one incident. I will make it my goal to ensure that no one will think that in the future. I would like to have this letter placed in my records so anyone reviewing it will at least know my concerns.”

That assumes you are a man and the person you argued with was a woman. You could adjust your remarks according to the situation. That might go a long way toward helping the situation down the line, if not right now. In the meantime, keep a low profile and show by your actions that you regret the way the argument ended. It might be difficult to do, but it can be done. And one thing is always true–as much as people get angry, they are usually quick to admire someone who learns from a mistake, takes a disciplinary action as a learning experience and tries to make amends.

The idea isn’t to act as though nothing happened or to act as though you’re sorry and want to be forgiven and have the matter forgotten. Rather, it should be that you’re sorry and are going to show it by being different in the future, no matter what response you get back. Over time that will help you be viewed more positively and you will also find it to be a relief to not feel so awkward around the person you argued with.Best wishes to you through this. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how things work out.

Tina Lewis Rowe