Is There a Time Limit for Reporting Inappropriate Touching at Work?

A Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about
reporting inappropriate touching at work.

Question:
I was with my co-worker and he told me that a guy likes me. Then, he asked me, “If you don’t mind, can I take pictures with you to make this guy feel angry?” He was joking with me, so I replied OK.

Things started getting weird when he started getting closer. He put his lips near my chin and I told him I’m feeling uncomfortable. Then he started doing it again and kissed me on my lips. I was shocked! He took the picture really quickly. I told him he could take photos from a distance and he took a selfie of us sitting together. He sent the pic of us sitting together, then I asked for his phone and deleted the picture. When I was deleting his picture he started to touch my breast. I told him “Please stop, I don’t like it” Then I left the scene and never reported it to anyone.

Four days later I told my sister and I told my parents. I told them I didn’t tell anyone because I was afraid people will spread rumors about me. Even though I didn’t tell anyone, another coworker called the perpetrator’s wife and told her that we are having an affair. He called me and apologized. He also told my sister I didn’t say anything to him.

I told him that I gave consent to take the pictures, but I didn’t know he would make me uncomfortable and offend me. I didn’t give him consent to kiss me or touch me. I would like to know how many days is the right time to report an incident. For example, is it too late to report, after a week. And, is this sexual harassment and psychological harassment by my coworker for spreading false rumors?

Response: 
I get the impression you do not live in the United States, so the company policies in businesses there, may not be the same as here. I also don’t know the kind of workplace culture you deal with. If you are in a professional office, it would probably be different than if you were in a restaurant or a small shop. However, there are nearly always rules and policies, in any country and in any workplace, about behaviors that create problems between employees or that could create a negative reputation for the company. According to what you can prove about the actions of the employee, there might even be a law violation.

In answer to your question about the time factor for reporting harassment or inappropriate activities: You should report any incident of any sexually inappropriate behavior by an employee to you, right away. However, even if you delay for a long time, you can still report it at any time in the future and most organizations will be concerned enough to investigate it. What happens will depend upon how severe the violation was and what the circumstances are now.

In your case, only a short amount of time has passed, so it is certainly not too late to make a complaint about the coworker who touched you inappropriately. It is also not too late to report the potentially very harmful actions of the other coworker who called the other first coworker’s wife about it. Neither behavior is probably going to be considered harassment, unless it has happened repeatedly. But, your employer or organization will probably have rules and guidelines about actions that create conflicts in the workplace.

That is the answer to your question, but I would like to add this as well: This situation was completely avoidable and it points out how both men and women need to take personal responsibility for the things that happen at work. I’m sure one reason this is so upsetting to you is because you want to have a very positive reputation. That is a worthy goal and you can achieve it by being excellent at the work you are paid to do and by being pleasant and a positive member of the work team. Be appropriately friendly to everyone, but don’t get involved in personal conversations while you are work, especially in situations like the one you describe.

Your coworker wasn’t joking around in a friendly way, it sounds to me as though he was being sly and trying to look for a way to get close enough to touch you. He clearly wasn’t acting in a professional manner and he wasn’t looking out for your reputation when he talked to you about someone else liking you. He said he wanted to make the other person angry by getting a photo with you. That should have been your warning that he isn’t a nice person to be around and that getting your picture taken was a bad idea. If you have encouraged that kind of conversation and actions in the past, he may have felt you wouldn’t mind. If you have never done anything to encourage it, he was doubly wrong.

The employee who contacted the coworker’s wife is also not a nice person! Decent people who care about others would not do something like that. However, I would imagine you don’t have a good relationship with her and she wanted to cause problems for you as well as for the other employee. Someone who liked you wouldn’t have done that. Aim to have a pleasant and courteous relationship with all employees and have a reputation for not joking around inappropriately. It reduces the chance that anyone would want to cause you problems by telling a lie about you.

This was a very negative experience, and I can understand how you would have been upset and not wanting to say anything about it. But, you can learn something positive from it. You can move forward and make it a good reminder about how joking around at work, without using good judgment, can lead to big problems.

You can laugh and enjoy the fun things about work. But, you should not let the conversation become personal, sexual or gossipy. And, the second you feel uncomfortable, move away and stop the conversation completely. Don’t let anyone push you into thing you don’t want to do.

I would bet that the next time someone wants to take joking photo or video or wants to talk to you about something personal, alarm bells will go off in your mind! It is a lot less likely to happen again, if you make a point of communicating with others in a way that shows you are a mature person who wants to perform and behave at your very best.

When you are at work, be the kind of person you want to be in all areas of your life. Be a coworker, friend and family member who others can admire and respect. When you do that, you will find that you can avoid upsetting experiences such as the one you’re dealing with now.

When you talk to your supervisor or manager, state the facts just as they happened and say you want their help to make sure you can work without being embarrassed or fearful about the actions of your coworker or the gossip of the other coworker. If your own behavior is questioned or criticized, just say that you didn’t realize how your efforts to be friendly by joking with the coworker might look, and you won’t do it again.

Best wishes to you with this situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know how it works out for you.
Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors