Is This Sexual Harassment?

Question:

Two coworkers and I had a brief conversation about “swing clubs” that are legal, social events. Another employee was eavesdropping on our conversation and later accused me of saying things I did not say. She got one other person to back-up her story. It was probably one of the other coworkers who was scared of getting in trouble.

I was accused of sexual harassment towards the eavesdropper and I was fired, even though the other witness who said the same things discussing the same topic was not. I think it was more of a way to get rid of me. ] Our conversation went like this: A coworker basically described what goes on in a swing club and I basically said how my friend got offended in one of those clubs. The third guy asked about them, so he basically initiated the further discussion.

Is that sexual harassment if the complainant was eavesdropping on our discussion? If she was offended, shouldn’t we all have gotten in trouble? Or, does that show she really was not offended? As I said, the only other witness she had was someone else in the discussion who lied about what I said. How fishy is that?

Signed,

Unfairly Fired


Answer:

Dear Unfairly Fired:

I can imagine that this would be frustrating, if others said what you said but you were fired. There may be more to it than that, however. Or, it may be just a very bad situation that you will have to deal with.

The first possible background issue is if you had ever been warned about that kind of conversation before. Another issue might be if there were other situations involving problems with your work or some aspect of your relationships at work.

You may be right that this was an excuse to get rid of you–but you would have to prove that and prove that your employer didn’t have the right to fire you without cause. If you are a member of a union or an employee group where there is a specific process they have to go through, that would be different. But, it sounds as though your employer had the authority to fire you and chose to do so.

I think you meant to say the complainant was “eavesdropping” rather than “ease dropping” so I changed your wording a bit. But the idea is still there, that she was overhearing something you thought was being in said in private. However, in a business setting, there is no reason to think everything will be private. So, the fact that someone COULD hear is generally viewed as an indicator that not enough care was being taken to keep things low or private.

As for the witness–you may be right that the other person agreed in order to stay out of trouble. It may also be that even though you all were talking about basically the same things, you used a word or phrase or had an approach to it that seemed more offensive. You could have been talking about how a friend was offended, but have been so descriptive about what was offensive that it would be considered inappropriate for talking about at work.

What you did was not harassment in the legal sense, in that you were not directing it at the employee nor had you done it before. However, it could be construed as creating a work environment that involves talking about sexual things or being overly involved with sexual topics–and that is viewed as a hostile work environment.

If your company had a rule about anything related to sexual harassment or hostile work environment they could justify taking action against one or all of you. It seems to me they should have investigated thoroughly to find out exactly what was said and by whom. But, maybe they did that and still felt justified in firing you. Or, maybe they didn’t do that. But, they can probably justify dismissal anyway. It’s a sad learning experience for you and I hope some positive result comes from it.

Best wishes to you. You may find that you will do much better in another workplace where you can be fully supported and where you can create a new reputation.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.