Is This Sexual Harassment?

Question:

If a man touches a woman on the leg to prevent her from hitting a drawer, but he doesn’t say or do anything else and she doesn’t complain to him, is this harassment? She later filed a sexual harassment complaint!

Signed,

Seems Unfair


Answer:

DearĀ Seems Unfair:

Anyone investigating this case will have to know the complete situation before they can make a decision about whether or not this was harassment. For example, has this happened before? How much touching was involved? How was it done? Was it prolonged or brief? Did he do it as though he was concerned, or did he have a smirk or smile about it? Was it necessary to touch her leg to prevent an accident? If he hadn’t touched her leg, how bad would she have been hurt or how likely would it have been she would have been injured? Have the employees previously had conflict? Has the woman complained about other minor situations, without apparent reason? Were there other circumstances? Why did she delay?

Those are all things that will be considered to decide if this is sexual harassment.

To use common terms rather than legal terms for it, sexual harassment is a situation in which someone repeatedly does or says something that ridicules, intimidates or threatens someone of the opposite gender, or tells them they have to do something sexual in order to get a job, promotion or something else related to work. Or, when the workplace is full of sexual material or sexual comments.

The situation as you describe it would not seem to come under that law. However, an employer can have a completely different set of guidelines. Some employers refer to this as “zero tolerance.” It means that nothing will be excused and anything that can be shown to be inappropriate sexually will merit either strict discipline or firing.

If you, or someone you know, is the one accused, it will be beneficial to be very clear about what did and didn’t happen, and ask for witnesses, if there were any, to be interviewed. Tell the story honestly and if it seems something wrong occured accidentally, apologize sincerely. If not, stick to the truth and don’t get caught up with counter-accusations.

Remember that anyone can make a complaint about anything. The important thing is, when it is investigated, is there any truth to it. If not, it will be over with quickly. If so, there may be a problem!

Best wishes to you. I hope whoever is involved in this finds it settled quickly!

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.