Nasty Set Up Followed By Nasty Talk!

Question:

I’m a receptionist for a small company of about 20 people. We rent props to movie and TV shows, so there are truckers in and out all the time. I’ve been working here for about 6 months. When I first started my desk was where the truckers would come to pick up the props until one day my manager thought it would be fun to embarrass me and try to set me up with one of the guys because he thought I was cute. Well it turned ugly, and I when I reported it to human resources, she knew it could turn into a sexual harassment case, and the company would be in trouble. Especially since this wasn’t the first time this manager has harassed the receptionists. So they moved my desk. I report now to the accounting manager and He still works here.

Well ever since the move, all the other people in this place have been talking trash about me. There are two other ladies in accounting. Other co-workers say we’re all lesbians and they spread vicious rumors. They also talk about my clothes saying if I didn’t dress the way I do then nothing would have ever happened. I’m 19 and I wear form-fitting clothes not too tight. Maybe once or twice my stomach has shown a little, but that’s it. I normally wear sweaters because the truckers are nasty.

They tell anyone they can about how much they don’t like me and say any other nasty thing they can about me. One lady at my work hates me so much she slammed a cart hard into my desk and never said anything. She goes out of her way to bother me. I’ve brought this up to the owner, to human resources, and to my manager, but it’s still happening. I know people gossip, but this is out of control. Please tell me if there are any legal steps I can take. Can I sue for slander, harassment and hostile environment? I don’t even want to come in because I worry about what are they going to do to me next or say about me.

Signed,

Don’t Like To Come To Work


Answer:

Dear┬áDon’t Like To Come To Work:

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. It certainly does sound as though things are unpleasant at your work! Whether or not you have a legal or civil issue is something that an attorney or a state or federal office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would have to advise you. Generally a workplace is considered to be hostile if sexual and gender references “permeate” the environment–they are frequent and a routine part of life. It is illegal to tell you or imply that sexual activity is a requirement for getting or keeping your job or a promotion. If you complain and nothing is done or if you complain and the actions continue or get worse, you have even more status to seek legal or civil remedies.

Most attorneys will give you a free consultation to let you know if you have grounds for something further. So, once you put together the package of material I’ll mention in a moment, you may want to take advantage of such a consultation. Look in the Yellow Pages and see if any attorneys specialize in such cases. The EEOC is interested in violations of the law. Your attorney would be interested in mental, physical and emotional pain that you can be recompensed for. Both might be interested in the case–or neither, according to the circumstances.

One thing is for sure: There are certainly inappropriate behaviors going on! Let me give you some things to think about as you decide what to do next. You may want to get the legal advice right away, since you may be told to handle the situation differently as part of a strategy. If you don’t choose to see an attorney–or if the attorney doesn’t feel there is a civil case, you may want to consider the following:

1. It is likely too late to turn things around as far as your feelings and that of co-workers are concerned. However, it will be crucial now and in the future that you maintain a professionally civil and courteous attitude towards everyone. That can be done while still maintaining your pride and not being a victim of their behavior.

Identify the people with whom you have a positive relationship and express your appreciation for that. Tell them of your concerns–briefly–and say that you want to do a good job without dreading coming to work. Tell them you’ll appreciate their support. I would imagine that there are at least a few men around who have wives and daughters and wouldn’t like to see them mistreated. So, if there are men who are courteous, respond in a courteous professional way. That way you can use those men as an example of the kind of behavior that you would find appropriate–as opposed to that of others.

2. Try to avoid direct contact with the people you have the most conflict with. But when you do encounter them, speak courteously and be helpful. Don’t indicate by tone of voice or rolled eyes or anything else that you don’t like them–that gives them something to use as an excuse if you complain. Be courteous and resist the temptation to make flippant or sarcastic remarks to people you don’t care for. Remember the Proverb that a soft answer turneth away wrath! Be so different than they are that they can only feel guilty about their behavior!

3. Focus on being the best employee possible. Be accurate, effective, courteous, helpful, supportive, friendly, punctual and a good representative of the company. If you are the kind of employee they really don’t want to lose–you’ll get much more support and quicker action!

4. If someone says or does something rude or sexual, your best response is simply to shake your head no and say, in whatever tone of voice seems right at the time, “Please stop.” Or, “Stop talking like that.” Or, “Stop doing that.” If they question you, simply repeat your statement. “I don’t want to talk about it. I just want you to stop.”

If a female co-worker does something like shoving a cart into your desk or something else to purposely annoy you, get her attention and tell her to stop. “Wanda. That wasn’t necessary. Stop and don’t do that again.” If she says it was an accident or she doesn’t know what you are talking about, simply repeat your statement. “I don’t intend to argue with you about it. Just don’t do that again.” You don’t have to sound hostile. Say it in a reasonable tone of voice.

Then, if you have any reason at all to think there will be further problems tell your manager what happened and how you responded.

5. Try to avoid getting caught up in what people are saying about you–unless it might cause you to lose your job or otherwise be harmed. Saying that you and others are lesbians is junior high goofyism that likely doesn’t rise to the level of slander if it isn’t affecting your employment. It could, however, be part of a hostile workplace and should be documented–what you were told happened and who told you.

Tell the person who tells you those stories that you’re tired of hearing all the ridiculous remarks and that you’d appreciate it if they’d come to your defense. Then tell them that after they’ve done that you’d rather they not tell you about it, so you don’t have to keep hearing the unpleasantness. THAT will do you more good than anything! If the gossip doesn’t keep circulating back to you it’s not nearly so likely to continue. If you really want to stop hearing about it, ask the person for a written statement so you can have it for your records. Then watch the back-pedaling!

6. Discuss the matter with the women you have positive relationships with–and who likely have been there longer than you. It may be that they would like to see things changed as well, and would be willing to go with you one more time to your manager or HR. Perhaps they have a perspective about what is happening that would benefit you. Be open to other views about the situation. You should not agree to put up with illegal activity or inappropriate remarks or behavior. But it may be that your actions and reactions could be adjusted somewhat, to your benefit. A friendly co-worker may welcome the chance to help you or mentor you.

7. Put your concerns–including specifics–in writing. Develop a timeline of events and give specific examples of things that have been said and done that keep you from being able to be effective at work. That is a key point. Employers might not care if people aren’t happy–but they don’t want them to be so upset that they can’t do their work well. If there’s something that other employees are doing to detract from the focus on work, most employers are more willing to take action.

So, keep that focus. Anytime you feel you haven’t been able to get work done, or if other employees are doing things that clearly are taking away their focus on work, make a note of it so you can present that as a prime example of the harm that is being done.

Also note what actions have been taken. Your employers tried to make things better at the beginning by moving your desk. Unfortunately, moving you wasn’t as important as stopping the behavior! That would be a important point should this become a legal or civil issue

8. Keep in mind that the attitude of managers may be that you came into a culture that is established and not going to be easily changed, so you must adapt. In some ways that is true–there are work cultures that are not comfortable for new people and that must be adjusted to. BUT you shouldn’t be blatantly mistreated or kept from being effective, the workplace should not be permeated with sexual conduct or conversation and you shouldn’t be harassed with comments about your sexual activities or gender.

That is another reason why your documentation will be helpful. If you do speak to someone else about this, they’ll ask you for that anyway. You need to be able to show exactly WHAT has happened so that someone can review it to see if it rises to the level of illegality.

Is there an employee manual that says anything about mutual respect or mentions issues about harassment or hostile or offensive work environments? If so, have those policies handy so that you can show the violations.

9. Consider going to your manager one more time with your written documentation. But before you do, be sure you know what would remedy this in your mind. They will likely not fire anyone unless there is a law violation or a serious organizational violation, so will it be enough if they order people to stop openly gossiping? Is there another place to be moved to? Do you want reassurance that these remarks won’t harm your evaluation? You may not know exactly what can be done-but at least make sure that you ask your manager what he or she thinks is a solution. That will require them to think about doing more than sympathizing with you. And if the solution doesn’t seem to be final enough or serious enough, you can still seek legal advice.

10. If the talk with your manager isn’t effective in a few days or if it seems your concerns weren’t taken seriously, go again to HR. Have your documentation and tell them that they are your last visit before you go to an attorney or the federal EEO offices. That should be true if you are still not getting any assistance. Again though, it will be helpful to think about what would be a remedy for you. Your workplace is small, so there may not be any other place for you to go. But you can insist that there be no more gossip about your sex life and that the office environment should be free of sexual or gender remarks, jokes, insults or comments. You might say, “It’s one thing to gossip, but what is happening now is a violation of the federal law about having issues related to sex being talked about all over the workplace. That has to stop and it’s up to the company to make it stop.”

That’s easier for me to say than for you, as a new employee to do, perhaps! I know that! That’s one reason I think it would be helpful to get the assistance of other employees or your immediate supervisor or manager. Going it alone is never easy–although it can be done! Tell your manager or the HR person what you have tried to do to make it better: Being professional, telling those who report the stories to you to stop so they don’t make it worse, focusing on your work instead of on the gossip. Then make sure you say that in spite of that, all of the mean remarks are getting in the way of everyone doing their jobs–the people being talked about, the people doing the talking and the people who have to hear it!

11. Under the law your personal appearance doesn’t justify inappropriate actions by others. However, it might be helpful to talk to your manager about it. Part of their responsibility is to make sure that employees are dressed appropriately. Ask them if they see your attire as much different than everyone else’s or if they think it is inappropriate. If they say you are dressing appropriately you can continue with confidence. If they say it is not appropriate or they see it as a problem, make sure you still insist that the actions of the other employees should be stopped, no matter what you are wearing. But then, express your willingness to adjust some aspects of your attire so you can be as business-like as possible in the office.

I do think there are issues about women dressing in ways that look sexual, then complaining when men notice! A nineteen year old young woman who dresses in the clothing found in most malls nowadays has a very difficult time not appearing sexual–what with tops that are cut down to here and cut up to there, and waistlines that sometimes barely cover the essentials! However it is possible to find modest but stylish clothes. Clothing does tend to convey a message about how we want to be perceived. So, evaluate yourself in that area.

Even though this may just be a job, if you want to develop a career rather than just have a job, it is often necessary to be a little more conservative than average in attire and demeanor. That is, of course, unless the job calls for something else. The habit of business-like attire is a good one. Club clothes or sexy clothes aren’t appropriate for a work setting. You may be perfectly fine in that area, I just wanted to re-emphasize it.

12. If you were interviewed for this job they undoubtedly thought you would be able to do it and be successful. They don’t want to have to start all over finding someone else. And whether or not you have legal or civil issues that you can take to court (and you might have those!) it is in their best interest to have a workplace where people work well together.

Truckers are not known for their couth–although there are many very nice, moral, courteous and decent truckers. But whatever their trucking culture or the habits they’ve had about dealing with employees in the past, there are legal and civil requirements for how they should behave now and in the future. Hopefully your firm but courteous stand will send a message to managers and employees alike. You may be the voice that needed to be heard all this time!

Best wishes as you work to find ways to deal with this situation. It may be that you will not want to continue working in such an unpleasant place! Be sure you leave with a positive and courteous goodbye, so you can get a reference to use elsewhere! However, before that happens, ask for a free legal consultation with an attorney who might be able to help you!

Working together should include applause and encouragement, not a hassle. Doing what we can to make it that kind of place, we call WEGO.

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.