Saw Sexual Behavior! What Now?

Question:

I witnessed two co-worker’s sexual behavior at work. Should I report it? One co-worker has expressed hostile behavior towards me at work. But because no one saw or heard anything, I was unable to prove it. Nor did anyone but me see the two engaging in sex, so I cannot prove it, just like the hostility expressed at me. What should I do? Follow-up: We have cubicles and I happened to go towards the copier to make copies and she was showing him her private part. When she saw me she quickly put her dress down and he walked away. Just two weeks ago this guy had been desrespecting me and I brought it to my boses attention. Only when it happened twice did he call in an outside hr department to investigate and because he denied it it wasn’t considered a hostile environment just an employee issue they would deal with. Now, everyone has to fill out job descriptions and get sensitivity training and a harassment policy will be provided. It felt kind of like a slap in the face. I couldn’t understand where his behavior towards me was coming from and why she all of a sudden stop speaking to me. Then when I saw what I saw it all kind of falls into place. I don’t know what their motives towards me are.

Should I bring this up to HR without them telling me I have no proof one more time?

Many thanks.

Signed,

Worried and wondering


Answer:

Dear Worried and wondering:

Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. This certainly is a difficult situation and embarrassing in many ways, I’m sure. Let me share some thoughts that might help.

1. There seem to be two situations: How you are treated by one or more co-workers, and how two co-workers are behaving with each other. The more important one for you is how you are treated, even though the other seems to be very inappropriate for a workplace.

Keep this as your focus: What is happening that prevents you from doing your work effectively? Things that impact you directly DO have that result, so you should take action about that. Things that don’t impact you directly may be better left alone, unless it becomes so bad you MUST do something, or unless something criminal or harmful overall occurs. That will require you to decide how bad things actually are.

You said the male employee was not showing you respect and that an HR investigation did not disclose any evidence, since it was one person’s word against another. That is not uncommon and you can see why it might end up like that. Anyone can claim anything and if there is absolutely no evidence it wouldn’t seem right to discipline someone. You wouldn’t want it to work against you in that way! In addition, there is a big difference between harassment and having someone be obnoxious, rude or hostile. You don’t say what the person did or how you responded at the time, but it may be that HR felt the harassment policy did not apply in the situation. Or, they may have felt the incident was not so severe as to need strong action. I wasn’t clear about the overall result. If your organization instituted training and a new policy, that would indicate they did, in fact, take action, just not disciplinary action.

I often advise people who have a conflict with an individual, harassing or otherwise, to send a short business email to that person stating clearly what was said or done and asking the person to stop the behavior. If the person responds, there is documentation of his or her thoughts. If the person doesn’t respond it at least shows an effort was made to resolve a problem. Or, if something is said face-to-face, that gets it out it in the open and may stop it right there. Confronting appropriately isn’t easy to do, but often is all that is needed to stop a situation. Harassment policies always say you can go directly to HR or a supervisor, but the reality is that many situations can be and should be handled by adult individuals without bringing in the big guns. I’m not saying that is always the case, but it is something I always suggest as a starting point. It is usually better to say, “Please don’t talk to me in that tone of voice.” Or, “I really don’t feel comfortable hearing remarks like that.” Or even, “That’s gross! Don’t say something like that to me again!,” than it is to immediately file a formal complaint.

In your case, you’ve already gone to HR and it was handled as an employee disagreement rather than harassment. Apparently the problem hasn’t occurred again. If it does, tell the person doing it to stop. Then, write down what happened, when it happened and what you did about it. You can decide if you want to go to your supervisor again, but if you don’t you at least have documentation for the next time. It may be the behavior is so severe you shouldn’t wait for a next time and one more event would be enough to go to your supervisor again. That is something you will need to decide.

2. Now, what about the behavior you saw? I’m trying to picture how it could have happened and find it somewhat difficult, given underwear, pantyhose, clothes and height issues, but I’ll accept your account, that the employee actually had her dress up and underwear down enough to show her naked crotch area to a male employee while they were standing at a copy machine in a business office! You say they immediately left the area.

Let me note here that you said they “had sex” It does not sound as though that happened. That points out how important it is to be absolutely accurate in what you report. Only state the facts, not your interpretation of them. If you are wrong in your interpretation, it takes away from your credibility. For example, what if she was showing him her underwear, not her genital area? It wouldn’t be appropriate to show underwear, but it would be much different than showing something else! What if she was showing a tattoo on her stomach or a pierced navel? That would be different too. So, whatever you do about this, be certain you only state what you actually saw.

Believe me, I think it sounds like you saw enough to blush! I just want you to be sure to have all your ducks in a row, if you do have to report this at some point.

For now, you have no proof of this and they likely would deny it. She seemed willing I presume, and it was accidental that you noticed anything. If you had any indication that the woman was being forced or was humiliated or afraid, that is something else. But you need to find that out. At the very least, you need to say something to her about it, if you feel upset about it.

Send an email to the woman involved, or write her a note and make a copy for yourself. Write something like this: Shirley, I’m sure you saw me when I walked into the copy room and you had your dress up in front of Hal. It looked like you were showing him your private parts. If you were being forced to do something you didn’t want to do, I will support you if you want to make a formal complaint. If you just made a mistake of judgment, I will help you this time by not saying anything about it. If you want to talk about it, that’s fine. If not, I’ll assume it won’t happen again. Mary.

If she responds to that, you’ll either find out she needs your help or you’ll find out she wants you to stay quiet. If she talks to you, simply say you don’t want to see that kind of thing again and mention that all you want to do is focus on your work and not be bothered by the man involved or anyone else. If she gets nasty with you about it, that might show you that warning her isn’t going to help very much. Still, unless you think there is a strong reason to report it, I would certainly think more than twice if I were you. If she denies it, you know what her story will be if you DO report it and you also know you won’t be able to prove it. If they are not fired, you will still be working with them and that could be very, very awkward!

Whether or not she responds, keep a note of the date you saw the event and the date you contacted her about it. Then, let it go unless something else occurs. There are those who would say you should immediately report it, but I see it differently. What good will come of that? If they have been doing terrible things to you that make it impossible for you to work, that’s one thing. If not, that’s something else. If may be that choosing to not make an issue of this very bad judgment by them, will make them aware of their debt to you!

You know your situation best, and there may be many issues that will figure into your decision. I just think it is something you need to consider from a big-picture of you and your work there.

3. One part of this is your overall work situation. Usually if one person is mistreated so are others. If you think you are the only one, evaluate the situation to find out why. In addition, employees who have a strong working relationship with others, including supervisors, tend to have more influence when it comes to situations like these. Make your chain of command start with your supervisor. HR is a resource for when your supervisor can’t or won’t help. But your supervisor is the one to start with. Work to solidify your ties to everyone, but especially to those who can support you when you need it. That is not being phony, that is just realizing that you will work better when you have resources to assist you.

If there is conflict over other matters, make it your goal to do what you can to resolve those conflicts. Be a valued employee and a valued co-worker. That will tend to help in many ways. Do not gossip about any of the people involved, since that could get you in trouble and won’t help. But, if someone comes to you with concerns, support them as you would want to be supported. Go with them to the supervisor and see what can be done to make the work environment better.

4. For right now, send the note or talk to the female co-worker. If you don’t want to do that, consider letting it go for this time and focus on work and other issues. If you are treated wrongly by either of them, speak up at the time in an appropriate way. If that doesn’t help, ask to talk to your supervisor, or write to your supervisor and discuss how your work is being effected by what is happening. Ask for assistance and provide all the evidence you can. You may not have witnesses to specific occurrences but people can tell what is happening in the office around them. If you are a good employee and are being treated unfairly, others will know it.

Best wishes with this challenging situation. If you have the time and wish to do so, let us know what results.

Our concept of WEGO relates to finding solutions to tough problems in way that builds better relationships and mends fences.

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.