I’m the first to admit, there is a long list of things I’m no expert in. However, there do exist some things that I’m well versed and skilled in. Trigonometry? No. Chemical Engineering? Not that either. Workplace inappropriateness? Yes, 100x yes.
Being an HR professional, I have witnessed, investigated and provided counsel in workplace inappropriateness (as well as full-blown harassment) for years. I have listened to detailed reports from individuals who courageously spoke up, as well as from those accused of wrongdoing. And, as luck would have it, my expertise was further sharpened by the fact that I’ve been on the receiving end of workplace inappropriateness. We’re talking major inappropriateness (you-must-be-joking-you’re-in-Human Resources kind of inappropriateness) in the workplace. This “gift” so to speak, has allowed me the perspective to better understand similar situations, in all their nuances: the politics, the emotions, the conflicting views, all of it.
I’m a firm believer in the fact that the challenges we face are far greater teachers than the easier times in our lives. So, armed with that belief, my personal experience(s) and professional expertise, I’ve come up with 3 steps for every woman (or person) who finds herself in an uncomfortable, inappropriate or downright inexcusable situation at work. I’ve personally followed these steps as well as recommended them to countless others. Read on:
- Document. This is the most important step, seriously. As an HR professional, I cannot stress this step enough. And, you don’t need to be a superior wordsmith to do this effectively. Stick to the facts, provide as much detail as possible and document exactly what happened. Try to do this in a timely manner immediately following the occurrence or as close to the event as possible. Even if you're second-guessing documenting, do it anyway. At this point, the documentation is only for you and intended to memorialize what occurred.
You might be thinking, “This seems so formal, I’m probably overreacting,” but I assure you it’s not. Trust me on this one. If you never do anything past this step, at most you’ve lost 5-10 minutes of time. If you choose to do nothing more than document today and there are future occurrences, you have a clearly documented example of past behavior. There is only upside here in terms of saving yourself a lot of time and energy down the line.
It’s possible this step has you thinking about something that happened in the past and wondering “why didn’t I document sooner?”. Start today, think back to the prior occurrence(s) and document as much information as you can recall. It’s not too late.
What to document: (who) who was involved, (when) date/time of occurrence, (where) location of occurrence, (what) situation/event, any action taken, resolution (if any).
- Discuss. Relay the story to a very close friend or relative (“your person”) to gauge their thoughts and reactions. Sometimes in situations like this, we start to doubt ourselves and our experience. There is a lot at stake - career, dignity, reputation, credibility and it’s easy to talk ourselves out of how the situation made us feel. Consider this a “reasonable person” test. Is “your person” shocked? un-phased? concerned? Their thoughts and reactions are a helpful data point. I’m not suggesting that you should base your view of your experience on someone else’s opinion, but I don’t want to discount the importance of having a solid confidante to bounce something off. This step helps to ground you and gives you an outsider’s perspective.
- Do Something. Now comes the time to reflect and decide. You can choose to 1) do nothing (which is still something) 2) speak to a superior or boss about the event 3) file a formal complaint with, or report to HR 4) consult with legal counsel –formally or informally. In today’s cultural landscape and on the heels of the #MeToo movement, should every woman feel empowered to speak up if they are made to feel uncomfortable? Yes! Our workplace should be a safe space.
Will every woman feel empowered to speak up? Absolutely not. Ultimately, you need to do what feels right for you; after all, it’s your experience. Professionally, I strongly encourage you to evaluate the situation and speak up, especially if it's particularly egregious and compromises your or anyone else's safety. Personally, I understand the conflict you might feel in speaking up and the nuances of every unique situation.
Know you are not alone. There is a movement of women who have walked a similar path, as well as tools and resources available to support you, as you courageously, bravely and powerfully make your decision. You’ve got this and "we’ve" got you.
Elizabeth Newhart Coaching offers coaching and consultation services for women and groups navigating harassment in the workplace. Visit elizabethnewhart.com or email at Connect@elizabethnewhart.com to discuss your story and learn more.
 This step should trigger a formal investigation