Three months ago, I started a new job. Things were great at first, but now that I’m no longer the “new girl,” some of my co-workers are showing their true colors.
One of my managers makes a lot of off color jokes and nearly all of my colleagues join in the “fun.” It makes me really uncomfortable but as a junior person in the office and one of the only women, I don’t know how to respond. I couldn’t love the work I’m doing more, but I don’t want to work here if this is how the office operates. Some of my friends have said I just need to ride it out, but I’m not sure I should.
What would you do?
First off, this isn’t about what I would do. It’s about what you are going to do, and what is right for your situation. No two women would react to your situation in the same way, and all I can offer is my best advice. The ultimate decision is yours and yours alone.
Never Say “It’s Okay.” When people, esp. men, say something that they know is inappropriate around a new person, they tend to half-heartedly apologize. They’ll look at you and apologize, but most won’t mean it. In this moment, you have a unique opportunity to stop these comments from happening in the future.
Co-workers, like toddlers, test your limits to see what they can get away with. Am I allowed to say this around her? Is she okay with that? Etc. If you respond to his “apology” with, “Oh, that’s okay,” or “It’s fine,” you are giving him permission to behave this way. And yet, women will very often, almost as a reflex, dismiss statements they know are not okay just so they don’t rock the boat.
We don’t want to be seen as not being a team player, and so we condone behavior that isn’t acceptable. And we need to stop, especially if there are younger women around looking to us to be an example.
Is this common? There are many workplaces in this country where employees regularly tell off color jokes or making comments that any judge would consider sexual harassment. Most of these workplaces will chock up their unprofessional behavior as “just how we do things” or fostering a “relaxed” environment. Some even take pride in their unprofessionalism because they see it as striking a blow to the evils of political correctness.
So, yes, just judging from the experiences of my immediate friend group, it is fairly common. But this does not make it right. As more offices try to build morale by relaxing the rigid standards of professional decorum, lines get crossed and people start letting their hair down. Eventually they start talking to their co-workers the way they talk to their friends over drinks.
Resources. Ask a Manager has written extensively about harassment in the workplace. So I would definitely spend some time on her site. The website Your Office Coach also has a good list of steps to follow when you’re deciding how to approach the situation.
Not All Harassment is Sexual. A co-worker who vocally and routinely belittles your work, your appearance or mocks you is harassing you. If one of your co-workers routinely makes you the butt of his jokes or goes out of his way to upset you, that is harassment. So if you dread going to work because you don’t want to deal with a co-workers behavior, you may also want to consider how to address that situation.
Steps Moving Forward. The first thing I would do is talk to my co-worker. Uncomfortable? Yes. Necessary? Yes. Because if you skip this step, your boss may decide that you are “overreacting” and your co-worker will feel like you’re a tattle tale. So calmly explain to your co-worker that the joke he told or the statement he made made you feel uncomfortable. Calmly ask him not to make comments like that around you anymore. If he tells you that “this is just how we do things,” then explain that it’s frequency doesn’t make it okay and explain that if it continues, you will report him to your supervisor or HR.
What happens from here will determine whether you need to talk to a supervisor or file a formal complaint with HR. But I believe you should always give the person the chance to correct his or her behavior first.
Keep a Written Record. If you work in an environment where harassment and uncomfortable situations abound, it’s good to keep a record. Write down what was said/done, who said it/did it, who else was present and the day and time on which the incident occurred. Also save any harassing emails that may be sent to you. And record any conversations had with superiors or HR about the issue.
You may never need to use this information, but it’s very important that you have it. If things progress to a level where you need to furnish proof, this record will be invaluable to you.
It’s Okay Not to Fit In. The biggest lesson that women in the workplace need to learn is that it is okay not to be a team player when the team’s game of choice is unprofessionalism and harassment. It’s okay to walk away from the water cooler or turn down a Happy Hour invite if you don’t want to be a part of the group. If maintaining a professional-level of decorum means you won’t be fully accepted by your peers at work, then that’s what it means because you are judged by the company you keep.
Harrassment in the workplace is a complex issue, and this post hasn’t touched on a tenth of the options available to women who believe they are being harassed. If you take nothing else from this article, heed the first part about not saying that harassment is okay. You don’t need to be aggressive about it, you can simply say, “I don’t find that funny,” or “That’s not really appropriate,” or even just walk back to your desk. But never tell someone that the joke or comment you know is wrong is okay.
This is an important issue, so hopefully readers will leave their own thoughts in the comments.