Situation 44: inappropriate behavior, sexual harassment

Femsy and Mansy are still sharing the office together. The working relationship has stabilized over time. Lately, however, Mansy starts to make sexually tinted comments to Femsy and is touching her when she is passing.  Femsy reports the incident to Boss.

(Click on the pictures to see them in full size)

A great leader:

  • Takes notice of her feelings during interactions with others and responds to them rather than ignore feelings of discomfort;
  • Sets and communicates clear boundaries of what is and is not acceptable behavior to her colleagues;
  • Confronts colleagues who act disrespectfully towards others;
  • Acts with integrity and regard at all times to her colleagues;
  • Is a role model to others.

How to best handle the situation:

If you are receiving unwanted attention in the form of sexual harassment from a male (or female) colleague you need to address the situation directly:

  1. Recognise when your colleagues are just joking and engaging in banter – light-hearted teasing is fine, so accept it as that. If you have that sort of easy relationship with your male colleagues, you are probably able to ‘give as good as you get’. However, be attune to whether comments are made in this spirit or if there is something deeper going on.
  2. If you feel that a male colleague has crossed a line and either said or done something (for example, ‘accidentally’ touching you) that you find unacceptable, tell him so. Be firm. You can say something like, ‘You are making me feel uncomfortable, please stop.’
  3. If possible, stay out of his away as much as possible or ensure there are others present during your interactions. (In the above scenario this is not possible unless Femsy moves office, so she needs to be unequivocal in commanding him to stop and discourage his advances at all times.)
  4. It is worth documenting the behavior so that you have a record of each instance. If your colleague persists in his behavior, you should inform him that you are keeping a record and will report the matter if he continues.
  5. It may be helpful to have someone to talk to about the situation. Choose your confidante carefully as you need to trust that he/she will have your best interests at heart and not act alone in trying to ‘right the wrong’. If your confidante is someone who knows the perpetrator, it can give you a helpful perspective on his behavior – from ‘He behaves that way with everyone.’ to ‘That’s terrible, you should take action!’
  6. If you cannot resolve the issue alone, take the next step, which is usually to inform HR; they are trained to deal with these issues sensitively and can advise you of the organization’s policy and the next steps. You may also want to tell your line manager at this time.

Learning suggestions:

  • It is important to speak up if you feel that you (or others) are being harassed at work. This not only stops the perpetrators in their tracks but also establishes a role model for others to follow. Call out inappropriate behavior as it happens.
  • Examine your own behavior at work; it is only natural to join in the office banter and make fun of your colleagues. The same is true for gossip. However, this can be potentially damaging and hurtful to the person on the receiving end, so be careful in what you say or do. If you are being light-hearted make that clear. If you notice that the object of the fun goes quiet or leaves the room, this is a signal that something has gone wrong. Have a conversation with him/her to find out what the problem is so that you can modify your own behavior in similar situations in the future.
  • If you observe inappropriate behavior by a man towards a woman (or vice versa), particularly if there is a potentially sexual element to it, take some action. Talk to the woman to find out how she feels about the exchange. If she is upset or uncomfortable, explore ways in which you can support her to resolve the problem.
  • Ensure that you dress appropriately for your work environment; not overtly sexy clothes that detract from your professionalism and ability to do your job.


  • Let your capabilities speak for themselves; demonstrate your knowledge, skills and experience in your dealings with male colleagues so that they respect you for what you do and the value that you bring.

 Femcommunity tips:

We welcome your thoughts, experiences and comments on how you would deal with such a situation.

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