Leading through Communication: Dealing with Workplace Harassment (Part 2)

“A victim of sexual harassment can be a man or a woman. The victim can be of the same sex as the harasser. The harasser can be a supervisor, co-worker, other Department employee, or a non-employee who has a business relationship with the Department.” (U.S. Department of State)
In my story the victim is a woman, Ruth, who is John’s (the team leader) deputy. The harasser is Ron, senior manager. You also meet Ruth’s colleague in the story. Her name is Emily (John’s personal assistant).

John was still sitting in the cafĂ©, where he had lunch with Ruth, and thinking about her words….

He felt he should be patient and cautious. However, it was not the first time that John had dealt with harassment in the workplace. Ruth’s position was not quite clear to John. What did she really want? He had more questions to ask her but he had to wait till she had time to continue their conversation. Would she be open with him?

John decided to go back to the office and wait for Ruth there. He paid for lunch and went out. It only took him 10 minutes to get back to the office.

John was glad to see Emily in the office because he wanted to have a look at the power point presentation that she had prepared for him. Suddenly he saw Ruth entering the office. “John, I am back. Let’s go somewhere and talk.”

Some minutes later they were sitting in a small conference room. “Ruth, you forgot this envelope,” John started without delay. Ruth was confused when she saw the envelope. “Aha… The envelope… Thank you. I don’t know what is inside. Hmm…I hate to speak in riddles. Let me have a look.” She took the envelope, opened it, looked inside, and said nothing. Her reaction piqued John’s curiosity. “It’s from Ron,” Ruth started slowly “he is inviting me to the opera this weekend. There are two tickets for my favorite opera…Oh, my god! What should I do?” John looked dumbfounded. He wished he knew what Ruth was going to do with the invitation. “Ruth, I guess we spoke about harassment in the workplace an hour ago. You complained about Ron and his words. I suppose you know that only unwelcome conduct can be harassment. If you welcome Ron’s invitation, then we should change the topic,” John explained.

Ruth didn’t reply at once, and when she did her tone was guarded: “What do you mean exactly?” He explained to her patiently that she had to decide whether to welcome Ron’s behavior or not. If not, she should make her response clearly because Ron might be unaware of how his actions were perceived. “Trust your instincts,” John added “if something makes you uncomfortable, there should be a reason.”
Ruth paused before she answered: “You are right. I need time to think this over. Anyway I’d like to solve the problem informally. What should I do in this case?” John racked his brain thinking of why Ruth had told him so little about Ron but decided not ask her any questions at this moment in time. “Well,” John said, trying to sound calm “tell Ron what you think about his behavior and ask him to stop it; take care of yourself and stop worrying. Keep a harassment diary and write details including witnesses, time, day, place and so on. The situation should be monitored.” Ruth took a deep breath, sat back in her chair, and gazed at the envelope. “Thank you. I think I know what to do now,” she muttered “sorry, I have to run again.”

Ruth left. John wondered whether he had found the most tactful way of dealing with her problem. John loved the words “leadership is solving problems”. He was sure he had given Ruth a good piece of advice. Would she follow it?

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