One of my readers asked for my thoughts on this subject, so I will do my best to summarize observations I’ve made over many years.
First of all, people who make overt sexual overtures to unreceptive strangers are usually trying to be noticed. It is their way of saying, "Hey look! I am really somebody! Notice me!"
A fearful response from the target of their attention acts like a turn-on to them and encourages them to continue. Only when one has the ability to confront this abuse without getting upset is there any potential for controlling the situation.
These harassers suffer from low self-esteem and hitting on a helpless target somehow lessens their feeling of inferiority. You will notice that these people often work in packs. Any woman who walks where groups of idle men congregate has experienced this unwelcome attention. A similar action takes place on assembly lines where women workers may make lewd comments about shy young men.
When one singles these harassers out by name, they tend to fall silent in embarrassment. This behavior is most prevalent in an unmanaged group. If there is a boss on the site, he is probably not involved as he is most likely to recognize the economic drawback of complaints. Asking where the boss is can shut off comments permanently in a well-managed environment.
The other, and more frequent, source of sexual harassment is the co-worker or manager who is all hands and takes every opportunity to make personal remarks about your looks and your appearance. These sexual advances may not be blatantly overt, but they constitute harassment if you don’t welcome them. The harasser can be male, but in today’s business environment, can easily be female. The harasser may also be of the same or opposite sex.
These harasser seem to have an overweening self-confidence, but in actual fact, they need strokes from others so badly that they approach people who do not invite or welcome their advances. Once again you have the spectacle of someone attempting to attract favorable attention from another person without actually communicating with them. Fear or shyness seems to encourage them. Calm confrontation with total intention will stop them in their tracks, as it snaps them back into present time and a semblance of sanity.
When you are not the target of this offensive offensive, you watch the harassment and see the actual interplay more clearly. Sometimes the target is flattered at the initial attention and responds in a way that encourages the harassment to continue. Sometimes the target is a new employee and fears for the loss of the job if they complain, so they try to make light of it and don’t take action to stop it cold. They justify their tolerance by the fact that jobs are hard to find.
So they are, but maintaining your integrity is far more important than keeping a job while turning into somebody you despise.
You can only handle harassment, by steeling yourself to talk openly about it to the person who is doing it and to everyone in your team, including your manager. Try not to get overly emotional or tearful. Cold fury will work, but determined antagonism will be far more effective in getting attention.
If you work in an environment that turns a blind eye to sexual harassment, you need a strong stomach and a good lawyer. You may be able to clean up your workplace and make them pay, but it won’t be easy. Thoroughly document what is happening and communicate your case to HR first. If you get the cold shoulder at your HR meeting, find a good lawyer.
If you are called back into HR, you may want to take your tape recorder with you and turn it on openly. They will pay a lot of attention to you at that point. They may try to make you turn off your recorder. They may even threaten to fire you and you will have it all on tape.
(I’ve made use of this when there was no other option. I pulled out a tape recorder and turned it on in two meetings where I knew the facts were going to be twisted. In both cases, the meeting came to an abrupt halt and the subject was dropped. I still have the tapes. :))
The more likely outcome in a degenerate workplace that allows harassment is that you will throw a scare into them and they will take the first opportunity to fire you. If you document everything and get witnesses, you may have enough of a case to get satisfaction. See a lawyer before you engage in precipitate action, but do take action to end sexual advances and harassment when they occur.
Do your best to end the undesirable behavior. If you can’t stop it, then it is time to step up the gradient and make a case of it. If that doesn’t work for you, leave and find a healthier place to work. Better workplaces are out there, if you look for them.