It is important to be deliberate and strategic in the way we talk about and deal with sexual harassment. In Career Defense 101 (my first book), I explain the seven strategies I use in teaching my clients how to defend their careers from sexual harassment so that they can advance in fulfilling work. Those seven strategies are...
Strategy 1: Law. When women do not understand how the law applies to their particular situation (or whether it applies at all), they often accidentally do things that make it more difficult for the law to protect them. When a client comes to me, I first consider the law and help them understand how the law applies to their situation. Usually, this is somewhat simple. The most important thing to know about the law is that there are time limitations on any legal claim, so it is very important to have a lawyer evaluate how the law applies to your particular situation early so that you make sure you know all of your options.
I always tell my clients that the law only addresses a very narrow amount of wrong things, and it is very particular about the procedures it uses to address that narrow amount of wrong things. One of the biggest problems I see is women avoiding legal advice because most law offices are set up to file in court, rather than to help women actually address and end the harassment they are experiencing. There are often many steps women can take to end harassment before filing a lawsuit, though traditional law firms may not be equipped to teach them. For some people, a lawsuit is the best option, though, and things have gone so far that a lawsuit is necessary. I always hope for my clients that a lawsuit does not become necessary, but if it does, I’m prepared. Juries, the courtroom, and litigation in general are incredibly fun when they are encountered with strength and love. A lawsuit, if it is necessary, can be something that shows you how strong you are.
Strategy 2: Reality. In many cases, either the law does not apply to a sexual harassment scenario or my clients want to deliberately choose a strategy that is contrary to what the law expects. I always tell them that it is better to defend your career and thrive in it than to have a good legal claim, and I wholeheartedly believe that. If every woman who consults with me could stop the harassment she is experiencing and thrive in her career, with no legal claim, I would be incredibly happy for them. But, ending harassment and thriving is very different than ignoring harassment or backing down and justifying it. Ending harassment comes from a place of strength and love; ignoring or justifying it comes from a place of fear. With each of my clients, from accountants to lawyers to nurses to entrepreneurs, trusting their intuition (listening to their gut) is crucial to being successful in encountering harassment. In encountering harassment, every person is unique in the realities of her situation and what will be best for her, her family, and her career.
Strategy 3: Mapping. When clients come to me, they often have no plan for moving forward and feel stuck in what is happening to them. Either they think there is nothing they can do to end the harassment, or they have already quit a career and are unsure what their next step will be. I help my clients map out their next steps. In order to map out their next steps, I help them understand what they are thinking right now that gets them the results they have now and what they will need to think in order to create the results they want. Now, it’s easy to misunderstand this step and think that I am saying my clients’ thoughts are drawing harassment to them. That is not what I’m saying. Your harasser’s behavior is his own responsibility, and you did not cause it. And, your actions in how you respond are your responsibility and created by your thinking. Many of us, when we experience harassment, make it mean incredibly cruel things about who we are and what we deserve. When our best friend experiences harassment, we know it says nothing negative about who she is and only negative things about her harasser. But, when it is about us, we stay stuck or confused because we are in a struggle with ourselves.
Strategy 4: Action. Many people feel stuck in indecision about whether they are really experiencing harassment and what they want for their lives, which keeps them from moving forward to create the life they want. I teach my clients how to be proactive, moving toward the life they want, rather than just reacting to what is happening around them. In creating the exact life you want, you have to honor and be deliberate about what you say “yes” to. I choose the word “yes” deliberately, in part because there is so much drama and stigma around the word “no.” We try to teach girls how to say “no,” and then we blame them for boys’ behavior when they grow up and the boy doesn’t listen. Then, those of us girls who have been in that position rebel against the unfair expectation that we have to say no and boys get to do whatever they want. Don’t put your brain on “no.” Put your brain on “yes.” Don’t look toward what is unacceptable, but honor the enthusiastic, passionate, heart-pulling yesses in your life. For every “yes” in your life, it represents many, many other things you are saying “no” to, and so each of your yesses is incredibly valuable. Many of us were raised that it was our responsibility to take care of other people’s feelings, and so our “yes” becomes people-pleasing instead of something valuable that we honor.
Strategy 5: Consequences. When we are stuck in indecision about whether what we are experiencing is okay and arguing with ourselves about how to move forward, we usually make ourselves small and unconsciously make more space for harassment. We are so busy struggling with ourselves that we are basically rewarding the behavior we don’t want. In order to get past that, I help my clients deliberately define their boundaries and set consequences for boundary violations. I had a client tell me the other day, “I don’t like the word ‘boundaries.’ It’s so squishy.” I had to agree with her. One time, I was reading a record of a conduct proceeding against a student who had been harassing his colleagues. The women who were bringing the case against him explained that they had tried to set boundaries and let him know it was not okay to touch them. “But, what if my boundary is to touch them?!” the man exclaimed in the hearing. It’s time to redefine boundaries (or at least get back to what boundaries really are). When we talk about boundaries in relationships, often we are not talking about boundaries at all – we are talking about our expectations for the other person’s behavior (my boundary is for you to love me = not a boundary; my boundary is for you to be respectful = not a boundary). A boundary in relationships is really similar to a property boundary. It is a line of where you end and another person begins, and it is your job to respect and honor your own boundary. When someone crosses the boundary, you are not helpless, just like you are not helpless if someone breaks into your home. A boundary is something for you to honor and respect in yourself and it is worth enforcing consequences when someone violates your boundaries.
Strategy 6: Creation. Creating the exact life you want is the most effective form of resistance to harassment and discrimination. When we have experienced trauma, as most of my clients have, it becomes challenging to envision a healthy future for ourselves and impossible to envision the exact life we want. But, new research shows that some of the most dramatic creation can come from a traumatic event. Now, I’m not saying we need to go seek out traumatic events to create growth – life presents enough of those. I am saying that plants sprout from broken seeds; the lotus flower grows in the mud; the phoenix rises from the ashes; diamonds are made from incredible pressure on coal; pearls are made from sand irritating clams; and all of the other analogies you’ve probably heard a million times. If that is too abstract for you, what I am saying is this: I don’t care where you are or what you have been through, you can use it to create something beautiful. For someone to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychiatry manual, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), requires that she was exposed to a life-threatening, traumatic event. Many trauma researchers and practitioners who deal with trauma, however, dispute the usefulness of that requirement. Most, if not all, of us have experienced a life-threatening event. Beyond that, what each of us perceives as life-threatening is different. I will say that when, early in my legal career, my boss was giving me back rubs, I perceived that as life-threatening. I had been in other situations where I had unwanted attention from men, but I had never been in a situation where I was “not supposed” to fight back. I had literally kicked people off of me in the past, but I knew that kicking my boss would risk my career. It would not be appropriate to diagnose me with PTSD at this point in my life from that experience, and I am actually grateful (no joke, I’m not being squishy) to that boss for giving me an experience that taught me so much. But, at the point I was dealing with the harassment, I had many symptoms of PTSD. We are tough; we are strong; but, sexual harassment takes a toll. It is important to understand how trauma can affect your brain and your body so that you can be fully informed in dealing with your own personal symptoms.
Strategy 7: Purpose. Choosing a purpose is key to creating the exact life you want. Viktor Frankl, in the life-changing book Man’s Search for Meaning, described that Freud believed humans are motivated by pleasure, but Frankl believed we are actually motivated by meaning, and when we can’t find meaning, it looks like we are motivated by pleasure. I love that so much. Often, when women consistently experience harassment, we absorb the discriminatory messages in culture, and we start to believe the cruel messages that we deserve less than men. This quickly becomes suicidal thinking and self-destructive behavior. We start to believe that we do not have a purpose or – if we do have one – we’ll never find it. It is important to remember that suicidal thinking and self-destructive behavior are not evidence that we are causing harassment or that we deserve harassment. Anyone who is harassing you is responsible for his own actions. I know that is easy to intellectually understand, but often, our subconscious confuses the two. When we mistakenly think harassment is our fault, or that we deserve it, we are on the side of our harassers, and we’ve abandoned ourselves. Don’t worry. You can come back to yourself. The way to come back to yourself is to let go of judgment and decide what your purpose is. It’s that simple, even though it may be hard work to practice your purpose. The hard work is so worth it.
If you are struggling with whether your career is safe from harassment and sexism, you can find an assessment (“Is Your Workplace Safe From Sexual Harassment?”) at: https://erisresolution.com/is-your-career-safe
Nothing substitutes for having an individualized strategy created for you or having someone on your side who can help you manage this experience. But, these strategies give you an overview of the career defense trainings I offer, and the personalized strategizing I do for my VIP clients to help them overcome harassment and get the respect they deserve in their careers. As I said before, the most important lesson, which applies to each of these strategies, is to talk openly, deliberately, and strategically about any harassment you are experiencing and know there is no shame on you for someone else perpetrating harassment.
This is a selection from Career Defense 101: How to Stop Sexual Harassment Without Quitting Your Job. For a free copy of the book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon or Barnes & Noble (paperback $16.95, hardcover $24.95).