Getting Control: Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

by Lee Taylor | January 30, 1991
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This is the first of two articles on sexual harassment; the second appears in the Spring 1991 issue.

It is useless to deny that women can be victims. Increasingly, the secular press documents it. The Christian press has long acknowledged it in society at large and is now beginning to acknowledge it even within the sacred walls of the church of Jesus Christ.

More and more cases are being documented of Christian husbands beating their equally Christian wives, often very submissive wives.1 An organization even exists to help church structures deal with pastors who sexually harass or abuse women under the guise of “pastoral counseling” and to train seminarians in proper sexual ethics of the pastoral roles, when counselees are must vulnerable.2

People are also beginning to acknowledge that sexual harassment and violence exist on the job, even in strongly Christian organizations. I recently stood beside a woman in such a situation. (In referring to her in this article, we will call her Sue.) I, too, had experienced sexual harassment on the job, but in a secular context. I found few differences in what needed to be done between the secular context and the Christian organizational context.

It is important that we, as women, are prepared for the possibility of serious problems, that we do not overreact, and that we handle ourselves properly. Failure of self discipline in these areas will inevitably result in a vicious cycle of victimization. However, a single event of being victimized need not result in a life of victimization. It is important prayerfully to get in control of the circumstances that initiated the victimization.

There are many forms of pain and deep suffering in which it is not possible to gain control. The life of Corrie Ten Boom in the German concentration campus is an example. There is a very little one can do at the time under such situations. But that is not true of most victimization of women in our modern Western societies, particularly in the Christian work context. Even in secular employment, there are usually mechanisms to get out from under the victimization and gain a measure of control.

Having said that, a word of caution is in order. Media analysts tell us that we have learned through TV to expect the solution to all problems in the duration of a one-hour show. Not so! Gaining control of a situation of victimization may take months. My situation was resolved in about 45 weeks. The woman we are calling Sue finally began to see her way out of it in about 24 months. That is a long time to endure pain. Sometimes very severe pain.

If we become a victim of harassment or violence from a superior in either a secular or Christian organization, we must be prepared for prolonged and very deep pain. While we realize that we will grow enormously through that pain, we must look beyond the pain. Know that there is an end, even if the end is not in sight.

How does one establish some degree of control? It is important to bond together with other women who are also potential victims of the situation. It is also important to bond together with women who are beyond the scope of the situation for prayer, for support, and for a sense of unity. It is important to take actions that will have a positive effect and inject some sense of meaning to the pain.

Even the thinking process that I am going to advocate here cannot usually be done alone. The pain is too overwhelming. It blocks our reason. It is important to have someone talk you through it. If you are victimized, you need someone who is rational and logical. In the first hours after the situation arises, you may meet someone who listens well and emphathetically, but seems unsympathetically rational. That is the person you need most, and it is usually another woman.

Maintaining the Truth

First, you must document the denial you are experiencing. You will normally be dealing with male managers. Expect their denial. That is all you are likely to get. Report what has happened, but expect denial and a total lack of action.

Give the first manager you talk to time to act. Ask for a report on actions taken, expecting that none were taken. Indicate you intend to pursue it further. If there is no reaction or further denial, take it up the ladder to the next higher manager. Expect denial every time.

The natural reaction to expected denial is, “Well, if nobody will believe me, why bother?” You are doing this for truth’s sake and truth is part of the nature of God Himself. You are doing this for your sake, and you are created in God’s image. You are a valued part of God’s creation, just as valuable as the men. The prophets often stated truth and were often disbelieved. It is not your job to force belief, but it is your job to be faithful to the truth as a Christian, a child of God’s. Declare the truth as quietly, firmly and nonviolently as possible. Leave the belief or disbelief in God’s hands. Make sure that the authority structure of the organization has heard the truth.

Since the concern is for absolute truth, document it. Write it down. Keep a diary. Jot down every time you approach your management, date, time and person spoken to, with as accurate a record as possible of the conversation, in detail. Why? In deep pain, it is far too easy to drift from the truth oneself. Reading a record kept as it happens keeps you in tune with the truth. Never exaggerate as you write. If necessary understate rather than overstate your circumstances. Never compromise on truth. There are so many ways you can lose your own sense of integrity that it is critical to be absolutely scrupulous about language that you can control.

I told you to expect denial. You may actually get something worse than denial. You may get accusations. If enough managers tell you that in some subtle way you were the one really responsible for provoking the man’s onslaught, you can easily begin to doubt yourself. You will begin to doubt your own perceptions, to doubt even what you saw happen, what you experienced. You can feel you have drifted into a “never-never” land. It is essential to keep your integrity.

If you have an accurate, unfudged record of the facts, when the accusations start spinning around in your head at 3:00 AM (and they will), you have a record of truth to go back to. If you have compromised the record, you have nothing. A prayerful rereading of the record will go a long way to helping you find peace. After reading it, read one of the Psalms where David deals with his accusers. It is easy at these times to identify with Psalm 6 or 27 or 42. Take advantage of them, but note that they all end with hope in the Lord, not with anger.

Set Goals

Lay out some goals for yourself. I suggest you begin by listing all the people involved in the situation. This includes yourself, the man or men, the other women who are possible victims (if any), and the disbelieving managers. It also includes the organization as a whole. Then set goals for relating to each.

When Sue and I did this, we came up with something like the following:

For herself:

Professional psychological help for lack of sleep, (She had had less than 2 hours sleep for a number of nights when we first talked), for severe weight loss and for depression.

A support network: CBE was providing that through two of us on call for her.

An apology from the man.

Help from her organization, particularly for the cost of the counseling she needed.

For the other women in the office:

(The circumstances indicated a generalized threat, rather than a specific interest in and threat to her.)

Their safety:

We explored the women getting together to agree not to leave one another alone with this man at any time, to watch out for each other.

Their encouragement:

We explored their having a time of prayer together at regular intervals to deal with their fears and to pray for each other.

Agreement from the organization concerning women working over-time alone with this man in the office.

For the organization:

An appropriate training program on sexual harassment and developing good relations between the two sexes working together.

A policy on ways of dealing with sexual harassment.

For the man who had victimized her:

A recognition by the organization that he was under severe psychological and spiritual stress, so they would get him professional help.

Help for the man’s wife and family, if necessary.

For Christian women at large:

Use of this event to heighten women’s awareness of the situation and of ways of dealing with it. (This article is a result of that goal).

The Church at large:

Awareness of the fact that such things happen, and development of a willingness to deal with them.

These were roughly the goals that Sue and I developed together as we talked extensively in one session.

Working the Goals

Before encouraging Sue to implement the goals, we discussed roughly how realistic they were. One by one, we went through them and listed what it might be realistic to expect. In these very difficult situations, it pays to be realistic and expect that many goals will be met only in part.

I remember hearing from her one day when she had “attained” the goal of an apology from the man. His apology was so poorly done and so wrapped in self-justification that it was hardly an apology at all. Unfortunately, her organization considered it an apology and put her at fault for failing to accept graciously the “apology”, an “apology” that consisted primarily of accusing her of having misunderstood the whole thing.

It is critical to be realistic and acknowledge that many goals will be met no better than this. Your natural reaction may well be anger. Fine! Go and kick a wall! Start to pray and shout it all out to God in your own words or in the words of one of the angrier Psalms. God has heard it all before. But it is important to keep cool, to stick with the truth and be as gracious as possible.

In the case of the apology, you can point out that it really was not an apology, because the man gave no indication of having done any wrong, of desire not to do something again, or of recognition of your value as a person with whom he needs to be reconciled. That is dealing with the truth. Do it as quietly as possible and bring the meeting to a close as graciously as possible. With a Christian management team, a single event, such as the terrible “apology” may not carry much weight, but a consistent dealing on the level of truth and grace will.

Learn the Procedures

You will be doing all this through some form of organizational structure. Learn the rules.

When I was involved in a situation in a large company, I went several levels up in management, giving each manager I approached two chances to respond properly. Then I found a woman friend who I suspected would know the rules very well. She told me what the procedure was for going beyond my own managers. Now I would have to deal with relative strangers in the Human Resources division. I found the procedure was very distasteful, so I gave it one more try in my own organization. It failed. However, scripture does not say that standing for truth and justice are fun things to do! We are even told in the Gospels to expect some pain in the process.

Finally, I went to the Human resources expert on sexual harassment. I learned that my division had successfully avoided implementing the standard corporate training program on sexual harassment, based on the argument that they had never had any problems. I was declaring that argument false.

I had my goals firmly in mind. For one thing, I did not want the man fired, because he had an invalid wife and was just a few years short of legitimate retirement. I made that a condition of telling my story.

Goals prevent deep regrets at the consequences of the natural progress of the machinery in a large organization, once you get the machine moving. I had learned enough about the process so that I was reasonably sure he would be fired, had I not intervened. I learned these things up front and saved myself the added pain of having done undue harm to a lonely, but very silly, man. Living with deep regrets and guilt for the results of my actions, whether justified or not, is another way I could perpetuate the sense of victimization. Even unjustified guilt is a damaging thing to live with.

That clarified my goals. There were 30,000 people in my division. I wanted the training program put in place for those 30,000 people. I was in the process of leaving the company, for reasons unrelated to this incident, but I saw the first round of seminars held before I resigned. I achieved that goal. I heard through the grapevine that the management fought it all the way to the bitter end, even calling the Human Resources manager at home late the night before the seminar and begging that it be cancelled. I was amazed at the level of fear. Actually the seminar went very well, with minimal repercussions.

The seminar opened with a “white lie.” Our manager got up and introduced the seminar as a normal part of the corporate training requirements and not the result of any particular incident that had occurred. I had not discussed the situation around my work group, so only the managers knew that for a lie. This was one time when correcting that statement unnecessarily would change nothing for the good. Moreover, a disturbance would defeat the cause of justice in getting the seminar into every work group of the organization. I left the “white lie” on someone else’s conscience. These are not easy decisions, even if we keep our goals carefully in mind. I was angry and it is  hard to make good decisions when that angry – it takes God’s grace!

Sue, on the other hand, was in a much smaller organization with less clearly defined procedures. She took it as far as she could through her organization. During that time, I advocated that she do her job with as low a profile as possible. It seemed her best objective should be to get out of the organization and carry her goals forward after leaving.

She was deeply angry and wanted to explore options with a lawyer. All her woman friends were recommending that she sue the organization, but that is rarely a means to any goal except vengeance. Although she did consult a lawyer, I continued to suggest she explore options all she liked, but she should not take action until she was safely in another job.

Learn the Consequences

Every action is likely to have serious ramifications. Experiencing sexual harassment or violence may be the first time in life that a woman is caught in a situation where every possible choice of behavior can have such complex results.

For example, in this day and age, it seems natural to go to court, immediately. Why not? At least, why not immediately?

For one thing, it may seem terribly unimportant to sue a former employer when you are settled in another good job. For another, new employers do not seriously consider the job candidates who are suing, or have sued, their former employers on the theory that suing employers can be “habit forming.” This is the most obvious way in which women make themselves secondary and tertiary victims of the original situation. A law suit makes getting another job in the same industry very difficult indeed. No matter how unfair the practice is of discriminating against employees who sue their employers, it is a fact of life.

I had to think through how I would feel if I got a very silly man fired. Sue had to think of the safety of the women who were blithely going about their daily work, unaware of this man’s potential for explosion at any time. In these circumstances, we had to think of the possible extreme consequences of action and also of refraining from action. As women of God we had to explore what our consciences might have to deal with the rest of our lives. Very natural, but unthinking, actions can leave us with a load of guilt as bad as the victimization itself.

Sue and I talked about making something public. I am writing this article, not Sue. My situation is many years behind me and did not occur in a Christian context. It is better for me to do the writing. You, our audience, are helped more by a reasoned article than by the outpourings of anger that are only natural when close to the event, anger that you would have heard from me a number of years ago.

Sue and I discussed what would happen to the organization if such a story were made public. Because of the nature of the outfit she was working for, it would be affected far more than most Christian organizations. Careers would be damaged for the sin of denial, a common knee-jerk reaction of male managers. It was even possible that a worthwhile organization would be totally destroyed. If not, it could be so caught up in litigation that it would be rendered ineffective for years. We looked at these possibilities. Sue told me of a few letters that had come into the organization in recent days, letters of high praise, containing thanks to God for deep spiritual help. Sue humbly confessed that she could never live with the idea that she had destroyed all the good, no matter what the organization had done to her.

How is anger perceived? That perception is important in accomplishing goals. Violent anger increases the possibility of backlash. Explosive anger will label the shouter with all the worst sins of the worst forms of feminism. Violently angry women are often accused of being the real “cause” of the inappropriate behavior of the man or men. This kind of anger sets off even greater defenses and prolongs the period of denial. No matter how righteous the cause, or even how godly and appropriate the anger, it will not be perceived that way in modern American institutions if the anger is expressed in a manner that seems uncontrolled.

In addition, a complaint of sexual harassment in an organization goes against all that men have been taught about good organizational behavior. We often laugh at and sometimes condemn the “old boys network” but many organizations are held together by that phenomenon. Without the “old boys network” they would fall apart. Moreover, among men, it provides a human dimension to organizational behavior, without which the dehumanized “organizational man” of the classic novel quickly becomes a reality. At stake are all the aspects of work relationships which can seem most deeply human, and call for the greatest bonds of love and loyalty.

For a woman to accuse one of the men in this network of this kind of behavior tears at the very fabric of that network. In dealing with their managers for justice, women must realize they are setting right against wrong with the man who has wronged them. But with the mangers who must deal with the situation, they are setting one set of good values in opposition to another set. That must be done with patience and love in order to not to destroy the deepest interpersonal values between men. This is significant at a time in history when many men are lacking in deep interpersonal relationships and skills.

The Low Profile

When dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, keeping a low profile is not synonymous with the meek victimization of women throughout history. A low profile is more like keeping your helmet strapped on and staying hunched down in a foxhole, but with your gun cocked and all your apparatus in good working order. Take advantage of the foxhole walls and the metal shield of the helmet!

What are your weapons? First, a persistent statement of truth. Second, a reasonable and well-controlled anger. Third, your support network. Fourth, your goals.

Sue kept a low profile. She explored many options, some motivated primarily by fiery anger (but she got it under control before she acted). She began working on her goals and felt some sense of progress. Progress, even very slow progress, is very encouraging. Moreover, she had set her expectations low, in terms of the speed of progress. She kept touch with the two of us who had made ourselves available. We reported progress on articles being written, being sent to editors, or being discussed with Christian leaders. Small movements took place in the attitudes of her management. The women in the office drew closer together and new bonds were formed.

The man who had attacked her was himself under enormous stress. His actions toward her were done one day when his self-control slipped under the pressure. Within a couple months, his own problems were creating problems for him on the job and he was no longer able to produce responsible work. His management began to deal with him.

Sue was eventually supported by her management and her job was enhanced, as this manager was less and less able to perform. Since most of her complaints had been filed quietly behind closed doors and she had carefully followed appropriate procedures, she was in an excellent position to take advantage of the vacuum of competence. At the time of this writing, it is believed the man involved will be leaving the organization, with some degree of pressure from management.

So it is important to keep moving, but it is important to do so with meticulous care for every action taken and with the lowest possible profile. This sort of self-discipline and self-denial is enormously difficult. It is also the source of enormous Christian growth and much greater strength in the Lord.

Although results cannot be guaranteed, Sue’s situation appears to be turning out well for her. I left my company (not merely because of the sexual harassment circumstances) but nevertheless I left with a key goal attained.

Strength is not a quality our Lord gives only to men. The command, “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God…” is for us as women, too. We need it most when the battle is hottest. Circumstances of sexual harassment and violence are one place where the battle gets very hot for us. That is when we most need to draw on God’s strength. That is when we need to stand tall as God’s women. That is when we need to take control of the small segment of the global battlefield that is ours.

Notes

  1. James and Phyllis Alsdurf, “Battered into Submission”, Christianity Today, June 16, 1989, pg. 24ff.
  2. Rev. Marie M. Fortune of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, 1914 N. 34th St. (#205), Seattle, WA 98103 (206) 634-1903.
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