Sexual Harassment: Are you Tony?

Sexual harassment policies should be taken more seriously. Our companies’ futures could depend on it.

Sexual harassment is something we really don’t think too much about anymore – except when someone makes an untoward remark or inappropriate joke.  Even though every allegation of harassment is supposed to be taken seriously, perhaps because the policy has been around so long,  garden-variety sexual harassment claims are dismissed out of hand or not seen as serious or to-the-point enough to warrant action.

Let me tell you a true story about a situation that almost drove one of my employees to the brink, and could have jeopardized our company, as well.

When sexual harassment policies were newly mandated, we followed all the rules. We wrote the policy, delivered it to everyone in hard copy to be inserted into each individual’s Policy Manual and held meetings with various groups, even the highest levels of management, to discuss it.

There. We’d done everything right. You’d think that was the end of THAT subject. Time passed. Then one day, a young woman asked if she could talk to me privately.

Her co-workers had told her “Oh, that’s just Tony being Tony,” she sobbed, as she sat in my office.  “But he makes me very uncomfortable, and he makes comments all the time. The girls told me that he’s harmless. They said he’s a geek and he’s just awkward around women. They say, Don’t worry about it. That’s just Tony being Tony.”

I asked why she hadn’t come to someone sooner. She said she had tried to ignore it and didn’t want to make a fuss. “But today he muttered something under his breath like, ‘That’s one good lookin’ skirt.’ That did it.  I just can’t take this anymore.”

“Oh, that’s just Tony being Tony.”  I discovered during my investigation that if I heard that phrase once, I would hear it 10 times. As I interviewed several key employees they reiterated, “Tony is harmless.” “Tony is just a geek.” Etc.

“Tony is just being Tony,” really summed up their attitude toward this man.

Sexual harassment, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. Once she felt “uncomfortable” she should have followed her instincts and gone to her supervisor.

However, by talking about it with others, even though sexual harassment complaints are supposed to be treated as “hush-hush,” the whole office seemed to know that Tony was under the microscope. I confronted him. He felt he’d done nothing wrong. I explained that his actions were being perceived by another as provocative and sexually harassing.

He left my office understanding that if there were any more such incidents, there would be more serious action to the point that he could put his job in jeopardy. He also left terribly embarrassed. He knew everyone “knew.”

As I noted earlier, sexual harassment is something we really don’t think too much about anymore – but we should. We should be reviewing the policy with all of our employees at least yearly. Since most offenses are minor, and culprits realize their faux pas immediately, apologize, and are more cautious in the future,  no further follow-up is done.

Unfortunately, sometimes you find yourself faced with someone like Tony, and in no uncertain terms he has to be told that he can’t go on “just being Tony.”

Author: Carol McManus

Carol G. McManus is a former NYS Workers’ Compensation Commissioner, H.R. specialist, business consultant and owns the firm Carol G. McManus Consulting, LLC

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