How to create a healthy work environment and end sexual harassment without quitting

When Anna came to me, she had been ignoring sexual harassment for almost a year. She justified her boss’s inappropriate and aggressive behavior, saying it was probably a cultural misunderstanding or an age difference. Every time something happened, she was in shock. “This couldn’t really be happening,” she thought.

She didn’t want to give up her job, which promised much more money than her previous job. Because of a recent divorce, she felt pressure to support her children and to prove she could be financially self-sufficient. She kept ignoring and justifying her boss’s behavior because she didn’t want to deal with it.

She thought her only options were to ignore it, to create a huge conflict, or to leave and lose this job opportunity. An exceptionally smart, capable woman, Anna was never taught that there are safe, simple ways to end sexual harassment and advance in her career. Like many of us, it didn’t even occur to her that was a possibility.

Unfortunately, Anna came to me after things had already gotten physically dangerous for her and she had quit the job. The harassment made a huge impact on her life because she was never taught how to end it safely.

Some women naturally understand how to end sexual harassment safely, protect themselves, and advance in their careers. I was not one of those women, so if you are not either, I got you. When I encountered sexual harassment, I was not willing to just give up on my career to get away from my boss, so I researched, read, went to trainings, talked to professors, and did whatever I could do to learn how to end sexual harassment safely and in a way that protected my career.

Through everything I learned, I was able to confront the harassment in a way that my harasser apologized, changed his behavior, and we were able to work together for years after. Now, I know that it is possible to create a healthy work environment and end sexual harassment without quitting.

Here are three tips from what I learned:

First, Going Along With Bad Behavior Encourages It. If you were taking care of a toddler who was having bad behavior – say he’s hitting other kids and stealing cookies – it would encourage him to continue that behavior if you laugh at it, ignore it, and then leave the playground so he can have more space. Often, this is exactly what we do, though, with sexual harassment. When we abandon the playground (our jobs) to go find a different playground where there are no mean kids, we are giving space to the mean kids. Now, sometimes that may be the right decision, and each of us has to make that decision for ourselves, but leaving our jobs makes more space for our harasser.

But, how would you treat a toddler with bad behavior? Is this situation really so different?

Second, Our Stories About The Harassment Are The Most Painful Part. Harassment happens in a moment, but our thoughts about it can continue on for years. I often see with my clients that they get trapped in a debate about what the harassment means about them: They think something must be wrong with them, and then they argue back that nothing is wrong with them. Trapped in this debate, they dwell on the harassment and it has a long-range impact on them.

Someone else’s behavior means nothing about you. Take control of this story and question it.

Third, Committing to And Investing in Yourself Is The Key. When we get trapped in a harassment story, we are devoting a tremendous amount of time and energy to our harasser. We are basically giving away energy that we could be putting into ourselves. One of the most poisonous things I see my clients believe when this happens is that they “shouldn’t have to” invest in themselves or in solving the problem. If you are not invested in yourself and moving forward in your career, who is? Living your best life is your responsibility. It is absolutely worth investing in your career and putting your energy towards that.

Don’t let harassment derail you. You are the perfect person to solve this problem. One thing to remember is that the women coming after you will have to deal with this problem, too, if you are not willing to commit to your career and solve this. I support any woman who wants to leave, and of course, if you are in physical danger, protect yourself. But, leaving and quitting are not your only options. There are ways to clean up toxic work environments and end sexual harassment without quitting.

About the Author

Meredith Holley

Meredith Holley

Meredith Holley is a lawyer, life coach, and bestselling author of the book Career Defense 101: Is Your Career Safe From Sexism? Meredith helps women clean up toxic work environments and end sexual harassment, without quitting, so that they can focus on work they love. For a free copy of Meredith’s book, visit www.CareerDefense101.com.

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