How to Respond When You’re Being Harassed at Work

How to Respond When You’re Being Harassed at Work

Image of woman harassed at work

Unlike negotiating for a higher salary or applying for a promotion, being harassed at work is not something you anticipate needing to deal with when starting a new job or navigating your career. 

According to, 60.3 million Americans reported workplace bullying or harassment in 2017. Being harassed or bullied at work can catch you off guard emotionally, especially since work is supposed to be a safe place where everyone should be focused on the company’s goals. 

It can be intense, distracting, and crush your work drive if it’s not addressed quickly—which could lead you down a rabbit hole of other problems. You know you need to speak up about the harassment, but it can often be an extremely difficult or downright awkward conversation to navigate. Who do you talk to? What do you say? Will anyone believe you?

As a crisis communications strategist, I’ve seen and dealt with almost every imaginable awkward or bad situation in corporate offices and small businesses. Especially with the awakening of sexual harassment and #MeToo movement exposure, it’s important that anyone being harassed has the right copy bible language and power phrases they need to stay in control of the situation.

One example of harassment comes from a local colleague of mine. It’s common knowledge that he stands a little too close, demands hugs, or will sometimes pull women onto his lap—all in professional settings or events.

Some people are okay with his behavior. Others are not. If someone is crossing the line with you, you need to clearly and considerately state your boundaries. 

Here’s one way you can directly address inappropriate harassment at work:

“My preference is for you to stand a little further back. If I’m ready for a hug, I’ll let you know.” 

You can rewrite this for any situation you find yourself in. Just fill in the actions below: 

“My preference is for you to [desired action]. If I’m ready for you to [undesired action], I’ll let you know.”

Another common workplace harassment issue is the “joker” who is always using “I’m just kidding” as their follow up defense to saying hurtful, inappropriate things. 

For example, I have blonde hair and have many times been called “Blondie” in front of colleagues, clients, and other professionals. Here’s what I’ve said:

“I prefer that you address me by my first name.”

Of course, you know the joker will say “I was kidding, you need to relax” or something along those lines to shift the blame and focus back to you. And that’s okay, because you can still hold your ground by saying:

“That may be so. But my preference is still for you to refer to me by my name.”

What makes workplace harassment difficult is that these are often not clear cut issues, and sometimes it’s easy to read something as harassment when that person may just have a personality you don’t gel with.

If you’re sure it’s harassment and a colleague is making you feel repeatedly uncomfortable, then it’s time to talk to HR or your boss. 

Here’s how you can start that conversation:

“I need your help. I am uncomfortable with [undesired behavior]. I understand you rely on me to help with customers. However, my preference is for you to be the one having direct communications with this person. I’m also looking to you for a plan on how to resolve the issue. How would you like for us to proceed with that?” 

Be prepared to hear, “I don’t know what to do,” or “I need time to think about this.”  

In both cases, you should ask for the date when they will be ready to proceed with a plan and hold them to it. 

Always document the situation, including: 

  • • Dates and times of the incidents with precise facts of what occurred 
  • • Dates and times that you’ve expressed concern to your manager 
  • • Any response your manager has provided or issue resolution plans that have been made

In general, be mindful of the use of emotionally charged words like “assault.” Even if that’s what it felt like, it’s important to stick to the facts in the documentation. 

If neither your boss nor HR offer you support, then you may want to evaluate a potential job move or legal action. Your physical and emotional well-being may depend on it. Because the truth about harassment is it rarely goes away on its own. 

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