Controlling Sexual Harassment When You Provide a Service

Sexual harassment conversations. I have been having plenty of them! I had one unexpected outcome from asking business owners about their thoughts on the current cultural landscape and sexual harassment narrative during the “#metoo” movement. In one case I was told the issue was not in their office. They had concerns over their clients. KA-BOOM! I hadn’t even thought about preparing individuals to protect themselves from those they serve!

This problem absolutely makes sense when you think about power dynamics and their impact on relationships. It is easy to see how power dynamics in the office and a hierarchical business model add to a toxic work environment. It is no wonder feel powerless when it comes to reporting unacceptable or sexual harassment behavior.

But it can be worse!

What if you provide a service for which someone is paying a significant amount of money? Who has the “power” then? In a society with the adage “the customer is always right,” how do we hold our power and stop harassment from our clients? (This is not unlike the entertainment industry where some actors and actresses are handsomely paid and are expected to look the other way in return.)

I have heard from some individuals who reported incidents occurred when they inherited accounts when someone retired or when a family friend became a client. They thought they could trust the individual, only to discover they engaged in sexual harassment. When the account is important to the company (and to your commission), what do you do?

Handling a client who makes you uncomfortable from physical actions or verbal inappropriateness:

  1. If you are in an office and are blindsided by sexual harassment behavior, move to the door of the office to position yourself to exit the situation if necessary. Tell the perpetrator that you find those comments or actions inappropriate and you expect them to cease.
  2. Report the incident to your management and HR. Follow the procedures which your company has in place.
  3. Keep exact notes of what transpired with dates. If there was anyone else nearby, have them corroborate. Lack of documentation of sexual harassment is a key factor in women not winning cases.
  4. Educate yourself. Look up the sexual harassment laws in your state and contact a business lawyer specializing in harassment. Check your company policies and follow them to the letter.

If you wish to keep the client, do these things to control the situation:

  1. Meet in public coffee shops or stay in an open area of your office. Avoid being alone with them and do not meet them in their office or someplace they choose.
  2. Stand up and ask your client to sit. This will keep you more in a position of power and will allow you to “ground” your feet and feel more in control and powerful.
  3. Get to the point. Forget chit chat or talking around the subject. Be short, sweet and to the point. Clarity is key. What do you need? Get the papers, the signature, etc. and be finished.
  4. Have virtual contact. Use teleconference calls, electronic signatures, etc. to manage the relationship.

Most importantly, acknowledge to yourself that you feel uncomfortable and that it IS sexual harassment. Do not let doubts or others’ opinions negate your feelings or make you feel like you imagined it.

Join Moving Image Consulting to discuss this important topic of “Managing Power Dynamics in Today’s Culture” at a Chicago event on January 19th. We will also come to you and facilitate a productive, interactive, and instructional conversation for how to use nonverbal communication signals to navigate in today’s times.