Q&A: When does “creepy” cross the line into sexual harassment?
The Question: A manager told me that two female employees raised concerns about a male employee who was being “creepy”; they said he stood too close to them and made them feel uncomfortable. The manager asked them to report it to HR, but they haven’t come to see me. It doesn’t seem like I have enough to launch a formal investigation. What can I do in this situation?
The Answer: Employers have a duty to investigate and take prompt action to address harassment in the workplace. In this instance, you have a report of behavior that could potentially create a hostile work environment, so it warrants some follow-up. Harassment investigations can mean something other than the formal process of taking witness statements, gathering documents, and interviewing the parties involved; it can also involve an informal process, such as simply following up with the women to see if you can get more detail about what is happening. Don’t dismiss a report because it seems to be based on a feeling. Try to help employees identify if there is a behavior or action that is triggering it. Is there physical contact? Looks that last too long? Comments made about their physical appearance? The more concrete and specific they can be, the easier it is to address the behavior. In this instance, depending on how the conversations go with the two female employees, you’ll most likely also want to follow-up with the male employee and coach him about personal space, give him some guidance and set expectations about interacting with coworkers.
The one thing you don’t want to do is ignore this. Once the employer knows or should have known about potential harassment, there is a duty to act. The manager took the report, so the company knows about the issue. Hostile work environment claims can arise from behavior that is either severe or pervasive, and repeated actions (e.g. invading personal space) can become pervasive if they continue for too long. Too often, employees don’t formally bring these concerns forward and will instead quietly look for another job or simply avoid the person who makes them feel uncomfortable. Addressing the behavior early can help the company avoid a potential hostile work environment claim, avoid unnecessary turnover, and foster a more positive working environment.