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Harassment: Stop being a victim; stand up to workplace bullies

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.


If I swatted one guy, I swatted a couple hundred. Occasionally, literally. Most often with words that started with “Touch me one more time, and I’ll ….”

There were no human resource departments for my first 20 years in the workplace, so when the guys got out of hand — and they always did, do, will — I did my own investigation and subsequent discipline. The investigation took about two seconds: Is this guy simply doofus clueless or is he a world class bully?

There were the cops who treated me first as a potential date, mate, daughter or wife, then as a reporter. (Most were doofus clueless.) The publisher’s right-hand man who sat in meetings across from me and never took his eyes off my legs, even when I had my 6-week-old son in my lap. (Bully, but not world class.)

The philandering boss who had a “reputation.” (Bully and doofus clueless.) Should have been turned into human resources. No one did.

There was the publisher who called me “little girl” for three years. These days someone would turn him in, which would have been a huge mistake. He called me “little girl” and he opened every door — literally and figuratively — for me expecting nothing in return but a professional journalist. He was a major good guy.

Stand up for yourself because no one else would. Doofus clueless got a gentler, kinder discipline: You wouldn’t want someone behaving like this with your wife, mother, daughter, sister. World class bully got the “do it again and I’ll….” Most of the time it worked.

Because it didn’t always work, we needed new workplace rules of engagement. We got professional human resource departments, new policies and rules, all of which had good intentions and for the most part have been good for workplaces and employees. There is a but…

But, one of the unintended consequences is that we’ve created a “victim” culture, especially when it comes to hostile workplace and sexual harassment claims. The rules are clear: If you’re uncomfortable, tell HR — and HR is obliged by state and federal laws to open a formal investigation and resolve the complaint.

In less politically correct words: Don’t worry yourself; daddy’s here to take care of you.

The unintended culture that’s evolved says the employee is the victim of bad coworkers, vendors, bosses, management. There’s nothing strong, willful, successful or empowered about being a victim.

I’d suggest we re-up on teaching employees — men and women — how to confront a bully in the workplace. Coworker telling off-color, racist, or just too many stupid jokes? Chattering ceaselessly? Swearing? Wearing clothes that smell or reveal too much skin? Too much perfume or aftershave?

Please don’t make complaining to the boss or HR the first step. Turn around and tell said coworker to knock it off.

Tired of the boss staring at your legs, chest, abs? Tell him “makes me uncomfortable. Could you not do it?” Did he touch you one time too many? Look him in the eyes and say “Touch me once more and I’ll grab you by the (‘er) throat.”

Head for HR when doing that a time or two doesn’t work. Stop being a victim.

GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain says “Herman must be Herman.” Not in my book, Herman. I’ve heard countless guys say that kind of thing when they’re excusing their inexcusable  bully behavior. It’s code for saying “stop being so sensitive, you silly little girl. Let the big guy be the big guy.”

Back in the day, little Herman, I’d have asked you nicely not to treat me like your wife. Do it again, and I’d have suggested a more aggressive solution. Do it a third time? Time for a trip to HR. No, Herman, Herman must not be Herman. Because I am not a victim.


  1. Linda Grist Cunningham

    With you 100 percent, Elaine. Have opened those investigations more times than I care to count. And, have been grateful equally as many times that I had that legal hammer to use. In the olden days, it was too much “yeah, boys will be boys.” My concern is that I find many workers start with HR because they don’t want to, or don’t know how to turn to a co-worker and have a conflict conversation. I’m not talking about the really bad power trips. I’m talking about those who head to HR with a hostile workplace claim because the person in the next cubbyhole is wearing too much perfume. Rather than go one-on-one and tell the coworker, into my office they’d come, and off to HR we’d go.

  2. Elaine Clisham (@eclisham)

    Had to ask an ad director once if he’d mind looking me in the eye when we talked (not mentioning specifically the slightly more southern geography on which he tended to focus). It totally embarrassed him, he congratulated me on how observant I was (i.e., both eyes worked), and it never happened again.

    On the other hand, one of my early challenges as a sales manager was when I started to get reports of one of my sales reps making a couple of the women in the office uncomfortable. I talked to them, and they indicated that they would tolerate one instance of bad behavior but not a second one, and so far there had only been one. I promised them that dealing with harassment was not part of their job description, and that they only needed to tell me if a second instance occurred and I would take it from there. I then went to my boss to seek counsel on what else, from the company’s point of view, might need to happen and specifically if/how I should talk to this rep based on the one instance. His response? “Hey, good for him! Guys will be guys.” Sigh. Thanks for the help, dude.

    Harassment is usually motivated by a power imbalance, and because of that power imbalance not everyone is comfortable confronting the perpetrator. So while your advice is good, there are many people who will feel too threatened by what they might lose to follow it. And really, it’s not what they signed on for.

    As a manager, if you’re presented with a harassment situation, you are LEGALLY OBLIGATED to address it as part of your responsibilities in protecting the company you work for, even if the victim doesn’t want it addressed and the higher-ups don’t want to hear it. You can handle it in a low-key manner, but you have to handle it, otherwise you’re excusing it as a representative of the company and any subsequent legal action will take that into account. Linda, you’re very tolerant; I would make a trip to HR mandatory on the second offense, and I would document the first conversation so that I had it if I needed it for that trip. I think the people who feel powerless to do this on their own depend on us for that.

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