Expert Advice

When Does Creepy Workplace Behavior Cross the “Line”?

| Updated June 3, 2018

A hostile workplace can manifest in many ways. How do you know if your situation applies?

Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, MissionBox co-founder and CEO, offers her response to the MissionBox DoubleTake — a column that offers opinions about the peskier aspects of working in the nonprofit sector. The opinions offered here are based on the author's personal nonprofit experience and may not reflect the opinions of MissionBox, Inc. These opinions should not be considered legal advice or used as a substitute for professional legal consultation. MissionBox readers are invited to submit alternative responses, which may be published here as well.

I just got a new job — my first as a fundraiser for a charity! I’m thrilled to use my skills and help our great nonprofit grow.

One big problem with my new job is my too-chummy boss. He makes what feels like inappropriate comments, but always as a “joke.” He also stands a little too close to me or leans over me at my desk in a way that makes me feel a bit trapped. And he shares information about his home life that is too personal. I don’t want to hear his woes regarding his unhappy marriage and lonely evenings. It’s creeping me out, but there is nothing he’s done that is obviously crossing the harassment boundary line.

I don’t know how to handle this situation. Is my reaction worth discussing with him? Maybe he’ll fire me? He does makes me uncomfortable, but that’s not a crime or even against any of our HR policies. Nonetheless, I’m feeling this discomfort more, day by day, and my failure to somehow stop him feels more and more like a tacit approval of his behavior.

Any suggestions?

Kathryn says …

To quote components of the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment, "Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)."

I am not an attorney, but it sounds that you dealing with a hostile work environment and it's your employer's fault. Personal space boundaries vary depending on cultural differences, but he is repeatedly crowding you and invading your personal space. His inappropriate jokes and using you an unwilling sounding board for his marital problems is also highly suspect.

Is this man your direct boss? If he is, I’d contact a board member and ask for guidance. It is generally frowned upon to go around your supervisor to a board member. However, in cases where the supervisor is acting in a manner that creates an unsafe workplace or the potential for a future harassment claim (if this escalates, which it may), it is acceptable. Therefore, it is appropriate to go to the board, if you are afraid to speak to your boss for fear of retribution.

Overall, the scenario that you describe is fairly typical of what women endure in the workplace: like a nasty drip, drip, drip that wears us out and impacts our sense of confidence and self-respect.

It behooves all us to speak up and keep on speaking up against this type of intimidating and intrusive behavior, for your own good as well as for others. For instance, I don’t doubt that this man has been acting in this “creepy” way, or worse, for years. He gets away with making you uncomfortable in part because no one has challenged his right to do so.

You sound like a bright, eager professional that wants to change the world. Don’t let this stop you! If the board won’t listen or respond, they are all part of the problem and find another job where you will be treated with the respect you deserve.

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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