“But that’s not what I meant…”

The focus on sexual harassment cases in the news media lately caused me to think about my own experiences as a small business owner. Since I’ve basically worked for myself for most of my career, I obviously have no complaints about being harassed by my boss!

However, I have had to confront the issue in my company. Although our work environment has always been fairly casual, it’s also what I would consider “professional.” People have a high level of skill and expertise, and there’s healthy respect for the contributions each team member makes.

All except Bill (I’ll call him that to protect his identity). Bill brought a unique set of technical skills to the group, but he lacked the formal education and degrees of his team members. I believe that always bothered him, because he tended to make comments about people who were “book smart” or had “fancy pieces of paper.” Most of the time, these statements were ignored by the intended recipients. People rolled their eyes and said, “That’s just Bill.”

On one occasion, however, Bill’s comments crossed the line between OK and not OK. A young, female employee came to me in tears…upset about comments he made related to her gender and race. I had no choice but to act. I marched my 100-pound self into his office, sat across from his 300-pound body, and confronted the behavior.

The response? You can probably guess. “But that’s not what I meant. I was only fooling with her. Everyone knows I joke around all the time. That’s just me.”  My response? “I don’t care what YOU meant; it doesn’t matter. What matters is what SHE inferred. She interpreted those remarks as sexual harassment, and sexual harassment is against the law…as well as our company policy…”

For employers, this is an important distinction to remember. “That’s not what I meant…” can’t be an excuse for illegal behavior. The courts don’t care what the harasser intended. Draw the line quickly and clearly. Sexual harassment is no joke!

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