It doesn’t matter your age, cultural background, educational level, degree of emotional intelligence, marital status or professional achievements; people can be hard to read, difficult to interact with and often impossible to be around.
Aside from helping us to develop patience and a sound understanding of how to effectively interact with a wide range of characters in life, what people with insufferable personalities and deeply entrenched conscious or unconscious biases can, and do, offer us is the chance to explore rare opportunities for personal growth.
From the lascivious male colleague who insists on making unwanted physical contact with you every time you pass in the hallway, to the intolerable boss who asks intrusive questions about your personal life or who makes remarks about your physical appearance at networking events with the aim, perhaps, of reducing you to a mere ornament.
Among other things, what the rapid escalation and longevity of the #MeToo movement has served to reinforce is that the world is, lamentably, filled with bullies, biases, prejudices and people in positions of power who are willing to exploit the vulnerabilities or ambition of others (often women) for personal gratification, gain, or games.
The trick for successfully navigating life, then, is to develop the emotional intelligence necessary to identify and avoid people who are potentially harmful to you or your career and to report those engaging in unlawful sexual harassment or assault in the workplace.
The psychology of harassers
Pain and suffering
People who are in pain tend to cause pain to others.
It might stem from a low social status, an unhappy childhood, an abusive parent or partner, an underlying medical or psychological condition, chronic pain, a traumatic event, deep-seated emotional insecurities or hang-ups, or a combination of factors.
Whatever the reason, the universe deals out some cosmic blows and no one is able to navigate life completely unscathed.
Some (let’s call them Category A people) deal with adversity in a healthy way by dealing with the problem head-on. They look at hardship as an opportunity for personal growth and put a positive spin on lessons from difficult experiences to enhance their lives, or the lives of others, in the future.
Others (let’s call them Category B people) blame the world for life’s inevitable phases of suffering. They rarely engage in introspection or personal development and allow deep-seated emotional or psychological issues to fester. An unfortunate by-product of this can be chronic emotional pain, jealousy of others, unhappiness, resentment, a sense of sexual entitlement, a mindset that the world owes them something, the tendency to be easily threatened by the opposite sex resulting in sexual aggression, or difficulty engaging in healthy and meaningful relationships with others.
The inability to view the world beyond the narrow lens of their unique life experiences, perspectives and biases, coupled with a lack of self-awareness and an awareness of the unique sensitivities of others can manifest in Category B people engaging in harassing and other destructive behaviours.
Among other things, in the workplace this can manifest in making lewd comments including put-downs of women, staring inappropriately, making jokes at a female colleague’s expense or blurting out sexually inappropriate remarks with little regard to the recipient or the likely impact.
Identifying inappropriate behaviour at work
In a professional setting, a social, or networking event, experiencing sexual harassment can be a devastating, humiliating and intimidating experience.
One of the best ways to identify inappropriate behaviour or comments is to pay attention to how that person makes you feel about yourself.
How are you feeling emotionally?
- Has your confidence taken a significant blow?
- Do you feel ill-at-ease or on guard?
- Do you feel defensive or threatened?
- Are you holding tension in your body?
- Has your fight or flight response been engaged? That is, do you feel like getting away from this person as quickly as possible?
- Are you self-berating for not standing up for yourself?
How are you feeling physically?
- Is your heart racing?
- Have you developed a headache?
- Do you feel sick to your stomach?
- Threatened or harassed?
- Has your bodily integrity been compromised? That is, have they invaded your personal space or made physical contact with you?
In many cases, inappropriate behaviour manifests in subtle, subversive, blink-and-you-miss-it conduct or comments about your physical appearance, intelligence or capabilities delivered with a smirk and feigned sincerity.
Think about how Trump interacts with highly intelligent women with thinly veiled contempt.
Identifying sexual harassment in the workplace
To be considered sexual harassment, the behaviour must be unwanted. In the circumstances, a reasonable person would have expected you to be offended, humiliated or intimidated by this behaviour.
- How are they standing? Are they too close?
- Are they making sexual advances such as invading your personal space, staring inappropriately, requesting to go on dates, making sexually explicit or suggestive jokes?
- Are they commenting on or making sleazy comments about your physical appearance?
- Do they corner you at your desk or somewhere else where you can’t get away?
- Have they made unwanted physical contact with your body?
- Are they making unwelcome comments or gestures with sexual overtones either verbally or in writing?
- Are they asking too many questions about your private life?
- Are they sending text messages outside work hours, especially late at night, or emails requesting sexual favours?
- Do they have pictures of naked men or women in the bathroom or on their screen saver?
How to deal with sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is unlawful. It is also against the law for your employer to terminate your employment or demote you for making a complaint about sexual harassment.
Developing your capacity to read people, to understand their behaviour or underlying motivations is a life skill. The trick is to spot these kinds of people early using the above indicators and to avoid an unpleasant interaction altogether.
- Early detection
If you do find yourself in a situation that makes you feel harassed or uncomfortable, maintain your poise and keep a level head.
As soon as you are able, extricate yourself from the conversation. Don’t fall into the trap of being drawn into a conversation you are not comfortable having or tolerating comments that make you feel harassed or threatened.
If you cannot remove yourself from the conversation, tell the person to stop making inappropriate comments or use strategies employed by politicians to shift the conversational landscape to something you do feel comfortable discussing.
- Record it
Make written notes of the times, comments or behaviours and dates the sexual harassment occurred. If you do decide to take further action, you have a complete record of that person’s inappropriate behaviour.
- Report it
If you are experiencing sexual harassment or assault in your workplace, don’t hesitate to report it to your employer or, if that is not productive, to the police.
There will be internal guidelines and sexual harassment policies in your workplace on how to make a complaint to your employer.
- Complain to a Tribunal
If the complaint is not resolved, you may make a complaint to the relevant commission or board in your state or territory or to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Complaints must be made in writing or by email. You can download a complaints form or complete the online complaint form. Making a complaint is free and can be made in any language, including Braille, or verbally on a video or audio tape. The Commission can also help you write a complaint if you require assistance.
The Complaints section of the Commission’s website has more information about the complaints process. To discuss a complaint with a Complaints Information Officer, call 1300 656 419 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Local police assistance line: 131 444
- New South Wales
- Western Australia
- Australian Capital Territory
- South Australia
- Northern Territory
Get in touch with a counselling service:
- National Counselling Helpline: 1800 737 732 (1800 RESPECT) (National)
- National Sexual Assault & Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service
- Sexual Assault Services Throughout Australia
- Reach Out
- Centre Against Sexual Assault