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Harassment in the Workplace

Imagine this scenario… you’ve had a long day behind the chair with facials and bikini waxes scheduled one right after another. Your feet are tired; your neck hurts… even your hair feels like complaining. You’re dying for some relaxation and pampering of your own and can’t wait for your next appointment with your favorite massage therapist. Now towards the end of your shift, you’re sitting in the break room waiting for your last client… finally. As you sit there, rubbing your temples trying to keep a headache from creeping on, you feel a set of hands on your shoulders unexpectedly.

Startled, you turn around to see one of your co-workers, James, standing behind your chair. “I know you need a massage,” says James. “Just let my fingers do the walking over your aches and pains.” You think to yourself, “Wow, I really need a massage, but I don’t feel comfortable with this. I feel like I’m being hit on. Is something wrong with me? Should I ask James to stop or would that come across as ungrateful?”
Before you can decide, you are alerted that your remaining client has arrived so you jump up, muttering a quick “thanks” and run off to start your session. The next day you see James in the hallway between appointments. James passes you and says, “I’ve been looking for you so we can finish what we started yesterday.” You again feel uncomfortable ad make a mental note to avoid being alone in the same room for fear of being “treated” to another uninvited massage session.
What has happened between you and James? Was this just a case of co-worker camaraderie or was it something else? Could it have been sexual harassment? In a caring profession such as aesthetics, we often assume that everyone has only good intentions and that everyone in our workplace can get along no matter what. But the truth is, even if others’ intentions are good, often the words they say and actions they take can prove to be offensive and hurtful to others in the workplace. If you based your answer about this situation on James’ actual or supposed intention behind giving you the massage, well think again. Whether or not this experience could be construed as sexual harassment is completely up to the recipient of the touch or action. If you felt uncomfortable with what happened, then this could be a case of sexual harassment.
Did you see yourself in this scenario? Have you been the person providing or receiving the impromptu massage or uninvited touch at work? The likely answer is yes for almost everyone in the touch-providing spa and salon industry. We touch people for a living all day long and are good at it. It seems only natural to assume that all touch providers like to be touched as well, right? But the truth is, when we touch others at work without permission, we are possibly guilty of some level of sexual harassment. Many forms of uninvited touch in the workplace can be considered inappropriate, especially if it is an ongoing issue. This is true whether the touch comes from a co-worker, supervisor, client, or vendor.
So what besides uninvited massage can constitute sexual harassment? Most people think of sexual harassment as what is referred to as Quid Pro Quo harassment. This type of harassment occurs when someone is asked to give something, such as sex, in order to get something, such as a raise or promotion. And while this does happen in the workplace, the other more common form of harassment is known as Hostile Work Environment harassment.
What “hostile work environment” means is that the actions or comments from someone in the workplace makes for an uncomfortable and difficult place to come to for the “victim” or one being harassed. Any behavior or action in the work environment (or at work functions) that has a sexual component to it and creates a hostile work environment for others can be construed as sexual harassment. One comment, joke, or incident may not be enough to be considered harassment though. It usually, but not always, takes repeated or ongoing incidents for something to be considered a problem and is dependant upon the severity of what has occurred.

Here are a few examples of Hostile Work Environment harassment taken from The Employer’s Legal Handbook:

· Posting sexually explicit photos that offend employees

· Telling sex-related jokes or jokes that demean people because of their gender

· Commenting inappropriately on an employee’s appearance

· Requiring employees to dress in scanty attire

· Repeatedly requesting dates or sexual favors

· Having strippers perform at a company gathering

· Stating that people of one gender are inferior to people of the other gender and can’t perform their jobs as well

Other things that could be considered harassment include vulgar language and obscenities, suggestive or offensive gestures, sexually offensive cartoons and e-mails, and of course various forms of unwelcome touch including pinching, grabbing, and even hugging. Interestingly enough, to be a victim of harassment, one does not actually have to be the “target” or recipient of the actions, but can also be an observer or someone that overhears comments or conversation not meant for them to see or hear.

Let’s look at another workplace situation. John and Mary are standing by the front desk waiting for their clients to come in. The clients, Mr. and Mrs. Fuentes are supposed to be getting a couple’s facial and massage at 2:30 and are late. Mary says, “Gosh, I wish they’d hurry up. I don’t understand why Mexicans are always so slow. They must be taking a siesta.” John says, “Oh I’m sure they’re just caught in traffic.” Mary replies, “Yeah. Or maybe they had a hard time getting over the wall at the border.” She is surprised when John says, “I can’t believe you would say something so insensitive” and storms away from her.

What just happened? Well it is clear from John’s reaction that he was offended by Mary’s comments. It may have been the first time something like this has happened and if so, probably would not constitute harassment. But just like with sexual harassment, when a person’s actions, comments, or other behaviors are offensive and pervasive enough to cause another employee to experience a hostile work environment, then harassment has occurred.

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, harassment relates to any behavior that demeans or discriminates against persons belonging to a variety of protected classes. These include race, religion, color, gender, national origin, disability, age, and even familial status. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states, “Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance.” Visit their website at www.eeoc.gov for more information on the specifics of Title VII and other workplace laws.

In our previous incident, Mary finds herself wondering why John got upset. John isn’t Mexican and neither is his wife. No one around them at the desk was Mexican and the clients weren’t there yet so they couldn’t have heard anything. Later Mary finds out that John’s step-mother is from Mexico and that he has two half-siblings who are half Mexican. She feels terrible and apologizes to John, saying she didn’t know he had Mexican relatives and will be more careful about what she says around him. John accepts the apology. However, he also let’s his supervisor know about the incident just in case anything like this happens again. He’s not convinced that Mary is completely sincere since she’s only promising to watch her comments around him. And by letting his supervisor know about the issue, the company will be better prepared to deal with any future issues between John and Mary as well as other complaints. The employer would be wise to talk to Mary and to make sure she has some sensitivity or diversity training to prevent future issues from coming up.

So what can you do to prevent harassment in the workplace? Preventing harassment begins with having an awareness of what behaviors constitute harassment. If your company already has an employee manual and harassment/sexual harassment policy, take time to read and familiarize yourself with it. Make sure you understand how they want any problems or complaints to be handled. If no policy is in place for harassment/sexual harassment, talk to your employer about this article or suggest they visit the EEOC’s web site. Suggest a staff meeting on raising awareness of the issue and implementation of a policy and complaint procedure. By adding regular trainings and a company policy on these issues, your employer will be much better protected should any problems come up, so they should be glad to follow your suggestions.

If someone makes an offensive or discriminatory comment or action towards you, tell the person their behavior or comments are unacceptable to you, just like John did. Second, ask them to stop the behavior immediately. Whether they agree to stop or not, tell your supervisor about what happened so they can make a note about the incident. If you don’t want to involve your employer, at the very least, document in writing exactly what happened, including any witnesses, and put your notes in a secure place. If the harassing behavior continues, file a formal complaint with your supervisor or HR department. Note that this will usually promote an investigation into the issue but that your complaint will be kept as confidential as possible during the investigation. However, it is illegal for someone to retaliate against you for making a harassment or sexual harassment complaint, so you should feel very safe in doing so. If nothing is done to investigate or stop the behavior, you can also file a complaint directly with the EEOC. Note that this is an extreme action and should be done only after all other avenues have been exhausted.

On the employer’s side of things, it is important to have a company policy in place and to keep the staff informed about the policy. This can be done by having regular reviews and updates of the policy, by posting the policy and other anti-discrimination materials in the break room and other staff areas, and by providing ongoing training about harassment and diversity awareness. When incidents do occur, the company should immediately investigate the action as confidentially as possible and be sure their policy is followed and enforced.

Lastly, from a personal perspective, take the time to broaden your horizons about all types of people, cultures, and groups. Become aware of your own thoughts, actions, and attitudes. Learn to be more tolerant and respectful of others traditions and beliefs. When possible, work towards developing an understanding of why people are the way they are or do the things they do. Whether we like it or not, we all have some inherent biases about others. But we also have the ability to move beyond them by opening our minds and hearts. By doing so, we make the spa and salon what it is supposed to be – a place that is healing and caring for everyone that walks inside it.

Felicia Brown, LMBT is a licensed massage therapist and the owner of Spalutions!, a consulting firm that strives to educate, motivate, and empower spa and healing arts professionals. Contact Felicia at www.spalutions.com or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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