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I work in a small company (one big office), and I am the employee that everyone goes to to solve their issue (I have been working in this company the longest). The manager of the company is overseas, so I unofficially have the responsibility regarding HR.

Today two of the female coworkers came to me saying that another coworker (a male) always stares at them in an inappropriate/sexual way.

I'm planning to do some investigation and monitoring to see if the claims are correct, and then I'm going to talking to the guy. Is this the correct approach? I'm afraid this might disrupt the work environment as we all spend most of our day in the same office.

Note : We live in a religious country and this is a sensitive subject in my country.

  • Well, i totally agree with you. It happens to me sometimes while i focus on thinking about something that i start gazing at anything without knowing. The girls told me that they gave this sometime to make sure its not an accidental gaze. and the guy is the newest member of the team (nearly 3 months). Its gonna be a nightmare as i don't think i will be able to prove it – Rick Jan 30 at 23:38
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    I unofficially have the responsibility regarding HR. Do you have any HR training/expertise? When you say you have this responsibility, do you mean you handle all HR matters or just interpersonal disputes? – BSMP Jan 31 at 8:52
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    Can you add a location tag? You've mentioned that this behavior is considered inappropriate, but typical responses to inappropriate behavior may be largely shaped by differing laws in different locations. – dwizum Jan 31 at 14:39
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    What do you mean with "We live in a religious country and this is a sensitive subject in my country"? What exactly do the cultural norms in your society say about this situation? That it is inappropriate for men to stare at women? Or that it is inappropriate for women to complain about men staring at them? – Philipp Jan 31 at 16:18
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    Is the male employee new? If not, how come the two complaints happens to be done on the same day? Either the complaint is valid and you have a workplace issue that they wouldn't come forward alone (likely). Or the complaint is not valid and you have a group ganging up on an individual (possible). Or it was a coincidence (unlikely) – Jeffrey Jan 31 at 16:27
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Honestly, I think you should have a formal private meeting with the guy before you even try to confirm the behavior. By formal, I mean that the meeting needs to have its agenda recorded. I mean nothing more than that. And if you don't want to have a formal meeting with him yet, the next best thing might be to have a quick informal meeting instead.

The quicker you address the potential behavior, the quicker he can stop it (whether the claims are true or not). And the quicker you formally address the potential behavior, the less lenient you can be with him if you catch him after such a meeting (whether the staring is intentional or not).

You could send a mass email to everyone, but in my opinion, the guy might claim that he didn't realize he was staring at anyone and so didn't think that the email directed at everyone was even relevant to his behavior.

It's also very likely that the two women in question will simply interpret the mass email as paying lip service to the policy and covering the company legally but not as taking their complaint seriously at all.

Now I understand your boss is overseas right now and that's a big part of the problem. You probably don't want the issue to escalate too quickly, especially now that your boss is not there. But if that's your thinking, you should probably talk to the two women in question and explain your reasoning to them at least.

And once your boss comes back, maybe you could try to convince him to have a formal meeting with the guy in question, or maybe convince your boss to seek external legal counsel or external HR expertise on the matter.

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  • Well, I believe that the purpose of sending the email is to alert the guy that someone is noticing his behavior, if this does not handle the situation, then a formal private meeting with the guy is my what i will do. – Rick Jan 31 at 0:36
  • The very first step is to talk to the guy, so I mostly agree with this answer. The OP only has claims from two female employees, so has to talk to the guy now, explain the complains (without saying that he did it, just that it was complained about), hear what the guy has to say and that should be the end of it unless it comes back again. – Tymoteusz Paul Jan 31 at 8:45
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    If you set up a 'formal private meeting' you already decided beforehand that the guy did something wrong and needs to change his behavior. I don't think this is warranted at this stage. Of course OP should talk to the guy, and in private but doing this in an informal way looks a lot more appropriate to me. – quarague Jan 31 at 9:42
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    @quarague but he did something wrong? maybe/hopefully not intentionally but two people credibly pointed at him as "the leering guy". So at this point a formal meeting would be proportional I think. Depending on how he reacts nothing more than a serious talk needs to come from it but i'd say that by now there is no particular reason to stay informal. – Borgh Jan 31 at 11:30
  • If you have no formal HR or managerial powers over this employee, you can't really formally do anything. Put what you've concluded in writing and make it HR and the manager's problem. – lambshaanxy Jan 31 at 14:55
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Don't talk to the person doing the leering yet.

Start with your boss. Make him aware that there is a very sensitive HR issue about to explode (one or more people could, in extremis, end up leaving the company).

Your position should be that you need to bring in an outside HR consultancy to provide guidelines on this and similar issues, and they should help you to handle this problem. Until you get qualified HR advice, you should do nothing. Why? Because this sort of issue could easily end up in a court case; you need to make sure that all your actions are by the book and above board. The HR consultancy are the people who will be guiding your actions at all times.

Your boss will probably push back on the cost of the HR consultancy - but the cost of a court case brought by any of the parties in the dispute will be quite a bit more.

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  • I agree in principle, but considering the potential size of the company and the religious nature of the country the company is located in. It's possible that they may be able to handle this internally without risking too much legally speaking. – Stephan Branczyk Jan 31 at 1:19
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    you should do nothing that, in and of itself, would be cause for a lawsuit in some jurisdictions. Do you have advice for what to do if it's deemed impossible to get qualified HR advice? – dwizum Jan 31 at 14:43
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Skip investigating

There are two persons here reporting the same thing, the chances they are wrong about it are fairly slim, a third person wouldn't change much to the story. Besides, if you fail to catch anything, there is still a workplace issue because two persons still feel uncomfortable about one of their coworkers previous or current behavior.

Prefer a private conversation

By having a private conversation with the person leering, you have the opportunity to be as direct and clear as possible, you give an opportunity to apologize and correct behavior, and you also avoid embarrassing rumors. This might be a bit formal, but I think is necessary.

Remain vigilant

You could ask if things improved afterwards. If by any bad luck the behavior is still a problem, you could report and escalate the issue, expecting your boss to take action.

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    "There are two persons here reporting the same thing, the chances they are wrong about it are fairly slim, " Citation needed, otherwise you are assuming waaaaay to much. – Tymoteusz Paul Jan 31 at 8:53
  • @TymoteuszPaul US law regarding sexual harassment would essentially agree with Arthur. That's a pretty strong citation. – dwizum Jan 31 at 14:47
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    @dwizum They would agree that if there is a suspicion of leering looks, that is as good as proof? I don't believe it, so citation still very much needed. Not just saying US law, but an actual case where the law was applied that way. – Tymoteusz Paul Jan 31 at 14:48
  • I think we need to differentiate between determining if the complained-about behavior qualifies as harassment (it does, and that's what I was trying to indicate) or if the behavior actually took place (which seems to be what you're focused on, and I think is outside the scope of this question. It's not a manager's job or an HR rep's job to hold the trial or act as judge). – dwizum Jan 31 at 15:00
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    I could get two people to agree with me about anything, There was a case in the USA where FIVE people conspired to ruin a young man. This could backfire BADLY – Old_Lamplighter Jan 31 at 17:12
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I'm just changing my comment into an answer.

Its going to be hard to accuse someone of being inappropriate or sexual with just a stare. Some people just have that face or default look and might be gazing off into the distance, rather than explicitly staring. Its a pretty easy accusation to deny and you set a bad precedence that just looking at your female coworkers is going to get you into trouble.

This being said, having a straight up conversation with the accused is essentially settings that precedence. You should monitor the situation first to determine if they are spending an abnormally large amount of time staring at the coworkers, before you even approach them about the topic. Even then, you shouldn't do it directly.

Some simple strategies include

Blocking their direct line of sight

Adding pot plants or moving a computer monitor to block their direct line of sight. This will help you identify if the accused is staring at your female coworkers on purpose, or if they just end up looking in that general direction by default.

Change their seat positions

You can move the accused seat position so that the female coworkers are out of view or the accused has to make a very obvious movement to see them (e.g. if the female workers sit behind the accused, they have to physically turn around). You can also make sure they are facing away from hallways or popular paths as they might be staring when your female coworkers walk by (which could by completely non sexual and just reactive behavior to movement)

Talking

If you do plan to strike up a conversation, I would generally recommend avoiding mentioning your female coworkers. The easiest way would be to strike up a conversation about concentration and taking small breaks to stretch or move around (more relevant if you sit at a table all day). You don't want to accuse them of staring, because they will likely get defensive (especially if its a generally sensitive subject). But having a brief conversation about things to do when they aren't focusing on work will show them that someone may have noticed them staring off into the distance for a bit longer than normal.

As an example (completely fictitious)

Accused: Staring off into the distance

You: Hey, can't focus?

Accused: *Panicking at being caught. Getting excuses ready

You: You should try stretching if your having issues concentrating

Accused: *Quick acceptance of your suggestion to get you off their back

You: *Walk off

Accused: *Relief from not being explicitly called out. On high alert in case you catch them again

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    Well, I have not mentioned this in the OP but the staring usually occurs at conversations, can't prevent this from happening. – Rick Jan 31 at 0:21
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    @Rick As in the accused is staring at the female coworker during a direct conversation (e.g. looking them up and down) or during a group conversation (e.g. someone else is talking but the accused is staring at the female coworker). I mean if its obviously sexual you can confront them. I can't imagine anyone being that brazen in a work environment. – Shadowzee Jan 31 at 0:26
  • Do you really think the OP should make themselves the judge of whether this behavior is appropriate or not? What if they get it wrong? What if the female employees sue the company anyways? There is no standard against which you can reliably measure the way in which someone stares, or the intent of the person doing the staring. In the US at least, it basically counts as harassment because the victim has identified it as such. – dwizum Jan 31 at 14:46
  • @dwizum Such a backwards country. So anything can be harassment as long as they FEEL it is harassment? So much for laws. – Jack Jan 31 at 17:13
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Your fear about disrupting the work environment is unfound, because the work environment is already disrupted by these incidents. Your job now is to prevent further disruptions by ensuring that such incidents won't repeat.

I do not know which cultural circle you are from. But if you were in my cultural circle (central European) then I would recommend this course of action:

  1. Decide for yourself, perhaps in consultation with the owner, what disciplinary measures you are going to take now and what measures you are willing to enact if the behavior continues.
  2. Plan a private meeting with the employee accused of harassment
  3. Tell them what they are accused of
  4. Let the employee explain his behavior
  5. Wait until he is finished
  6. Tell him the consequences his behavior has now and what consequences there will be if the behavior continues
  7. Inform the people who complained that you have taken care of the situation and that they should report to you immediately if they again become victims of inappropriate behavior.
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Send out a reminder email to everybody that staring isn’t appropriate.

First, I want to say that I don’t have formal HR training, and you don’t have a listed location, so there may be rules for your location that I am unaware of.

However, what I would do is to send an email to all employees that staring at female employees is inappropriate, and that action will be taken in accordance with your location’s sexual harassment laws if any such behaviour takes place. This creates a written policy for all employees can be expected to adhere to.

After that, I would discuss it with the women in question, and tell them to tell you if the male employee continues to stare at them, so that you can take action against him in accordance with your location’s sexual harassment laws to protect the business from a sexual harassment lawsuit by the female employees.

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First at all, look who is the real victim in this scenario.

You have to talk with every stakeholder about the topic and find the reasons. Since it is already well known that sexist behavior at the working place can lead to harsh consequences, allegations in that direction can be a strong weapon. I don't want to accuse the women at lying, but don't take any actions before the guy is proven guilty! Also very important is the dress code at your company. A deep plunging décolleté is something you can wear if you want to find a generous gentleman at a bar, but not for work. If you have a "everyone can wear what they want"-policy, you implicit have a "everyone can look where they want"-policy.

This is not a solution for your problem, but some cause of thoughts you must consider.

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    This really isn't an answer,a s you say yourself, probably better as a comment. – Tymoteusz Paul Jan 31 at 10:35
  • oh no... you didn't just mention "dress code" did you! I did that and my answer was down-voted and removed. – flexi Jan 31 at 10:55
  • I did and I'm sure, that is a valid point. Of course will some people accuse me of victim shaming, but in the first case, we have to declare who is the victim. If I would come to the work with my balls hanging out of zipper, everyone would stare too. – Ash Jan 31 at 12:08

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