64

I was getting ready to leave my Christmas party when my supervisor (both of us are women) grabbed then slapped my ass quite hard. In her head I think she meant this as a joke, but that combined with the numerous loud proclamations of the fact that she is my boss has severely embarrassed me and made me feel belittled. She did this in front of all our work colleagues, as well as the two big bosses.

I have had problems in the past with her where I have felt bullied. She goes from refusing to talk to me, sighing and rolling her eyes to being my "best friend".

I haven't been back to work since the party as I have been on leave, but I'm not sure when I go back if I should just let it go, or if should I bring it up, and if so how. This has been really weighing on my mind.

  • 5
    Was the supervisor drunk or sober at the time? If anything, it would be worse if she were sober, and did not have the excuse of poor judgement due to alcohol. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 27 '15 at 0:40
  • 42
    @gnat This is very much not a duplicate. The question you link is a (drunken) slap on the face from a colleague, whereas this question is a slap on the behind from the boss. The responses would be very different. – David K Dec 27 '15 at 15:42
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    She did this in front of all our work colleagues as well as the two big bosses. Nether of the big bosses did react to that? If I were you, I'd very much update my CV very quickly. – Pavel Dec 28 '15 at 13:19
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    One thing I find missing from the question (and frankly the answers) is: What result do you want to achieve? What would stop this from "weighing on your mind"? – Joel Etherton Dec 28 '15 at 21:54
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    This is not a duplicate: the other question is a guy getting slapped in the face by a colleague, this is about a woman getting her ass grabbed by her boss. Yes, both are assault, but the dynamics are quite different. – jpatokal Dec 29 '15 at 7:43
68

Even a slight pat on the ass with a smile is pushing it. Grabbed then slapped hard is way over the bounds in my opinion.

What you can only hope is that she realized it was wrong and should apologize. Give her a day to apologize.

After a day tell her you felt it was inappropriate. If she does not apologize then take it to HR. Don't argue with her - what she did was wrong.

If this was a one time or first time thing then my answer would be different.

If you are two years from a pension then my answer would be different.

If you cannot likely find another job then my answer might be different.

You have felt bullied in the past and this is an escalation that will most likely only continue. This overt act gives you an opportunity to stand up to her. You might not get an apology but you have stood up to her on firm ground. Again don't argue - state "what you did was inappropriate". If she does not apologize you have stood up to her and your backup plan is to go to HR with a good case. If you don't go to HR things are likely to get worse. If you go to HR and lose then things are very likely to get worse. Yes you may lose with HR but if you are going to lose with HR then this is a job you don't want. If bullying is tolerated then this is not an environment you want to be in. You are counting on HR doing the right thing and stand up to bullies is the right thing for the company to do.

I am not at all recommending legal recourse as first plan of attack but if you are fired you still have possible legal recourse. Do NOT use the term sexual-harassment up front as that is going to get attention I don't think you want. A single slap on the ass is not something that would likely stand up as sexual-harassment. At this point it appears you just want the bullying to stop. If you consult an attorney up front be aware they are going to be biased to sexual-harassment as that is how they make money. Even if they take it on contingency if you lose then they are just out the money and you are out a job. If you are paying by the hour then sexual-harassment will be the most hours. Once you have been fired there is no risk to consulting an attorney. Take notes of anything said or done. Try to have witnesses - take note of any witness. Even a weak case with witnesses is a good bluff as your attorney will likely go in with list of witnesses they want to depose. Not just a legal bluff - a company that wants to bully has to expose itself to employees that there is recourse - they count on fear. Take note of all parties in any meeting. If you come to a meeting and there are faces you don't know then ask their name and title. If one of them says they are with legal then say as little as possible - merely repeat the facts. Don't be afraid to take notes in front of them - let them know you are not going to roll over on this. Try and get things in writing. If you are dismissed ask for a written reason for dismissal. If they do fire don't sign anything without reading it. If you see any language about dismissing any future action against the company then don't sign it. Don't give it back - put it in your brief case (or pocket or folder) and tell them you need time to review it. Don't use this advice to think you have a good legal case. I am not an attorney but even with good notes I don't think you have a good legal case against them unless they just plain do something (else) stupid. I went to HR and was again slapped on the ass starts to become maybe a legal case if you have solid documentation to back it up. Don't resign unless you just plain want to get away.

Look up your rights to record conversations. This is a lot trickier and I am not a lawyer. This could go against you so I am just saying something to consider with no specific recommendation here.

39

Regardless of the reasons, drunk or sober, serious or joking, male or female; this kind of behavior is completely inappropriate.

Most developed countries have sexual harassment legislation of some kind, speak to a lawyer in your area, and then contact your company's human resources person.

Behavior like this should be flatly intolerable and the idea that an apology makes it all ok isn't much better. What you described sounds an awful lot like using sexuality to demonstrate dominance. I would be surprised if she hasn't already been disciplined by higher management, at least by those that personally witnessed it. If not, there may be some serious issues with the company culture.


Note: I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.

It looks like Ireland has a Citizens Information Board which offers some helpful definitions and procedures: Harassment at work

  • 3
    See a lawyer is also a risky strategy, see blog.penelopetrunk.com/2006/11/02/… I think it's sad that these reactionary answers get so many upvotes. – Aaron Hall Dec 28 '15 at 16:42
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    @AaronHall Some would argue that it's sad that so many people have to endure this kind of stuff because it so often goes unreported. – apaul Dec 28 '15 at 16:50
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    Sure, but that's the real world, and your advice should reflect that. The best answer to this question would discuss all possible options and seriously portray the costs and risks associated with each option. – Aaron Hall Dec 28 '15 at 16:52
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    @AaronHall A good lawyer should/would encourage that kind of risk benefit analysis... They just bring legal expertise to the table and can better guide someone on their options. Note that I didn't just say "Sue them" I said "speak to a lawyer in your area" – apaul Dec 28 '15 at 16:56
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    @AaronHall it's not actually. You speak to a lawyer to learn what your rights are, to get advice based on local laws, culture, and likely experience with the exact company at hand, for what might actually happen should you "speak with HR," for what your rights are, and for what reactions they might have that are illegal and what are legal. This is not about suing at this stage; lawyer =/= ambulance chaser. – user42272 Dec 29 '15 at 0:24
25

Unfortunately for sites like these, the best answers are rarely cookie cutter solutions. There are many factors in this situation. Some important ones you mentioned, particularly the past behaviors of this boss. Others may be harder to put down in words.

It's easy to divide the options up in to three categories. The first category has one option, "talk to HR." The second category has a host of options where you try to work your differences out directly with the boss. The third category contains a collection of options where you resolve your problems on your own. It is not going to be immediately obvious as to which category is best for your situation, but there's enough distinction between them that we can at least talk about the effects.

"Talk to HR" seems like the natural solution for any workplace harassment, and for good reason. Their job is to handle human relations issues. In theory they're good at it, and for your company, that might actually be your best option. However, you need to understand how your particular HR department works, especially when it comes to harassment. Many I have worked with are best viewed as a loaded gun: you can pull the trigger on them, and they will resolve the issue you want to see resolved, but you lose control of the situation. HR does have the company's interests in mind, and may find a solution you deem less ideal because it protects the company's stock price. Or they may be the pie-in-the-sky ideal HR department that prides themselves on finding good solutions for every issue. You may not even be able to put down in words how they react, but you should be able to internalize it and act on it. Again, treat them as a loaded gun. If you need a solution solved, at all costs, they will solve it. The price may be your relationship with your boss. Needless to say, nobody has ever appreciated having HR called down upon them like a gaggle of flying monkeys. Your boss will have negative feelings about this occurrence. HR may tie her hands to make sure she can't do anything in retribution, or they may not.

Working it out with the boss is the middle ground, and that naturally makes it a soupy mess. Any good middle ground solution includes trying to make both parties happy, and that involves details you may not even know right now. For all you know, she has a known disorder and is grappling to deal with it. Or perhaps she's just an insensitive clod. It won't be easy to determine which. You'll have to work with her on it. However, if you feel that her personality dominates yours (which, from your wording, may be a concern of yours), you may find the "middle ground" is too close to "whatever she thinks is right," which would make this a bad category of solutions. I, personally, consider it the ideal solution -- why not solve a problem between two people with a solution that exists between two people? However, only an idealist would presume that makes it the only solution worth considering. If you're not comfortable with this as a solution, guess what... this is in your court. She slapped you on the butt, and the irrevocable consequence of this is that she has ceded you the right to go down whatever path you see fit. (If anything, this would be the most important message I'd give to you: her action has consequences, but you have a great deal of control as to what those consequences are. She has given you power over her through her mistaken gesture.)

The final class of solutions are to solve it yourself. These are often considered the "pansy" solutions, so if you're worried about being bullied they may be hard to implement. However, they are real valid solutions that recognize the crux of the issue: you may not care as much about your boss' predilection for flagellating coworkers, what you may really care about is that it doesn't happen to you again. I worded that last sentence carefully, because its suggesting how you might think. If you're thinking in terms of retribution, justice, or merely "making the workplace a better place for others," you have the full right to think differently... it just suggests this class of solutions isn't for you. However, if you just want to solve your own problems, there are many things you can do yourself. To blatantly steal from Teego1967's answer, one option is to get transferred away. That can solve your problem, if your problem is merely not wanting it to happen again. And there is a perk. Again, stealing blatantly from Teego1967's wise words: upper management likes to see people solve problems for themselves, making you look more attractive in the long run. (Since I'm stealing from Teego1967, I should probably steal their link too... but no. Go read their answer! And upvote it!)

In all, the choice is really how much of your life you want to control. If you just want control of your own life, the personal solutions may be best. If you want control of the workplace environment, working with your boss may be best. If you want to just make sure she doesn't do it again, ever, pulling the trigger on HR and dealing with the aftermath may be the best. My recommendation is simple: do whatever solves the problems you believe need to be solved for the future. Don't worry about the past directly. It's just the past. Only worry about the past for what effect it may have on the future, or predictions it may have for the future. Look forward, not backwards.

Addendum: As I wrote this, the first paragraph was intended to be a natural catch-all tautology. I tried to say "take all the options you have, and permit me to draw some lines to help make decisions easier." As I wrote, it did occur to me that there is a fourth category which I instinctively omitted because I generally do not recommend it to anyone. However, if I'm going to claim that the first paragraph is valid, I need to at least include the fourth option: manipulation. Her actions are irrevocable, which means you can use them as leverage to manipulate her to your advantage, much as the Sith from Star Wars. You may be able to get workplace perks, such as rapid promotions by leveraging any fear she might have of repercussions for her mistake. Would I recommend it to anyone? No. There's a reason why I invoke a deep dark fictional group of bad guys in my description of it. But, in the name of completeness, I decided to at least include it.

  • 4
    Can you condense this a bit? It's not really ideal that there's a whole extra paragraph at the end devoted to explaining why you didn't add an extra sentence to the first paragraph. – user42272 Dec 28 '15 at 4:39
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    @djechlin I'm not certain the best way to condense it. I suppose I could replace the addendum with "Edit: there is a fourth way, but I don't want to include it here." It's also tricky to word around not giving an explicit direction. – Cort Ammon Dec 28 '15 at 4:52
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    If it really bothers you a parenthetical "(or of course you could blackmail her, but that is sure to end poorly)". But I don't think you should focus on your ability to exhaust possibilities. You omitted the possibility of quitting work and joining a cult, after all. That option is irrelevant and absurd, just like blackmailing the supervisor is irrelevant and absurd. It's your judgment where to draw the line and you should err toward concision and what you think is relevant for your answer. – user42272 Dec 28 '15 at 5:32
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    @djechlin quitting and joining a cult is option 3. – the dark wanderer Dec 28 '15 at 9:23
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    HR's first responsibility is to protect the company, that is definitely true, but in this case, at least in the US, they need to protect the company from lawsuits by an employee who has been assaulted by management. Going to HR is therefore a good option - they will likely come down hard on the manager and/or work hard to ensure you are satisfied (and won't sue). – Kryten Dec 28 '15 at 15:38
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Taking a legal recourse is for something like this is almost certainly a recipe for failure and disappointment. Going to HR will only ensure that the company is protected. And either one of those actions will ensure that your days left at the company are numbered.

Penelope Trunk's blog has some fairly controversial but well-supported advice for situations like this. Her advice is actually grounded in experience.

Instead of being a victim, you might consider using this event as a way to get transferred (assuming you want to stay that place). It is far more attractive to the upper levels of the company to move you to a different department (perhaps an even by promotion) than to deal with answering a letter from a lawyer or mitigate fallout and decreased morale from a harassment claim.

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    I agree HR will ensure the company is protected. That is different, however, from taking the boss' side of the argument. The protection taken could be to discipline the boss to make sure it doesn't happen again - especially as the boss sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen. – Laconic Droid Dec 27 '15 at 17:16
  • @LaconicDroid, I'm saying that it might be better to appeal to upper management to find a solution. It may not work, but it is the most likely to protect the OP from retaliation or blackballing. – teego1967 Dec 29 '15 at 11:42
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My (I thought harmless) comment on Frisbee's answer has apparently unleashed a lengthy discussion. Contacting HR is not trivial and potentially detrimental. Hence it may be worth answering a specific part of the question, namely "How should I approach this with HR"?

To preface this: The behavior of the manager was clearly inappropriate, unprofessional, and potentially illegal. That's not in question.

  1. Create a clearly documented paper trail. Write down exact dates & times, specifics of the interactions and who else was around. The more details, the better.
  2. Be clear about your goals. What exactly do you want? Do you want the behavior to stop, an apology, a settlement, someone getting fired? Be prepared to have a clear and quick answer when HR asks "So, what do you want to happen?".
  3. Practice your interaction first. Write down what you are going to say and memorize it.
  4. Stay with the facts and state your desired outcome. Something like "On Dec 23, xxx touched my inappropriately during the yyy meeting. She forcefully touched by buttocks while person a, b, and c were around. I feel that this behavior is unacceptable and violates my dignity and my right to be physically safe in the workplace. I respectfully ask that you make sure that this behavior is properly documented and that it's clearly communicated to xxx that this is indeed unacceptable behavior. I would also ask that you preset consequences if there is any recurrence of this behavior. I would ask this to be implemented by Jan 31."
  5. Do NOT mention any legal recourse on initial contact. You can keep this in the back pocket in case things go sour.

Now it gets tricky. HR are departments vary greatly in terms of effectiveness and ethical standards. Potential HR strategies can be

  1. Let the employees solve the problem themselves. Broker a meeting between you and your manager and have you talk it out
  2. Sweep it under the rug. "oh, that was only a joke, don't worry about it". "It's not a big thing", "it's a just a one time party event".
  3. Try to intimidate you: "Well xxx is an important person and we really don't want to upset the apple cart here. It would be much better for your career if you'd be a bit more flexible about this".
  4. Stall. "I see that you are upset, we'll have a talk about this" and then do absolute nothing.
  5. Try to get rid of you. That could either be done openly "We have the culture that we have, if you can't take joke, maybe this is not the best place for you" or secretly by dinging you on the upcoming performance reports.
  6. Actually address it with the manager since it's all a legal exposure risk but then retaliate against you.
  7. Be genuinely concerned and address it with a manager to build a better company.

It's hard to predict which way it's going to go since it really depends on company and culture. You can control it some with your approach (see above). Providing well documented facts, discourages stalling and attempts to spin the situation. Stating clear actionable outcomes makes it easier for them to assess what it takes to get this closed out. Staying away from legal threats shows you as a person that "can be worked with". Once legal gets involved the relationship is typically damaged beyond repair.

  • +10, discussing how to discuss with HR is a far more substantive answer for a question like this than back-and-forthing about whether to discuss it with HR. – user42272 Dec 29 '15 at 0:28
6

While sexual harrasment is definitely not OK, there's something you need to keep in mind: if you decide to take the legal route suggested by @apaul34208, you will have a very very hard time maintaining a good working relationship after all this, even if you win.

What your boss did is probably insufficient for her to be dismissed, which means, after all the legal "battle" is over, she will still be your boss. And your working relationship with her will be very difficult or awkward. Quitting or transfering to another team or department is probably going to be the next step.

So, my advice is: if you try to involve lawyers and everything that comes with it, expect the complications mentioned above to occur.

  • 2
    "I would be surprised if she hasn't already been disciplined by higher management, at least by those that personally witnessed it. If not, there may be some serious issues with the company culture." – apaul Dec 27 '15 at 17:09
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    At a point the question becomes, "Do you really want to continue to work for a company that tolerates this sort of thing?" – apaul Dec 27 '15 at 17:09
  • @apaul34208 The act happened in front of all our work colleagues as well as the two big bosses and no action was taken at the time. I get you find this intolerable but going in with a lawyer has consequences. She has not even been back to work and you are telling here to get a lawyer. You don't even know how / if the company is going to formally react. – paparazzo Dec 27 '15 at 19:05
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    You don't tell your work that you are consulting with a lawyer. This is an oddly stubborn misconception about talking with a lawyer and it rather defeats the point. – user42272 Dec 28 '15 at 4:35
6

Unfortunately, you have two choices: put up with this woman (with whom you were clearly incompatible even before this incident) or leave. If you leave, you can make it clear it is because of this woman.

Now to discuss the specific incident:

When I was 17 I was subjected to similar behaviour by a member of the same sex (male.) That is, not a genuine sexual advance but rather a bit of "joking" (AKA bullying, though the perpetrator may not see it that way.) The behaviour is totally inappropriate (invading someone's space in that way is tantamount to violence) so the best thing you could have done was to call it out immediately by saying loudly, sternly, neutrally and humourlessly, "GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY ARSE." That should definitely have embarrassed this woman and she almost certainly would have left you alone after that.

Your best option now is to do nothing, or talk to her. She is playing a power game (whether she is consciously aware of it or not.) So if you decide to talk to her, don't whine tearfully that she upset you, because that will be exactly what she wants. Rather, make it clear that what she did was totally inappropriate and at her age she should know better. And that if she does it again you will make a big scene about it. (And make sure you mean it.)

HR is there to protect the company, so if you went to them, they might tell this woman off, but they might just ask if you wanted to continue working there. Your bosses saw everything and did nothing, so it seems you may not get much support from them. If you leave it will be the company's loss.

You certainly have a case for sexual harassment, but taking it to court may be more hassle than it's worth (unless you get an out of court settlement, which could be a nice windfall.) But you will need colleagues to back you up as witnesses, which they may not be prepared to do.

Ireland is a culture where people are expected to be able to "take a joke" so I wish you luck. If you decide to stay, remember to respond immediately and loudly if this woman steps out of line again.

  • 1
    You actually discuss the top two voted options with the costs and risks associated with both of them. +1. This answer could only be improved if you'd discuss other options as well. – Aaron Hall Dec 28 '15 at 16:51
  • How is responding immediately and loudly taking a joke? – user42272 Dec 29 '15 at 0:26
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    @djechlin going to HR or the boss after the event is much more likely to be seen as "not being able to take a joke" than calling the behaviour out immediately is. In a formal procedure, the supervisor would claim she was only joking and had no idea her behaviour caused such offence, resulting in the OP's complaint being thrown out. An immediate response means she can't claim this. Supervisor is playing a form of "Chicken" where the person with highest embarrasment threshold wins. But by calling out immediately it's easy for OP to beat her at her own game, as supervisor is clearly in the wrong. – Level River St Dec 29 '15 at 1:06

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