Workplace Sexual Harassment: A Threat To Victims, A Quandary For Bystanders

Oct 15, 2016
Originally published on October 15, 2016 11:32 am

Elizabeth Allen was at a happy hour for a San Francisco tech firm a couple of years ago, when a co-worker started forcing himself on her and the few other women at the party — again and again.

He was "giving us lots of hugs," Allen says, "trying to kiss me a few times; he grabbed my butt a couple of times." The women were outnumbered by men, some of whom looked on, bemused, as the women tried to signal their distress.

Allen adds: "Probably the worst thing about that incident was that there were many, many men there, including this guy's manager was there, and none of them did anything about it."

What responsibilities do co-workers have as bystanders when they witness unwanted sexual behavior at work? The question has surfaced anew in the past week, as Donald Trump's taped comments about kissing and grabbing women — and the allegations now coming from accusers — have prompted discussion online and elsewhere.

And it's a question that has relevance to Allen's own experiences in the workplace. As a teen, when, she says, her fast-food manager harassed her, she felt she was supposed to go along with it. She recalled that feeling many years later after the happy hour incident, when she and the other women debated whether it was worth taking the matter to human resources.

"It's interesting, you know, we were all a little uncomfortable with that because, again, I think there's this sort of feeling of not wanting to be the uncool person who reports something like this," Allen says.

The frequency of workplace sexual assault is hard to accurately quantify. Rape prevention advocates say the prevalence varies by industry; low-wage workers are especially at risk. Last week, 15 McDonald's workers around the country filed harassment charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

And the issue is not confined to just one restaurant chain. Many hospitality workers face this kind of harassment — so many, in fact, that a campaign to address the problem has been launched by Unite Here, the national labor union that represents thousands of hotel, casino and food service workers. In a Chicago-area survey of nearly 500 people, the union says more than three-quarters of the casino workers they talked to reported incidents of sexual harassment.

"Forty-nine percent of the housekeepers we surveyed said a guest had exposed themselves, flashed them or answered the door naked," says researcher Sarah Lyons.

Kasey Nalls, a cocktail waitress at a casino for 11 years, puts it plainly.

"I always thought it was a serious issue," Nalls says. "I feel like we're walking prey."

Unite Here is proposing legislation targeting the hospitality industry, which would require employers to ban guests who have sexually harassed an employee. Another proposal would require employers to provide panic buttons to any employee who works alone in rooms.

One main problem across all workplaces in gauging the prevalence of sexual assault is that many incidents go unreported.

Cynthia DeKay understands why. She says she was harassed as a teen working at a chicken restaurant. The graphics designer from St. Paul, Minn., says that years later, when she worked at a commodities broker, many of her male colleagues watched porn and bragged of sexual conquest.

A physical threat never materialized, DeKay says, but she very likely wouldn't have reported if it had. "I would have been doubtful that I would've had support," she says.

This is a common sentiment that affects even bystanders like Robert People.

People was deployed in Iraq 13 years ago when a female service member confided she'd been raped by another colleague. He was determined to come to her defense and report it, but his friend begged him not to. He says she asked him: "What happens if he doesn't get in trouble, what will I have to deal with then?"

So, he had to bear the burden of silence.

"I'm coming into work every day, I have to see her — see her face, and she's worried and everything," he says. "I see him close by, and so that it doesn't hurt her or he doesn't come back on her in some type of way, I have to keep quiet."

People says the experience still haunts him today. He says he feels he allowed rape culture to persist.

"I blame myself for it; I have no problem saying, yea, I enabled it by not knowing what to do."

He says he thinks and hopes the culture of the military has changed. In his unit, quarterly sexual harassment trainings are required. Still, he says, during one such session a presenter said the Army's goal was to reduce sexual assaults by 50 percent. People was aghast.

"You can't call the zero-tolerance if the goal is only 50 percent."

His impassioned response met with ridicule from some of his co-workers. People says he doesn't care. Now, he says, it's his turn to speak up.

NPR's Cheryl Corley contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit


Finally time for sports.


SIMON: American and National League Championship Series are underway - LA, Chi-Town, Cleveland and Toronto. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Morning, Tom.


SIMON: Last night, the Cleveland Indians handcuffed the Toronto Blue Jays, didn't they?

GOLDMAN: Oh, boy, they did. You know, they won - I'll wait till the theme song goes away. They won...

SIMON: That's for you, my friend, yeah.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) They won - they being the Indians - won two to nothing. Zero runs for a Toronto team that averaged seven runs a game in its first round sweep of Texas. And, you know, in the first few innings, Toronto repeatedly threatened to score, but Kluber and the Cleveland defense snuffed out each threat.

SIMON: Corey Kluber, yeah.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, very, very impressive.

SIMON: I'm beginning to think that Cleveland just finds a way.

GOLDMAN: You know, last night was only game one of a best 4 out of 7 American League Championship Series. But, Scott, maybe it is time to start paying attention to the Indians. You know, remember, they swept Boston in the first round, pretty much shut down the best hitting team in baseball, the Red Sox. So the Indians are undefeated so far in the postseason. Their pitching and defense is neutralizing opponents - opponents' offenses. They haven't won a World Series in 68 years, Scott. Is that the drought that is going to end?

SIMON: Well, there are droughts and there are droughts - 68 years versus 108 years. National League Series starts tonight. Dodgers versus Cu Cu Cu Cu Cu Cu (ph) Cubs. And I believe this is the latest in the season that they've played for a title in Illinois since the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Ba-boom (ph) 108 years - yeah. Well, of course, you know, they played in the National League Championship Series last year. Likewise in 2003, 1989, 1984, but, you know - so they were a round away from the World Series. But of course, 108 years without a title - the mother of all baseball droughts compared to Cleveland, which - I don't know what - the father of all droughts. But I will tell you, Scott, our David Schaper, reporter in Chicago, has been out talking to Cubs fans, and he says they're pumped and most are not thinking about billy goats and black cats and other superstitions and curses. So come on, are you anxious? Are you anxious?

SIMON: I ain't afraid - I ain't afraid of no curses, no, no. This is a - this is a genuinely great team, win or lose. And, you know, I think we ought to get past that damn goat. What can I tell you? You know, I think I want to go to a Greek restaurant (laughter) and have a little - maybe some cabrito at Rick Bayless' place. Listen, I want to go to the NFL because after after Colin Kaepernick, after weeks of being known for his protest during the national anthem, is going to be the San Francisco 49ers' starting quarterback on Sunday - significance of this please, doctor.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Doctor - you know, it'll raise his visibility more. It'll give his political messages a new bump. That's good news for those who consider him a hero; bad news for those who consider him an anti-American traitor. It'll be fascinating if he does play well and gets back to his 2012-2013 forum. It'll be a challenge because the 49ers are not a good team. Their problems go way beyond quarterback. But if he does get the team going in the right direction, what'll it do for his reputation in NFL front offices, which right now is not good. He's considered a distraction, a troublemaker. If after the season he becomes a free agent, will teams go after him if he plays well now? I'll bet they would. Nothing makes you less of a pariah than winning.

SIMON: Right, distraction, troublemaker, who wins? I want that guy. NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks very much for being with us.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.