Men and women often feel powerless when faced with offensive, inappropriate or harassing behavior in the workplace. Take the following question I recently received as an example:

“I work in Accounting and recently my company was acquired by another company. When the acquisition integration was launched, I was asked to work with several people from the parent company to begin installing new accounting and payroll systems and processes. As you can imagine, there was a lot of long hours put in to ensure the transition was smooth and seamless. I was the only female on the team with 4 other guys who had worked together for quite some time. During our time together, they would make lewd, sexual remarks and jokes about each other and routinely dropped f-bombs. Being new to the group and wanting to fit in, I tried to ignore it and just do my work, but it continued to escalate and eventually I became very uncomfortable. How can I make it known that I don’t appreciate their humor (or lack thereof) without risking becoming isolated or avoided when I work with them in the future?”

These situations are never easy to deal with and often seem impossible to navigate. Here are some practical steps to help you discuss the issues, maintain critical work relationships and, if necessary, devise a workable exit strategy:

  1. Document the facts – keep detailed notes of names, dates, places, times, conversations, specific examples of actions, comments, jokes, etc.
  2. Address the issue directly – If enough trust has established with the individual making the offensive comments, talk to them directly about your concerns and ask them to STOP. Don’t attack, that will only cause defensiveness. Rather, explain the impact it has on you and others and emphasize your desire is to have a productive working relationship.
  3. Identify available resources – Know the internal and external mechanisms available to help you address the issue(s), including company policies that address bullying, harassment, offensive language and other unacceptable behaviors. The harassment policy should outline a formal complaint procedure and identify available resources for filing a complaint.
  4. Seek HELP – Consult with a respected and trusted leader in the organization, whether that be Human Resources, your manager or someone else.
  5. Follow-Up – Follow-up with HR or another leader to inform them of the status of the complaint – if it’s been resolved or if it continues or escalates.
  6. Leave – One of the most common reasons employees cite for not coming forward with a complaint is their fear of reprisal, which could include termination. While I certainly understand and empathize with that fear, do you really WANT to work somewhere that condones abusive behavior? While the fear is real, most people find that the change actually ends of being very positive in the long run. No job is worth putting your self-esteem and safety at risk.

Organizations that allow abusive or destructive behavior and actions are unnecessarily putting themselves at risk, whether from an EEOC claim, a lawsuit or poor performance. Strong organizational cultures (OC) are not just something nice to do, it’s a strategic business decision and competitive advantage.