Of men and women

What to do when you are sexually harassed

China is buzzing over last week’s arrest of a nationally prominent CEO for sexual harassment. Turns out that 宋山木 (Song Shanmu), CEO of the popular national training organization, 山木培训 (Sunmoon Education Group), had repeatedly raped several of his young female employees. He was arrested only because one brave 22-year-old finally reported him to the police.

The familiar Shan Mu Pei Xun company logo and bearded image of its CEO, Song Shanmu

All the attention to this case has led some GlobalRenCai blog readers to ask me “What should I do when I am sexually harassed?”

4 out of 5 Chinese women have been sexually harassed

When it comes to sexual harassment, sadly, the question is “when” rather than “if.” According to a 2005 survey cited in Chinese state media, only 21% of women say they have never faced sexual harassment.

李莹 (Li Ying), the deputy director of the Centre for Women’s Law and Legal Services at Peking University, said the number of complaints was increasing as women became more aware of their legal rights. “This is a global problem, but in China there is not enough approval, understanding and tolerance,” she said.

Sexual harassment is almost never reported to the authorities, and when it is, says Li, “there aren’t clear definitions for what sexual harassment is in the court, so when a judgment is being decided it is hard for the judge.”
Li added that companies in China are not yet held responsible for the harassment of staff as they are in other countries.

I was harassed once, early in my career, by the CEO of the company I worked for at the time. Whenever he saw me alone, he would come up from behind me and start kissing and licking my ears and neck. Just the memory of that still makes my skin crawl. And I remember how nervous and powerless I felt whenever I was at work. The only way I knew how to end the harassment was to quickly find a new job and leave the company, which is what I did.

What should you do when harassed?

Two decades on, I wish the world had changed enough so that when harassed, women have better options than to leave a job. I wrestled with how to advise you in this situation, and so consulted with a few of my friends around the world.

My friend Annemieke van der Werff, a global talent who most recently served as a HR chief for the global retail bank at HSBC, is one of those principled corporate leaders who’s focused on ensuring that her companies recruit the best people and have the culture to keep them there. Annemieke suggests that if you are harassed, you confront your boss, and then also report him to his boss and to his HR manager.

She cautions, though, that the HR department is not that strong in all companies, and there are situations where you will have no choice but to leave.

Companies often protect their own managers and not their employees
The atmosphere at foreign companies is not necessarily better than at Chinese ones. According to one of my friends who is a well-known Beijing-based management consultant to foreign companies:

  • “If a woman goes to HR with a problem, it is most likely that the company will protect the manager and alienate the victim. Most likely the woman making the complaint will see her career (promotion prospects) suffer;
  • Even in a foreign company it is more likely that the company would get a foreign manager out of the country before risk him having to go to prison in China. I worked on a case with a company a couple of years ago where this was indeed done after a woman brought a charge against a western manager;
  • Also, once a woman goes public with a case it is likely that other future employers will not hire her as she might be perceived as a trouble maker.”

A sobering assessment. This issue is so sensitive that my friend asked me not to use his name or the name of his firm. Another friend I asked, a prominent Beijing Chinese HR manager who has worked for both foreign and local companies, also cautions that HR departments may not be reliable in protecting you, and that your first step should be to take all steps to protect yourself when this does happen.

Stop the harassment without harming your career

If you are sexually harassed, and there is someone in power in HR whom you feel you can trust, like my friend Annemieke, I suggest you confidentially report the harassment to him or her.

But more often that will not be the case. So in general, I suggest that you focus on how to stop the harassment without harming your career. I reluctantly endorse the advice I read years ago in a U.S. newspaper:

  1. Have a frank conversation with your harasser. Be specific about what behavior is making you uncomfortable. Tell him that you prefer not to go to HR about it. He won’t want that either, because no matter how arrogant he is, he’ll not want to get into a messy he-said, she-said situation with you.
  2. Lay out your negotiating position. Aim high. You want his help to transfer to a better position in the company, with a different boss, or you want his help in finding a better job outside of the company.
  3. If the balance of power is not in your favor, and you get nowhere negotiating, find a new job and leave the offending company — in that order — because it’s always easier to find a job when you have a job.
  4. Do take the steps needed to protect yourself, which may in the end require leaving the company, reporting the harassment to HR or company management or even to the police.

It is clearly unjust for the onus to fall on you to single-handedly right the wrong that’s been done to you. And for me, whose work as a headhunter is to help my clients build great and lasting companies, I hate to advocate a solution which tolerates abuse and thus does not contribute to building great or lasting companies.

However, my priority with this blog post is you, and protecting you if and when you are harassed. To that end, I have to agree with my friends who counsel that we don’t yet live in a world where we all can trust our employers to do the right thing when alerted to sexual harassment in their ranks. And so the truth is that if you are harassed, there is a likelihood that ultimately your best course will be to quietly leave your company, as I once did many years ago.

There is plenty to do in this world that does not require you to work in an environment where you are being harassed.  There are plenty of men out there who value a work environment which respects women. Find those men and work with them. Then, accumulate power in your career and create the kind of a workplace culture you believe in.

Comments in English and Chinese are welcome, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.