There are many factors that can trigger sexual harassment in the workplace that are beyond a company’s control. Nevertheless, it is imperative for companies to create and ensure a safe working environment. Many of those seemingly harmless comments or inappropriate behaviors could be avoided, and victims could be empowered with the right knowledge on how and when to take action.
As the first woman to represent NFL players as an attorney, I received many sexual comments over my career, but I can tell you very little about what I’ve experienced because to name names would not do anyone good, especially me. As an independent contractor, I did not have the luxury of being protected by the many employment laws that protect men and women from such conduct.
When I was working at a law firm, one of the partners clearly crossed the line. Instead of filing, I left the firm. Another time, when interviewed for a team position, the head coach told me, “It would be too distracting to have you around the office.” I withdrew my name from the pool of candidates. Eluding these situations was probably not the best strategy.
As I matured, my skin got thicker, and my ability to confront comments quickly or diminish them with humor became sharper. It is this sense of confidence and humor that got me through many other questionable times. For example when i was representing the women softball players and the attorney for the American Softball Association was making fun of the women because they were complaining about having to wear male structured catcher equipment (which left little room for their breasts), I gave him an athletic cup (youth size) and told him to wear it for a day. Needless to say, we won that point and got the women proper fitting equipment (which included a helmet with a hole for their ponytail!).
It is for this reason, I wanted to share my story of silence with you… I hope this gives you a voice to speak up and incentive to bring in essential sexual harassment training to your working environment today. This question remains: how do we communicate this information effectively, achieving a greater goal than that of merely legal compliance? We must first look for tools and mechanisms to effectively transmit information to employees and then optimize understanding and awareness so that everyone in the workplace can feel confident and empowered to speak up and take action in circumstances like mine.
Ellen M. Zavian, is a Sports Attorney and Professor at the George Washington University and teaches courses in Sports Law, Entrepreneurship and Leadership and Sports Marketing. She has written columns for Conde Nast, Time, USAToday and NFL Insider.