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Ask HN: Getting harassed at work for my sexuality, what should i do?
48 points by yahyaheee on Apr 10, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 38 comments
Hey, I have found myself in a bit of a bind at my job over the last several months. A little backstory, I am a bisexual man in a relationship with a woman. I'm not sure how it happened for me this way, but it did, and I am honest about who I am with those that are close to me. So, here is my current situation:

I started working at a part of Oracle back in September, and over the next several months my coworkers one aisle over from me have begun talking about my sexuality in a very demeaning manner. They are I guess 'whispering', but I can clearly hear them talking about whether I am gay or not on a close to daily basis. This is also followed up with jokes about how I 'think' I'm Bi, and how thats a bunch of bullshit. I work in an area where I am one of the only engineers and am surrounded by a bunch of what I would call Prep School types.

I have tried to ignore it, and brush it off, but it gets in my head and makes me really upset. Which is then in turn misinterpreted as me having a 'bad attitude'. I have opened up to several other people at work about it and they have suggested going to HR. I have never really been the type to go to teacher, but I feel like I'm kind of out of options here. I also worry about the possible repercussions of it.

I guess I am wondering if anyone has been in a similar boat? And perhaps has some advice to share? Thanks

Wow, you're not getting the right advice here at all.

I haven't been in this situation, but I believe very strongly that you should consult an attorney before going to HR. There are attorneys who specialize in employment law. They will tell you what to do as far as recordkeeping, the legality of recording these incidents in your jurisdiction, etc.

The thing to keep in mind is that HR's job is to protect the company, not you. They're not "teacher", exactly, and you can't necessarily trust them.

Personally, I think the behavior you're describing is abominable -- besides being highly illegal -- and I hope you sue their asses for a big pile of money. But, whether to litigate or not will be up to you.

>I haven't been in this situation, but I believe very strongly that you should consult an attorney before going to HR.

The first thing the attorney is going to ask is "What have you done to alert the company this problem exists?" The company isn't going to be liable for something like this if they don't know about it, particularly if they have a policy against it (and I assure you they do).

Yes, it's HR's job to protect the company. And the way they protect the company is by acting on these kinds of complaints.

One purpose of speaking to an attorney first is to avoid foreclosing on your options if HR doesn't do the right thing.

What options would those be?

There's another question for your attorney.

Agree. HR is often not the employee's ally in this situation. Their goal is to protect the company from claims and repetitional harm. Sometimes this aligns with the employee's best interest, sometimes not.

Oracle HR should be trained in EEOC regulations and guidelines. https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/wysk/enforcement_protecti... describes some of them. https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/brochure-gender_stere... gives a phone number to call where the EEOC might "explain whether the situation you face is lawful or unlawful." 1-800-669-4000 . I have never tried that number and I don't know the quality of the response.

If you talk with HR, phrases that will catch their attention are "hostile environment" and "discrimination based on sexual orientation."

If you go the HR/EEOC route, know your rights concerning anti-retaliation. (HR may not tell you about them. Their job is to protect the company, and not necessarily give you information beyond the minimum to do that.) Start at https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/types/facts-retal.cfm . In short, complaining about harassment in good faith, even if it eventually is not judged to be harassment, is a protected activity. The company is not allowed to conduct adverse actions against you, nor allow employees to do so.

That doesn't mean things will get better if you go that route. I have no experience with it. I mention it only so you know some about what the law says.

Thank you, this is really solid advice

Being a hetero male engineer, I find your story quite appalling. My advice to you would be to go to HR immediately. It isn't being a tattletale when you're being discriminated against or being made fun of in mean spirits. In fact, the HR term for this is sexual harassment, which I suspect a serious business firm like Oracle has a 0 tolerance rule for to CYA against lawsuits.

I would also advocate going to HR, preferably after recording one or two of those conversations.

I would recommend going to HR, but not recording the conversation. The laws in your jurisdiction may make such recording illegal.

I would start by consulting an employment attorney.

Even in California, which normally requires consent of all parties for recording, these circumstances might fall under an exception. That's a question for the attorney. IANAL, but it seems possible to me because the statue exempts conversations that the participants might reasonably expect could be overheard.

Short of an audio recording, you should certainly start keeping a handwritten log of incidents; write down all of them in as much detail as you can.

Yeah I now realize that I should have done this, but I have the feeling that they are trying to push me out now and I only have so much time to try and collect anything. I suppose I could try and get witnesses

Trying to push you out? You might just be paranoid. Even if it is true, it might be for unrelated reasons. In any case, next time around:

1. Don't announce to everybody what you like to do with your dick and/or orifices. Even if you were 100% straight, it wouldn't be appropriate in a professional work environment.

2. Grow a thick skin. So they talk. Oh well.

3. Pick a better employer. You'd find more acceptance at the CIA (not joking) or a typical big defense contractor.

Yeah, that's a good point. I'll edit my response.


I would say that if you are open and have no problem with who you are (as you seem to be based on your comment), maybe a good idea would be to talk to them directly and address the comments... If that doesn't work, then go to HR... But that's just me, at this point I have no problem in telling people about my sexuality, and I have always been a very direct person that can't keep her mouth shout (which isn't always the best of things). I have not been in a position like that at work, so I guess it depends on several things, starting on how "friendly" your workplace is...

If you don't have people to talk about this, I invite you to join GPSGAY and further discuss.

Good luck!

Yeah, I know I should be like this. I think it was just years of trauma that have made me somewhat unable to do this. And hey are all in their own little 'cool kid' clique, that is in favor with the boss

Oracle is a large enough company that I'm sure they have an employee resource group for LGBT people that you could reach out to.

If you do go to HR, document /everything/ -- names and dates when the harassment started, exactly who has been involved, who you talk to and when in HR, and what they said. HR isn't there to protect you; they're there to protect the company from liability. Generally, in these sort of situations, the liability is best resolved by disciplining those bothering you, but it can swing the other way often enough that it's best to have your ducks in a row.

That is really horrible and I am sorry you are going through something like that. You shouldn't have to. The fact that they feel comfortable speaking about your sexuality in ANY way means that the culture has allowed this to happen.

I would consult an employment lawyer. Here is the sad truth of the matter: you are probably going to be on the losing end of this. You will likely be passed over for promotions and will likely face increased harassment. HR tends to be a leaky sieve so do not trust that they will do their job.

So, stand for your principles and take no prisoners or nurture your career and grow a much thicker skin than anyone would have to. Or leave.

Yeah I think you are in line with my thinking on this. I just almost feel as though it's a losing battle, but at the same time I think it's one that I need to fight

Well, yes, it's probably a losing battle in terms of winning the hearts and minds of this clique of prep boys. You probably aren't going to do that. (You might win with one or two, but probably not the group.)

It's one you need to fight? I'm not saying you're wrong, but I would suggest at least thinking twice. You are going to take some hits in that process, at least emotionally and perhaps professionally. You need to be honest with yourself about whether you are able to take those hits. (On the other hand, you're already taking emotional hits, so maybe doing nothing is not an option for you.)

Do you feel you need to fight this to keep other people from going through what you're going through? You can do it; employment law is firmly on your side. (IANAL, though.) In fact, I'm pretty sure that Oracle has HR policy that is also on your side. But I'd caution you to be careful about how much of your emotional energy you invest in a fight like this. You may decide you need to fight it, but even winning could look like losing. Those people aren't likely to become your friends after a lecture from HR. They may stop the comments, but become more coldly hostile toward you, maybe even passively trying to undermine you.

You can make them stop the behavior. You can't make them grow up and treat you like humans should treat each other.

Do you need to fight this? I can't tell you, but be realistic about what fighting is likely to get you.

Unless you really like it there, just leave. You have skills. And it sounds like you're not surrounded by other people with skills; that must be a little disheartening.

If you want to stay, maybe talk to the people involved, or not, and possibly your manager or his manager. But definitely go to HR, and take notes or make them later, in a notebook not owned by the company. And be prepared to be officially harrassed or fired. The notes may help the employment suit, or the application for unemployment.

Either way, start testing the waters, even to the point of an interview.

Caveat: I have no direct experience with this problem.

Yeah I'm debating this. I really like the work and it's in line with my desired career trajectory, but the culture is just toxic. That and I'm just an engineer 1 so I don't have a huge amount of opportunity

Life is too long for toxic culture.

Just print out this thread and hang it up somewhere conspicuous. I'd expect that would get the appropriate amount of attention.

Hahaha I needed a good laugh, I was secretly hoping someone there may read this. But hen again they aren't that cool

For the people saying "go to HR", if I remember well from my friends who work there, Oracle's HR is something like 4 people for the entire company (everything is automated).

So it's more like "send an email to HR people you've never seen or heard of", and with how impersonal that is, it's easier said than done.

Still, in this current political context, big tech companies don't want to be seen as unsupportive of these issues, so it's still probably the best bet. Contact HR :)

I'm a hetero guy so I've never been in your situation. Consequently, take this advice (and the question that precedes it) with several grains of salt.

Who do you have to talk to? Do you have a solid support network of people who know you're bi and support you unconditionally??

I ask because the next steps are potentially hard, especially if you're surrounded by the type of prep school types who tend to stick together in groups.

I need to edit this in response to an excellent comment by mtviewdave, who suggested that depending on where you live, surreptitiously recording a conversation may be illegal. Look into the law first!!(Source - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11468484)

That said, the next time that you hear them talking about you, try to record the conversation. This prevents a you versus them situation where their own best witnesses are the co-accused. Their defense could (and likely will) be that you misheard them...

Once you have it recorded, I wouldn't bother trying to tell them to grow up and knock it off. Simply walk into HR and make a formal complaint.

I understand that you've never been the type to go to the teacher, but seriously dude, someone sitting two seats down from you may be in a deep closet and their closet could be deepening (and get more lonely) with each of their barbs.

I'm sorry that you're going through this and I wish I could do more. Best of luck and good on you for coming here to talk about this.

Send an email to the whole gang with this, and tell them how it's not their fucking problem, and that you'll going to the HR next.

They'll shut up in no time.

I like your style

While sending an email might be a good solution, I don't think it is a good idea to be confrontational about it. I think you need to make them see that they've been behaving like immature idiots, but without it escalating into a confrontation.

I think all reasonable people will be on your side if you handle it well. I like the idea that someone else came up with of posting this thread up on the noticeboard. That might embarrass them into shutting the fuck up and make them realise what a bunch of ignorant, immature dicks they've been :)

He doesn't have to be confrontational at all.

An e-mail in a softer tone, stating the facts and that it hurts would be enough. He should mention HR in there too.

It's better to talk to people than about them: you know how that feels, right? These are people you work with, and will continue to work with, if you resolve the situation, so I think you should just call one of them on what they are saying. Talk one-on-one with frankness and humor and a willingness to forgive. If you approach it as adult-to-adult, they may not react like a stupid kid.

The sooner you act, the better. I am a woman and I worked for a Fortune 500 company and the very first time a specific man said something to me that I felt was beyond the pale, I emailed him and copied our two bosses that he was never to speak to me that way again. I got interviewed by HR and explained the back story and my reasoning. My impression is he got sent to sensitivity training.

Please do not wait any longer. Address this ASAP. Doing nothing just grows the problem and the longer it goes on, the harder it will be to resolve. Any time you run into something like this, you should address it sooner rather than later. Prejudice based problems do not begin with violence. They begin with disrespect. The longer the disrespect goes unchecked, the more likely something really ugly will come of it. The sooner you act, the more likely it is you can stop it.

You hear people talking about you, and you think you are being pushed out. I expect you will dismiss this possibility, but...

It just occurred to me that my brother had this too. He was certain that people would talk about him being gay. It wasn't actually happening. He was starting to get schizophrenia.

If this is happening to you, you won't want to believe it. Prove it: get checked.

Also you could show print out this thread from HN which would surely have some cultural capital.

I can't give you specific advice. However DO NOT FORGET that HR has the company's best interest in mind, not yours.

Have you tried talking to them directly?

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