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Job Doc

Know your rights under harassment law

Q. I have been at my company for three years, and I have done well, with only positive reviews. I have a new boss, who hovers over me when I am at my desk and touches my arm and shoulders. He also spends too much time in my office on things that are not work related. He has invited me to lunch several times, which I have done because he is my boss, but it makes me nervous. I want to keep my job. What should I do?

A. You should be able to feel comfortable at work, with clear boundaries as to what is professional behavior, and what crosses the line. Massachusetts and federal law protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. This includes overt “quid pro quo” harassment where a boss asks an employee to provide sexual favors in exchange for a raise, promotion, or even to keep her job. There is also a “hostile work environment” in which a boss, co-workers, or both, say or do things that make the work environment so oppressive that no reasonable person would tolerate it. The catch is that the harassment must be based on your gender (or race, age, or some other protected category) and it must be genuinely intolerable, not just to you but to any reasonable person.

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I consulted with Valerie Samuels, an employment lawyer at Posternak Blankstein & Lund in Boston. Samuels notes that this is a difficult situation because, although it’s your right to raise your concerns with senior management, it’s likely that your boss won’t be thrilled to be called onto the carpet. Given that your boss has not done anything clearly inappropriate, your first step should be to tell him that you feel uncomfortable about his actions. Your boss may just be touchy-feely and not even realize he is making you uncomfortable.

Samuels said any retaliation by your boss or others in the company is unlawful. If talking it over with your boss does not do the trick, or makes things worse, she suggests you promptly report this situation to human resources. Explain your concerns and provide the names of any co-workers who have witnessed the conduct. Human resources should investigate your concerns and address them with your boss. If this does not resolve the problem, seek advice from an attorney or file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Employees no longer have to put up with harassment based on gender, race, religion, age, disability, national origin, or sexual orientation. Know your rights and call attention to these issues but keep in mind that not everything rises to the level of unlawful harassment. In this situation your boss may be clueless, have poor interpersonal skills, or be just too friendly.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston, and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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