Sexual harassment can affect more than just victim

  • Published
  • By Airman Ashley J. Thum
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
It's a known fact that the memory of being sexually harassed can stay with a victim forever, but many may not realize how widespread that effect can be.

The 28th Bomb Wing Equal Opportunity office aims to reduce the amount of sexual harassments in Ellsworth's work centers with a proactive approach that focuses on prevention through education.

Don Bell, 28th BW EO director, explained that although the Air Force has a zero tolerance policy toward sexual assault and sexual harassment, the potential for sexual misconduct will always exist.

"It doesn't mean it's not going to happen," Bell said. "It just means it shouldn't be tolerated."

Staff Sgt. Jessica Tabor, 28th BW EO advisor, said sexual harassment covers a wide range of behaviors - some of which may not seem like a bad idea, but are, in fact, against AF policy.

"The definition (of sexual harassment) is `unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment'," Tabor explained. "It can be inappropriate jokes, bumper stickers, or pictures on Facebook or in a work center."

Bell added texting and other nonverbal communications, verbal conversations - even questioning someone's sexual orientation - can all be seen as sexual harassment.

"This is the only issue where a member can file a third party complaint," Bell said. "You may overhear two people talking about their sexual exploits over the weekend, and you can file a complaint with the EO office."

EO briefs are given at several venues, from NCO professional education to First Term Airman Center classes. Tabor said the staff can also give one-on-one refresher training, or group training upon request.

"We take a proactive role here - letting people know what is acceptable behavior and what is unacceptable behavior," Bell said. "Education is the most effective tool we have when it comes to addressing sexual harassment."

In the event education doesn't solve a problem, and an incident of sexual harassment occurs, the EO staff stands ready to process complaints and objectively advise commanders and management on how to deal with the situation.

The EO office offers Airmen and civilian employees - including former employees and applicants for employment - two options for sexual harassment complaints: informal and formal complaints.

"An informal complaint is when someone wants to try to reach a resolution, whether that's talking to their supervisor or first sergeant, at the lowest level," Tabor explained. "A formal complaint is when the EO office looks into it. We're going to do a fact-finding to figure out whether or not sexual harassment did occur."

Tabor went on to say complaints are then forwarded to the 28th BW Judge Advocate office for their input, before being sent to the unit commander to decide whether or not to seek disciplinary action. Formal complaints are also sent to the 12th Air Force commander who acts as the general court martial convening authority.

Bell and Tabor agreed there are a multitude of excuses someone can make to justify their actions, but ultimately, sexual harassment can deteriorate the fabric of an entire shop.

"People may think inappropriate behavior increases morale, but at the end of the day, we're all professionals," Tabor said. "If people aren't acting professionally, it can affect the overall mission. If a supervisor is saying inappropriate things in the work center, people aren't going to respect them or work as hard for them."

Bell added that repeated, unwelcome sexual advances can break down morale in a work environment to the point that Airmen no longer want to go to work, or feel comfortable working with an individual.

"What some units call `tradition,' or `hazing' can also be sexual harassment," Bell said. "They've created what the Air Force and federal law consider a `hostile work environment.' It lowers morale and it impacts unit cohesion."

Since active-duty Airmen are considered to be on duty 24/7, Bell explained the term "hostile work environment" can include their dormitory, off-base house, or even a part-time job downtown.

Tabor encouraged Airmen, as well as civilian employees, who may be experiencing sexual harassment to come forward and report it, even if they are uncomfortable with the idea of confronting the individual or group responsible themselves.

"Someone will take care of it for you," Tabor emphasized. "If there's no one in your chain of command you feel you can trust, call us - we'll say something."

Bell added working to improve the human relations climate of the base is an essential part of EO's responsibility - one that he believes in wholeheartedly.

"People are the mission - one cannot exist without the other," Bell said. "If you're taking care of people, which is what we do, then you're taking care of the mission."