Balancing Friendly at Work

I just got the job of my dreams as a graphic designer for a large advertising firm. Not only do I enjoy the work itself, the pay is great and I have great benefits including generous paid time off. The only problem is that I’m the only woman on the team and somewhat younger than everyone else. I’ve been on the job for five months and just had an excellent performance review. I don’t want to complain or seem overly sensitive but all the recent media attention to sexual harassment has caused me to question interactions with my co-workers and to feel like I need to keep my distance to keep myself safe and not give a message that I’m available or interested in anything other than a professional relationship. Last week everyone went out for drinks to celebrate the successful completion of a big project. I went but was the first one to leave and was uncomfortable the whole short time I was there. How can I make sure my colleagues don’t see my friendly personal conversations as flirtatiousness or romantic or sexual interest?
Charlotte  T. Chicago, IL 

Dear Charlotte,
Congratulations on your new job! It sounds like there’s a lot about the job that makes you happy. It is challenging and can be a little lonely to be the only woman on a team of men. It’s sometimes confusing in our contemporary laid-back workplaces to know what’s off limits. Blatant and subtle forms of sexual harassment are taking a psychological and economic toll on women across the county in every professional sector. Support and guidance from other experienced women will be essential to your continued success. An excellent resource would be an experienced woman in your company who is willing to be a mentor, someone who understands the culture and knows the players. Another source of support might be a woman’s professional organization. With more and more women and men coming forward with disturbing stories of sexual harassment, organizations are recognizing the need for training and communicating specific position statements and policies regarding workplace standards of behavior. Speak with your human resources department on what plans there might be to offer such training. A professional coach is also someone who can provide you with support. A high percentage of employees who experience harassment in the workplace never even report internally. They never even go to a supervisor. The recent explosion of reports of sexual harassment has reached a tipping point of naming this issue and creating a sense of urgency to fix it. Knowing you have support and understanding your company’s anti-sexual harassment policies will help you feel confident and so that you can relate to your colleagues in a friendly cooperative way without fear that your professional warmth might be misinterpreted or that you’ll be forced to suffer in silence if interactions at the workplace cause you to feel unsafe. I wish you much success in your new job and encourage you to get started immediately in assembling your support team.
All the best

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