Don’t stay silent if you have witnessed sexual harassment in your office. Here’s what to do instead.
Years ago, a female colleague I immensely admire asked to speak with me privately after a team meeting. As our largely male team shuffled out of the room, I could tell by her expression the matter was serious.
My peer went on to recount a recent experience of harrowing sexual harassment by a significantly senior male executive. She had spent the last month contemplating what, if anything, to do, fearing shame and career ramifications.
I said “I believe you. You have to report this. If not for yourself, then the dozens of women who come after you. I can come with you.” Thankfully, she did and the executive was fired shortly after.
But so many survivors of sexual harassment and assault aren’t quite as fortunate. Many carry the humiliation and trauma with them for years.
Recently, Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by over three dozen women, was fired from the company he co-founded. Within a few days of that, it was also revealed Amazon Studios executive Roy Price was suspended following allegations of sexual harassment from movie producer Isa Hackett.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is pervasive, yet official statistics are hard to obtain; many of those who are abused never speak up for fear of retaliation. By any measure, it’s morally repugnant. But the issue is also one we need to combat as a society for other reasons. Sexual harassment and intimidation is an economic issue that impacts the earning and advancement potential of women primarily.
So what can you do if you witness a co-worker being harassed?
Find out if your co-worker is OK. If you have witnessed an inappropriate exchange, find out if your co-worker is all right. This can be awkward, and often people will try to downplay harassment. It’s necessary for you to step up and check whether they need any help.
State explicitly that you’re willing to help. If you are checking in with a co-worker who was harassed, offer your support explicitly. Use language like “I saw the incident and it was inappropriate” or “I can come in with you as a witness, if you’re reporting this.”
In the instance I was involved in, I hadn’t personally witnessed it, but ensured my co-worker knew I believed her and was willing to come in for moral support while she reported the incident.
Interrupt bad behavior with “that was inappropriate.” These three words are direct and firm. Use them. I can understand that it’s hard to be confrontational, but this approach usually nips bad behavior in the bud.
Document the incident. Creating a paper trail is always a good idea in these instances. Whenever I’ve been asked for advice on this, I’ve always recommended taking extensive notes about the incident, with names, dates and locations where appropriate. Depending on the perpetrator, it could be a one-off incident resolved by a conversation with HR, but in some cases, your notes could be a key resource in a formal complaint or lawsuit.
Report it to HR. HR exists as the primary go-to in these cases. It’s the most serious move, but also the lowest stakes for you personally. If you’re still worried about associating your name and face with such an accusation, you can report the behavior anonymously; some companies have a hotline for this purpose, or you could just send snail mail, states this Esquire article, with more details on other actions you could take.
In short: Do something. Taking no action makes you complicit with the harasser and gives them permission to repeat bad behavior.