Dear People Ops:
I was working late last week, and I saw a manager in my company putting his hand, in my opinion in an inappropriate way, on one of my coworkers legs. She seemed uncomfortable, and I tried to catch her eye after he walked away but she didn't look my way. We were the only ones in the office. I don't want to report this if I misunderstood the situation, but she's one of the most junior people in our company and I feel like I should protect her as a more senior woman in the company. What can I do?
Do something. Now. Right now.
I know it can feel daunting. You don't want to overstep, or insert yourself into a messy situation. But we all have a responsibility for action when we witness harassment. But what can you do?
First, its important to understand what constitutes harassment. While we're only talking about sexual harassment today, harassment in the workplace isn't limited to sexual harassment. Other actions regarding religion, race, age, gender, or skin color, for example, can also be considered harassment if they interfere with an employee's success or conjure a hostile work environment. There is a misconception that men can't be victims of harassment. False! There are situations in which men are discriminated against simply because they are men in exactly the same ways in which women are discriminated against for no other reason than that they are female.
Whether the offense is made by a manager, co-worker, or even a non-employee like a client, contractor, or vendor, if the conduct creates a hostile work environment or interrupts an employee's success, it is considered unlawful sexual harassment. Sexual harassment isn't limited to making inappropriate advances. In fact, sexual harassment includes any unwelcome verbal or physical behavior that creates a hostile work environment. When you witness harassment there are several strategies you can utilize to fight back.
Talk with The Victim
First, and most importantly, speak with the victim. Make sure they are ok and let them know they are not alone. Try "Hey Sarah, I don't want to overstep but I saw something that made me uncomfortable between you and Todd last night. How are you feeling about it?"
Make a Record
Keep a simple record of anything you see with dates, names and what occurred. Also include the names of anyone else who may have witnessed what happened. Store this somewhere off company property. You may need it later.
Talk to The Perpetrator
If you feel comfortable, say something to the perpetrator. A simple "Todd, I saw you put your hand on Sarah's leg last night. I'm sure you didn't mean anything by it, but that could make someone uncomfortable". Best case scenario, Todd didn't realize how his actions were being perceived and will cut it out. Worse case scenario you're putting him on notice, he'll know he's being watched, and that he can't isolate his victim further.
Talk with Human Resources
Inform your company's HR or senior leadership of what you saw. Its important to give them the opportunity to address harassment issues in the company before filing a formal complaint.
File a Complaint
There are steps you can take to file a harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Depending on where you live, there may also be city or state level agencies you can file a claim with. In order to successfully file such a claim, however, you have to be able to prove that a) your employer tried to correct the harassing behavior; and b) that the employee responsible for the harassment refused to cease and desist.
When you witness harassment in the workplace, I encourage everyone to do something, anything. Staying silent is not an option.
*Although we would assume this was common sense, the above does not constitute legal advice. For legal advice please consult and employment or labor attorney.*
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