How to Handle a Sexual Harassment Workplace Crisis
With how common sexual harassment is in today's world, it's likely that you might encounter it in the workplace in some form. Most people do not know how to properly respond to instances when they see them happen or when they are the ones who are targeted. That's actually a normal response. It's an unsettling experience and that does not change no matter how many times you encounter it. However, that doesn't mean that you have to accept what happens or that you should just ignore it. Taking action against sexual harassment in the workplace can be scary, but speaking up is often the most important thing that a person can do to help stop it. If no one says anything when sexual harassment happens, then there's little that can be done to address it.

This lesson will look at the different things that a person should do if they have been impacted by an instance of sexual harassment. This will include the different steps you may take on your own towards reporting the incident and how you can help get started on addressing its effects on you. Much of this lesson addresses being the direct target of sexual harassment but it can apply to those who are indirect targets or bystanders. Each stage discussed in this lesson can be adapted for other types of harassment that might occur in tandem with sexual harassment and the varying forms of sexual harassment.

First: Breathe

As mentioned, sexual harassment is not a pleasant experience. It can be overwhelming, and it's not uncommon to have feelings of fear, disgust, and shock. It's also not uncommon to not even feel anything or have any kind of emotional response immediately when it happens. The behaviors associated with sexual harassment are not normal for the workplace. The realization of what has happened might not occur as fast as you think it would in order for a person to have any kind of reaction to the situation. Before you do anything like react, respond, report, etc., understand that it's okay to mentally or physically take a step away from the situation and give yourself a moment. Breathe, let yourself process what happened, and then do what you need to do.

You might feel angry toward the harasser and have the urge to lash out at them in defense and it's okay to feel that way. Tell them flat-out that what they're doing and/or have done is not okay, that it makes you feel uncomfortable, and they need to stop it right now. Use your voice. Own your feelings. Make it explicitly clear that this isn't acceptable through your works and your actions. You are in no way, shape, or form obligated to apologize or come up with an excuse for not welcoming their behavior and you should not let them make you feel bad for standing up for yourself. It is also acceptable and appropriate to state that what they've done is harassment and that it's illegal, against policy, not welcomed, etc. Identify them, for instance, call them by name, if you know it, and tell them enough is enough.

Hands off! If they're touching you inappropriately, then step out of their reach or pull their hands off of you. If you're concerned that your response may be considered "inappropriate" or "unprofessional" for the workplace, keep in mind that their behavior is also "inappropriate" or "unprofessional" for the workplace and that you also have the legal right to defend yourself if there is a perceived threat of harm. In general, physical touch usually isn't acceptable in a working environment, and most forms of physical touch in sexual harassment are definitely not acceptable and could be interpreted as an intent to do harm.


Identify What Has Happened

There may not be an opportunity to respond or act in any way shortly following an instance of sexual harassment. Maybe it happened very quickly or occurred via a means that didn't require both the victim and the harasser to be in the same room, for example, sending sexually explicit texts or emails. Whatever the case may be, it's best to try and identify what has actually happened. Taking the time to do this is incredibly important as this information is going to be needed later on when reporting what happened and if you file a formal harassment claim.

So what is it that you need to identify?

Who - Who was the harasser? What is their name and what is their relation to you if there is one. If you only know their first name, then what other characteristics can be used to determine who they are? For example, the department that they are from could be useful in this regard, especially if there are multiple people with that name, for example, "Steve from Accounting" rather than "Steve from Marketing," etc. Keep in mind that some instances of sexual harassment are done anonymously, so you may not know a lot of identifying information about who did it.

What - What is it that they did? Think of the different forms of sexual harassment like inappropriate touch, sexual comments like verbal, digital, print, etc., or explicit imagery. If the harassment was in the form of a request and/or demand for a sexual favor--quid pro quo--then what exactly was said? How was it said--in person, over a phone call, text message, email, etc.? Also look at what was going on and was said before and after the harassment. What were the circumstances that allowed for this interaction to occur, for example, victim and harasser have neighboring desks and/or workspaces?

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Workplace Sexual Harassment in the #MeToo Era course?

When -- Information regarding when an instance of sexual harassment happened will likely be needed for any kind of reporting. In most cases, you will need to at least know the exact date of when the harassment occurred. If there were multiple cases, then you will also need to identify when they first began through to when the most recent instance occurred. Times may also be needed but simply saying morning, afternoon, or evening or a rough estimate rather than the exact time like about 9 am vs. 9:07 am might be acceptable. You should aim to be as close as possible to the time frame of when the harassment occurred if you are not completely certain as to the exact timing.

Where -- Where did the harassment occur? Of course, reporting workplace harassment usually requires it to occur at work or in relation to the workplace for it to be properly filed. This applies to the business' physical location, including the building it operates out of and parking lots and/or structures, as well as any off-site locations tied to the business, company vehicles, and job sites. The workplace can still be involved in cases where the sexual harassment formally occurs outside of work but at the hands of a co-worker largely because their actions can still be tied to the workplace depending on the circumstances. This could also include business trips or at conventions, especially if the employer is the one who sent or required the involved parties attend in the first place.


Document, Document, Document

All of the information you identify thoroughly in the above section is going to be needed as you document the situation in preparation for reporting the harassment. Documenting is incredibly important because it can be used to back up the claim and help counter the "he-said-she-said" agreement that some harassers and their helpers may use. This can also help if you're unable to quickly make a report or claim for whatever reason by providing you with some assistance in remembering what happened later on, for example, sexual harassment from a co-worker while at a conference that you've both been sent to as representatives of the company you work for. In such a situation, you might not be able to formally file a report with your work's Human Resources department or whomever handles harassment reporting and/or a claim with the EEOC until you return home or to work. Documentation can also help in establishing a timeline of events for any legal actions or in instances of retaliation.

Write it down. Documenting harassment often involves writing down what happened. This should include the who, what, when, where, and any other pertinent information like your response to the harassment when it occurred. Include relevant details of what happened. If "Steve from Accounting" groped you in the elevator last Tuesday, then you should write down something along the lines of "Steve Jones from the Accounting Department placed his hand unsolicited on my rear end/backside/butt, etc. and squeezed it three times while we were in elevator number two on Tuesday March 14th, 2016 around 10 AM. I told him to stop. He laughed and did it twice more before exiting the elevator on the fourth floor." That might sound a little wordy but it does clearly communicate what happened, when, where, and with whom. Be sure to keep track of where you write such information down, such as in a Word document, a spiral notebook, etc., so you have it on hand for reporting and so it does not get altered by others.

Are there witnesses? If there were any, you should also document information regarding any potential witnesses alongside the other information. Keep in mind that just because there were other people present doesn't mean that they saw anything or are willing to say that they saw something if asked later on during an investigation. The bystander effect is a real possibility and some people may take issue with being included in a report and/or investigation without being given the option of confidentiality or to take actions to protect themselves from retaliation. Not every witness to an instance of sexual harassment is going to be on the side of the victim either, for example, friends and supporters of the harasser, other victims who are not ready to come forward yet, etc. Ask witnesses first if they are willing to offer their support and to give them the opportunity to report the incident, anonymously or by name, on their own. There is also the possibility that a potential witness didn't actually witness anything. If Linda was in the elevator with you and Steve but had her back turned to you both, then she isn't going to be able to say that she personally witnessed Steve grope you. In that example, however, she may have heard you tell him to stop and/or his laugh in response and therefore may be able to state so when asked during an investigation. But it's still a good idea to talk to her first to see if she did hear or see anything rather than assuming she did.

Is there physical documentation? In addition to writing down what happened, you can also document any physical evidence of the harassment. Continuing with the Steve example, let's say he also sends you a sexually explicit note via text, email, etc. You can save the note itself to include with any filings you make and for your own records. Screenshot it on your phone or computer or take a photo of it on your desk as you found it if it's a paper note. Make and properly store multiple copies if you can. In instances where there are formal reports outside of work, such as police and hospital reports from instances of physical and/or sexual violence that are tied to the workplace harassment, official copies should also be obtained from the appropriate sources.


Getting Ready To Report

All these steps are done to accomplish two things--to formally report the harassment and to help those involved heal. As you get ready to do the first part, you should make sure that you have all your information and documentation organized and prepared to be submitted if requested. This means making sure the information is correct and as complete as you can possibly make it. Maybe something's unclear or a detail is out of place between copies, so adjust as needed without altering the truth. Remember to make copies for your own records and to be sure that they are stored in a safe place that you can access.

Regarding the second part, healing. These steps to identify and document an instance of sexual harassment can help a person process what has happened to them. This can be crucial to the healing process and can help a victim come to terms with what happened. Better yet, it can help them understand that what happened was not their fault and that no one can ever change that.