Six Steps to Support a Sexually-Harassed Coworker

In the current climate a new case of workplace sexual harassment appears weekly. Do you know what to do if a coworker tells you they have been harassed? Would you know how to support them and provide guidance, while also taking care of yourself? TMI Action has developed an effective series of steps to take — giving you the tools you need to answer just these questions.

Step 1: Notify them of your responsibility

Many workplaces have a policy that makes their employees “responsible employees.” This means you have the responsibility to report any violation of law or policy to your employer. This could include theft, bullying, discrimination, embezzlement, and of course sexual harassment, which is a violation of workplace policy.

Employers make this requirement because they cannot take action if they are unaware of a problem. Some workplaces take it a step further, in that if you were aware of any violation of law or policy, and did not report it, you can be held equally responsible for the crime. Now consider this from your coworker’s side. Many individuals that are currently experiencing, or have experienced, some form of sexual harassment do not want to report it. They just want it to stop. They may start their disclosure to you like this, “Please don’t tell anyone this, but Kelly has asked me on three dates. I said no, but they didn’t seemed to get the picture. Last week, it got worse, for my birthday, they sent me a box of sex toys. I don’t know what to do…” Individuals experiencing this behavior may feel confused and question if it’s really that bad. They may have fear they won’t be believed or supported by their employer, ultimately being judged and blamed for what happened. The list goes on.

The point – TMI Action cannot tell you what to do in this very hard situation. Your employee responsibility to your workplace may not align with your request of confidence from a co-worker. What you can do is identify what your responsibility is BEFORE you find yourself in this situation and notify your co-worker of that before you glean all the details of what’s going on. This can help direct the conversation as it progresses. Keep in mind that notifying the individual might not be appropriate or you might not have time to do so. Trust yourself, you are the best judge of how to communicate this.

Step 2: Check in with Safety

Start with immediate safety. Are you or your co-worker in imminent danger? If yes, call in your supervisor and/or 911. Often, there is not imminent danger and someone just needs to talk. Make sure you are in a safe space to do so. Ask if they feel comfortable talking where you are. Would it be better if you found a more private space or went on a walk? Provide this as an open-ended question that can allow your co-worker to decide what is right for them.

Step 3: Listen Actively

This is a time for you to use your best active-listening skills. This may be your coworkers first time telling anyone about what’s happening to them. You can show them you are listening by paying attention, using your body language (nodding and making eye contact), providing feedback (but not advice), and deferring judgement. Finally, respond appropriately – Ask what they need and want from you, which takes us to step 4.

* If you feel like a hug is appropriate in this situation, please ask first!

Step 4: Ask How Best You Can Support Them

Everyone is unique and needs different things in order to feel safe, heard and cared for. For example, while one individual might want you to offer a reassuring hand on their hand or shoulder, another might find physical touch very triggering and alarming in that given moment. That’s why it can be helpful to ask your co-worker what their needs are and how you can support them. Make sure to ask many open ended questions, that make the co-worker consider what they need.

Open ended questions may include:

  • How can I best support you?
  • What outcome do you seek?
  • What sort of action would you like taken?
  • What role do you want me to play in this?

Of course some yes or no questions can also be helpful, such as:

  • Would you like resources?
  • Do you know how to find the company sexual harassment policy?
  • Have you notified your supervisor?

Step 5: Direct to Resources

There are so many resources available for any type of sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination. The first step would be to get a hold of your workplace policies regarding the type of harassment that is going on. Better understanding of company policies can be very helpful. Next, depending on what state you live in, you may have additional protected classes at your workplace. When looking for resources it is important to identify if you work for a university, private or public company, or a state or federal agency. Your type of employer may change your protections slightly, which Acts protect your coworker, and how to deal with the situation. Find out more! Offer to do research with your coworker to see what the next steps are.

Step 6: Take Care of Yourself

You may be walking a fine line, trying to support your coworker, while navigating your own responsibilities. It’s important to make decisions that are true, honest, and take care of yourself. Remember you are not alone, and there is support for you too. Self care may be discussing this with a counselor or close friend in your life that does not have allegiance to the employer. Maybe self-care is a cup of tea, time to meditate, spending time alone or with friends, hanging out with your pet. The final piece to taking care of yourself is to document EVERYTHING. This is something you can advise your co-worker to do as well. Depending on how egregious the complaint is Human Resource, your employer, and any other investigator will need documentation.

Documentation should include:

  • When you became aware of the incident, and what you were made aware of
  • Any names of individuals involved
  • Who has been notified
  • Any action taken

TMI Action cannot advise for every particular type of situation, but if you follow these steps you are taking purposeful action to improve the situation for yourself and your coworker. You know best, trust yourself. And of course, although we do not provide legal advice, we are here to help answer questions along the way.

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