What to Do If You See a Female Coworker Being Harassed
It's time to take action.
BY Kaitlin Menza | Oct 16, 2017 | Money & Career
The young woman was clearly in earshot when the boss said it to a group of male employees: “That is the kind of ass I would tear up when I was your age.” A male friend of mine quoted it back to me from a moment early in his career, while we were discussing the recent Harvey Weinstein allegations. He didn’t speak up then, and he still doesn’t speak up now when he witnesses sexual harassment in his office.
“I’ve never seen a person actually fired for it,” he says. “It sends a message to the observers, like, ‘All you’re going to do is hit a beehive. There will be no possible benefits for anyone involved.'” Why kick up the dust? Instead, he makes a habit of checking in with female colleagues afterwards to see how they’re doing. “They seem to brush it off. They have to go in knowing that it’s probably going to happen at some point.”
“MEN HAVE NO LEGAL OBLIGATION AT ALL. THE QUESTION IS, DO YOU HAVE AN ETHICAL AND MORAL OBLIGATION?"
Since the Weinstein scoop dropped, it feels like the societal beehive has been kicked for all of us. But what responsibility does a man have to stop sexual harassment? “Men have no legal obligation at all. The question is, do you have an ethical and moral obligation? That’s up to them and their companies to decide,” says Susan Strauss, EdD, who consults with businesses around the world to address sexual harassment. “Men don’t stand up for three reasons: One, they think it won’t do any good. Two, they feel they’ll be retaliated against by the harasser or by their company. And three, they don’t know how.”
Each scenario a man finds himself in is different—from the potential harassment itself to his own position, seniority, company culture, and relationship to the victim. And most corporate training just gives employees scenarios to avoid: “Bob rubs the shoulders of Betty. Don’t be like Bob.” Instead of examining a list of all the ways a man can sexually harass a woman, consider how you can intervene.
But taking action requires taking a risk by reporting bad behaviour. Before you report anything and open up an HR interrogation (or even retaliation?), the experts we spoke with encourage you to consult with the woman in question first. “From a psychological standpoint—in order to give the woman as much control as possible—ask her if it’s okay if you report,” says Sheela Raja, PhD, a sexual harassment expert. You could volunteer to do so with her name, without her name, or even by her side so that you can serve as a witness. If she asks you not to, or seems to brush it off, consider reporting the incident and the harasser without using her name.
“Each one of us has a responsibility to help create a healthy workplace culture. Working together, it creates a momentum so that everyone is on the same page with the same set of values,” says Janine Yancey, the founder and CEO of Emtrain, which offers compliance-training courses for companies worldwide. “We all have a duty.” Here are a few methods for you to follow through on that responsibility, in no particular order.
Method: Figure out what it looks like when a woman is uncomfortable.
So very much of sexual harassment falls into a grey area—an inappropriate joke, a one-off comment, even a type of gaze—that you might not even realize you’re witnessing it. Learn to open your eyes. “We can all read body language,” says Raja. After your boss makes an awkward joke or puts his arm around a female subordinate, look at the woman or women on the receiving end. “Are they smiling back? Do they seem on edge? How is their posture? Does the woman seem tense and nervous? Or is she relaxed?” Women are taught to hide their discomfort, but gritting teeth into dust before your eyes might be a good indicator that she’s biting back a scream.
Method: Interrupt and say, “That’s gross.”
This is the most obvious way to react, and thus the toughest of all. “I don’t think that a man should intervene any differently than you would with any other unethical behaviour,” says Michael Gold, PsyD, who has provided therapy to sexual offenders through the department of corrections. “Say, ‘That’s not okay. I’m not going to be a part of it.’ Or, ‘I’m standing up, I’m ending this meeting right now.’ It’s no different than if you heard a coworker tell a racist joke, and it’s no different from finding out that someone is defrauding the company. You say, “I’m uncomfortable with this, I’m not going to be part of this.’ Make people aware of where you stand.”
"IT’S NO DIFFERENT THAN IF YOU HEARD A COWORKER TELL A RACIST JOKE, AND IT’S NO DIFFERENT FROM FINDING OUT THAT SOMEONE IS DEFRAUDING THE COMPANY."
Method: Talk to the woman afterwards.
You just witnessed something awkward or uncomfortable and you’re still not sure how the woman felt. “You have to ask her,” says Sarah Chipps, PsyD. “How many scenarios would be stopped if you asked a woman who is uncomfortable if she’s uncomfortable? If nobody asks the question, then the women are not going to feel at ease to reveal they’re not.” You don’t really need a script here: Just catch up with your colleague after the meeting, when she's alone, and call out the awkward behaviour. Ask if she’s okay, and be prepared for her to gloss over or diminish the moment. “She’s rarely going to say no,” says Yancey. “Everything in our society is geared toward a woman saying, ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ Who wants to create a headache for themselves?” She doesn’t want to rock the boat either. But you’ve already helped by bearing witness to the scenario and checking in to make sure she’s comfortable.
Method: Talk to the harasser afterwards.
This one’s a little trickier because the stakes are higher. Yancey’s company Emtrain, which has provided sexual harassment training for big employers like Netflix and Harvard, teaches a system of colour coding for corporate conduct. “Green is healthy: We all want to be green. Yellow is when we’re not bringing our best selves to work. Orange is borderline inappropriate, behaviours that reflect bias and harassment. Red is illegal,” she explains. “With that in mind, we recommend that if anyone sees conduct they think it problematic—orange or red—then they call it out.” This system is handy because it places the blame on the words ("That joke was creepy") and not the person ("You’re creepy"). Even if you can’t convince your entire company to revamp its training system, keep your own mental alerts for orange language—and then let a coworker know when he’s said something on the borderline of appropriate.
Method: Don’t leave your female coworker alone with known creeps.
If your job requires travel or interaction with clients, try your best to help a female coworker out in scenarios that may find them in a hotel or bar or restaurant with a guy you feel is (or have heard to be) bad news. “A sexual predator will try to isolate a target. Don’t let that happen,” says Debbie Dougherty, PhD, who has published multiple pieces on sexual harassment. “Stay in the room, stay with the person, just stay.” Make up an excuse if you have to—but be sure to alert your colleague via email beforehand (or during) of why you’re behaving this way and what you’ve heard about the guy.
Method: Take notes.
We all know how to create a digital trail of emails and screengrabs to ensnare bad behaviour. But that’s not your only means of “catching” somebody, says Strauss, who often serves as an expert witness at employment trials. “The important thing is to document, document, document,” she says. “Write down what you observed, using as much detail as possible. What was the tone of voice? How long did it last? Who else was a witness? How it did it impact the victim?” That way, when you make a report with your manager or HR (or are asked for your input), you have all of the examples at the ready… and they’re less vague than “he seems icky."
Method: Talk to your manager.
Here’s where you hand off the problem to someone else. “Go to a superior. If the superior is not being sympathetic, their job is on the line,” says Susan Fineran, PhD, LICSW, a researcher in the field of sexual harassment. “The manager doesn’t have a choice. They have to respond,” says Strauss. If you don’t feel they’re taking the concern seriously, that’s the time to go to HR.
“HOW MANY SCENARIOS WOULD BE STOPPED IF YOU ASKED A WOMAN WHO IS UNCOMFORTABLE IF SHE’S UNCOMFORTABLE?"
Method: Go to HR.
That’s why the department exists—it is equipped to do the investigations, the legal paperwork, the uncomfortable conversations. “In many organizations, you can go and talk to your HR rep and say, ‘I saw this, I’m concerned, but I’d like you guys to handle it,'” says Raja. 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 behaviour anonymously; some companies have a hotline for this purpose, or you could just send snail mail.
If nothing else works, leak it to the press.
Journalists were the ones who finally took down Harvey Weinstein, after all. “I wouldn’t have said this a year ago, but one method is to call attention to it on the web,” says Yancey. The anonymity of the internet means you can email a local or national newspaper’s tipline, or contact a reporter via an encrypted app like Signal or WhatsApp. (Many of them provide the methods to do so in their Twitter bios.) An employer might have required you to sign some form of NDA upon your first day, but it wouldn’t cover such a move. “An NDA prevents people from disclosing trade secrets and business secrets. Unless you negotiated a settlement for a claim making those details confidential, if someone comments socially and publicly that there are problems in a workplace, [an employer] cannot constrict that. The labour board has been active to safeguard those rights,” says Yancey. “Whistleblowers of sexual harassment in the workplace are protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC],” notes Chipps. Learn more about your labour rights on the EEOC site.
The feeling might remain that to make a stink about sexual harassment is to put the spotlight on yourself. It’s not cool to get upset or wring hands or tattle on your boss. But Dougherty implores men to reframe these scenarios and ask themselves: “What does it mean to be a man? Do I want to be the man who’s cool, or do I want to be the man who’s courageous?” Answer for yourself.