Sexual Harassment: How Should Witnesses Respond?
Victims and witnesses of sexual harassment often feel robbed of their sense of safety and peace of mind. After all, when someone is sexually harassed in an overt and physical manner, an actual assault and battery may have occurred. Sexually harassing others is a coward’s game, arguably born of narcissism or self-hatred – coupled with a desperate grab for perverse power.
However, many eyewitnesses aren’t sure what they should do. Some of them worry that if they simply turn away and pretend they didn’t see anything, they may be enabling the abuser. Yet how can safety be restored when no one will report these offensive acts? Fears of retaliation and other related issues are discussed further below.
Few people ever “win” in these situations -- even employers often feel trapped since they have a duty to maintain safe work premises.
What Do Co-Workers Fear Most When They Witness Sexual Harassment?
Several studies and surveys have revealed that victims of sexual harassment – and those who witness it – often fear the same repercussions. Their most common concerns are set forth below.
Public or private shaming of the victim (or witness). Harassers often enjoy the turmoil they know they’re creating for others. In many ways, they’re like arsonists who take an initial pleasure in both setting a fire and then watching from afar to see everyone scurry around trying to minimize the damage.
Retaliation. While American laws exist to minimize the effects of retaliation, the fact remains that, once a harassing party decides to “silence” an accuser or witness, that person’s career may be permanently damaged.
Failing to adequately describe the offensive behavior. Since abusers often have few moral constraints on their behavior, they may have taken great pride in at least partially hiding their offensive acts – purposefully making it harder for witnesses or accusers to step forward.
Uncertainty about whether – as witnesses –they should first speak with the harassed victim before or after contacting human resources. Sadly, there are no foolproof steps for safely handling this type of matter. One of the most pragmatic and safest first steps forward is to consult your employer’s handbook on reporting such behavior.
You may also want to contact your Houston employment law attorney for further advice on how to proceed. If the harassing party knows that you witnessed the offensive behavior – your job and future promotions may already be at risk. It’s always wise to quickly find what your best legal options and choices are -- based on your specific circumstances;
Concerns that retaliation may ruin your career (at least temporarily). This is a very valid concern. After all, abusers will often stop at nothing to hide their behavior since they greatly enjoy it, view it as a privilege – and think any punishment would be unfair. The true stories about how Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein went about trying to silence his accusers (and possibly, the witnesses to his abuse) are shocking. However, victims and witnesses who report most types of sexual harassment can still win major lawsuits that can compensate them for their suffering and restore their careers.
Uncertainty about whether reporting the abuse may take a permanent emotional or psychological toll on them. Numerous studies have indicated that women suffer extensively when they report sexual harassment at work. Since their truthful reports are often not believed, their loss of positive self-esteem can cause serious problems with both depression and even PTSD. Furthermore, if the person reporting the gross behavior has ever previously been sexually harassed or abused, the long-term psychological damage of the newest abuse can take decades to resolve.
You Must Decide Which Steps Forward Best Suit Your Circumstances
Besides speaking to a lawyer, here are some other steps you believe you should consider taking.
Carefully study your employee handbook sections addressing sexual harassment. Decide if you feel comfortable doing what’s advised.
Keep a journal. Record the dates on which you take any steps to try and address the problem, who you’ve spoken with – or met with – and their responses to you. Note all perceived acts of apparent retaliation, if any. (Be aware that you may later need to turn over a copy of this journal to others if a lawsuit is filed).
Make a copy of any written reports or complaints that you decide to file. You must seriously consider asking a lawyer to review anything of this nature first;
Confide in one or two long-term, trusted mentors about your situation – people who do not work where you do. This may prove crucial if you need to find a new job while pursuing litigation.
Ask your employer for an immediate copy of any reports being placed in your file about your current complaints.
Always keep in mind that if you personally do decide to report the sexual harassment that you’ve witnessed, you’re playing a critical role in trying to resolve a very serious problem.
Our firm is always available to discuss any workplace problems affecting you. These can include sexual harassment, unfair pay issues, denied promotions, various forms of discrimination, wrongful termination -- or any other matter that’s unfairly denying you the right to achieve your full potential.