Sexual harassment can occur in any workplace - but the way you react when someone reports sexual harassment can not only affect the specific case but your entire company culture. Here are three primary best practices when responding to an employee report of sexual harassment.
Responding with empathy
1. In order to respond effectively, it is important to have background knowledge about sexual harassment, empathy and building trust.
- Understanding sexual harassment and its effects on an individual can help you better empathize with someone who is coming to you for support. "Sexual harassment describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." Sexual harassment can be very traumatic for those who have experienced it and understanding that can help you respond appropriately: "sexual harassment can wreak havoc on its victims, and can cause not only mental health issues, but physical effects as well".
- Once you understand what sexual harassment is and how the person experiencing it might be feeling, it is important to know how to empathize. Brene Brown has a short video with helpful suggestions: Empathy vs. Sympathy.
- Building trust through open communication, active listening, and empathy will go a long way to building healthy workplace relationships and helping employees feel more comfortable coming to you with concerns.
2. Once you have the basic understanding, it is imperative to use empathy to address your employee's concerns in a way that makes them feel truly heard and safe.
- Listening with empathy and believing what someone is sharing with you will help them be able to trust you and feel more comfortable giving you information.
- However, if you think someone is about to disclose sexual harassment to you it is important to inform them early on about your level of confidentiality and your obligation to report incidents. For example, if you are a manager at a company and an employee reports that they have been sexually harassed by a coworker, you have an obligation to report to HR and/or to leadership (follow your policy). Let them know that this is for their safety and that of everyone in the workplace.
- Once you have heard and understand their story, ensure that they feel safe - which may mean working with them to determine what safety procedures need to be taken. You can refer them to company resources (such as an Employee Assistance Program) and/or to community resources such as SAFE and/or RAINN that can provide them with emotional support.
- Throughout the process, let them lead the conversation and ask them what they would like to see happen. This not only will continue to build trust but also gives them a sense of agency over a situation where they might have felt their power was taken away.
3. Once you have a basic understanding of these concepts and how to respond when an employee discloses to you, it is imperative that you step back and look at your entire workplace culture and policies.
- Ensure you document the entire situation so you have the most accurate information moving forward.
- Maintain confidentiality and only talk about the incident to those to whom you must report it.
- Act quickly but thoroughly and check back in with the person who reported to you so that they don't feel like you don't care about the situation.
- Consider how your company policies and procedures address situations like this and whether they help you and the employee.
- Throughout the entire process think about how your actions are impacting your entire company cultire. Ask yourself what you can do to address your company culture as a whole.