What To Do When You Witness Sexual Harassment In Your Workplace

Mar 1 2023

Amanda DeMatteis: Hi, Josh.

Josh Goodbaum: Hi, Amanda. What are we talking about today?

DeMatteis: I thought we would chat about sexual harassment but in a little bit of a different context than we’ve spoken about in the past. What if you’re a Connecticut employee and you witness another employee – maybe a friend of yours at work – being sexually harassed? What can you do to be helpful?

Goodbaum: Great question, comes up a lot.

First issue is, what is sexual harassment? Because we think of it as propositioning a coworker or a subordinate for sex or for a romantic relationship, but it’s not just that. Sexual harassment can also be comments. Sexual harassment can be jokes or images. Sexual harassment can be e-mails. Sexual harassment can even be questions, like about someone’s sexual past or sexual present. All that stuff might make someone uncomfortable.

Now, if you’re the victim of sexual harassment, if you’re a survivor of sexual harassment, it can be really hard to fight back against it or to complain about it, especially if there is a power imbalance with the person who is harassing you: that person is your manager, maybe your manager’s manager. But if you’re a witness, you might have more power. You might have more freedom. You might feel more liberated to do something about it. And the most important thing you can do about sexual harassment that you might see in the workplace is speak up. Don’t be a silent observer. Say something. If you see something, say something.

Now, how to speak up depends on your workplace, who’s doing the harassing, who’s being harassed, and maybe some other factors too. Maybe you want to start by talking to the person you think is the butt of the harassment – the victim or survivor – and encouraging that person and telling them you saw it and you don’t think it’s ok. Maybe you start by talking to a manager or to HR. That might depend on the relationships you have, but staying silent and pretending that nothing is happening isn’t the right answer.

Now, you might be thinking, ‘Well, I want to speak up, I want to do the right thing, but I’m afraid I’m going to be retaliated against.’ Two things to keep in mind there. The first is retaliation is illegal. If you speak up in opposition to sexual harassment, you are protected from adverse consequences, from retaliation, by federal law and by state law. But the second thing: even if retaliation weren’t illegal, I would ask you, ‘Would you want to work for a company that tolerates harassment or that retaliates against people who fight against it?’ I’m guessing not, right? So just think about the kind of workplace you want to be in, and then be an active part of creating that kind of workplace.

And finally, after you speak up, document what you did. There’s no sense saying something verbally that you wouldn’t put in writing, and writing is the best way to memorialize what you said in case you need it later, in case there is some form of retaliation. So, after you talk to somebody, send an email, ‘Hey, as I just told you, here’s what’s going on, and here’s why I’m concerned about it.’

So, speak up, be bold, document what happened. That’s what you should do if you see sexual harassment in your workplace.

DeMatteis: That’s really good advice for all of us. Thank you so much, Josh. We’ll see you next time.

Goodbaum: Thank you.

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