What to Do If You Witness Harassment in the Workplace

Woman at Desk
February 20, 2019
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Harassment is a problem that affects the entirety of the workplace, and the ripples of harassment go beyond the victim; it changes the harmony of a workplace and the feeling of safety and security around the office. Even if you’re not the victim, you can be impacted — but the good news is, as a witness to harassment, you can be a part of the resolution. So what do you do if you witness harassment in the workplace? How do you fight it?

Support

The very first thing you can do when you witness harassment is to support the person being harassed by stepping in. Before you step in, be aware of what unwanted attention looks like:

What to Do If You Witness Harassment in the Workplace 1
  • Unwanted touching
  • Standing too close
  • Clear signs of discomfort, pulling away, or being prevented from leaving
  • Someone being made the subject of a joke for an extended period of time
  • Teasing that is crueler than an attempt to have fun
  • Inappropriate conversations, such as crude or sexual humor
  • Intrusive questioning 

If you’re not confrontational and don’t want to make a big deal out of stepping in, you can also play it cool and step in as if you’re oblivious. Ask the target of the harassment if they’d like to pop into the breakroom to get something to drink, or ask about a work project. Make it clear that you are speaking to the person being harassed; use their name, make eye contact. Only accept an answer from that person, and not the harasser who might try to scare you off. The simple act of striking up a neutral conversation can make a world of difference to someone being actively harassed. 

Depending on the severity of the harassment, you might need to provide assistance to the target. In the case of sexual assault or violent harassment, you might need to help get medical care. In an extreme situation, harassment can become a traumatic assault. The victim might need medical care, a trip to the hospital, police intervention, or even a rape kit performed. In situations like those, do what you need to do to get help. Call for a supervisor or emergency services.

Document

If you’ve witnessed something that you feel compelled to report to HR or a manager, the best thing you can do is to provide as much detail to them as possible. Write down your recollection of what you saw immediately. Your memory of the situation will never be as fresh in your mind as it is in that moment, and details might be critical. You want to be as thorough and accurate as you can in your reporting. If you have any other materials to add to your report, like an email, grab that too.

Report

What to Do If You Witness Harassment in the Workplace 2

Most companies provide multiple methods of reporting harassment. Look at all of the methods, whether it be speaking with HR, a trusted manager, or a phone number for anonymous reporting. Weigh your options and choose whatever situation works best for you. You’ll probably be asked for the documentation you prepared, as well as an interview about the situation.

Be A Force For Good

Standing up for your coworkers and helping them out of a difficult situation makes you a force for good in the workplace. Keep that up. After the incident, the report, and the investigation, the echoes of the situation can linger. For example, if there is a legal component to the harassment, like an assault, it can take time to get a resolution. The legal process can be slow. Rape kits are frequently backlogged. Be an example. Continue to provide support for those who need it. Treat everyone with kindness and fairness. 

There’s a lot of legal protection against harassment in every walk of life. Title IX protects students, while the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees in the workplace. But the best protection against a hostile work environment is standing as an example of what the workplace should be. Treat people with kindness and fairness, and stand up when something is wrong. That’s how you help create a safe, inclusive, and successful workplace.

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