What do I do When a Sexual Harassment Scandal Breaks Out at Work?

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You wake up to find your company’s name all over social media. Your phone is pinging like crazy as your friends, schoolmates you’ve not spoken to in twenty years and your second cousin’s brother-in-law are anxiously trying to find out, “IS IT TRUE?”

Because you work for this company, you surely MUST know who sexually harassed who, and how, and what the company did, or did not do. You know whether he was GUILTY or whether she just wanted the attention. Spill the details!

Of course you don’t know, but you can’t tell them that. You tune into the work WhatsApp chats because those are buzzing too. You haven’t even brushed your teeth yet.

      I always knew there was something of the night about him.

      I tell you, she was asking for it. Those low cut blouses…

     You should never take a dump in your own backyard.

Eventually you get into work, to find management behind closed doors, your colleagues speaking in hushed whispers and the implicated colleagues conspicuously missing.

The excitement only lasts the morning. Then reality hits.

What the f*#@ just happened?! Can we go back to normality please?

I wrote this because sexual harassment scandals largely focus on the victims, the harassers and the employers. We sometimes forget how it affects others in the organisation – the shock, disbelief, blame (of the actors and self blame), anger and shame.

A Typical Reaction

Employees are human, and quite naturally will take sides. Some may be close to those involved and feel the need to be loyal… Others may have strong views – on sexual violence – always Believe Her (or Him), or quote the innocent until proven guilty line. A few would say leave it to management to investigate – this tends to be managers themselves, although among them, the gossip will still ensue.

A public sexual harassment case can be quite divisive and it takes an enlightened leadership to recognise this and prevent discord. Sometimes leadership is too busy dealing with the case itself or defending itself publicly to focus on internal problems.

It’s hard for an organisation to return to business as usual on the shop floor for as long as social and mainstream media are buzzing, and the case is not resolved. Employees do need certainty. They want to know:

  • Are the allegations true?
  • Who is the perpetrator?
  • Who are the victims?
  • What type of sexual harassment exactly?
  • Will I be called to give evidence?
  • What punishment will the perpetrator get, if its true?
  • How will this affect me?

Management cannot answer all these questions. Organisations investigating sexual harassment claims have to be mindful of confidentiality and cannot tell employees all the juicy details.

Without having their curiosity quenched, employees turn to speculation. Egged on by people outside the organisation – the press, customers and friends, some employees feel pressed to give answers. The organisation in turn, frustrated by the speculative stories swirling about the ether – affecting its stock and reputation – seeks to gag its employees. Strongly worded e-mails: “We are still in the midst of investigation. Employees are urged not to share any information with third parties. Failure to comply can result in disciplinary action.

I made that one up, but these are standard lines, cut and paste by a communications executive for the top executive to sign – without considering how this would impact an already confused population.

Taking a Proactive Stance

It’s easy natural to be angry and curious. To want to rant against management or gossip about the people involved. It becomes draining and toxic. You feel hopeless. You want to make things better, but how?

Here are 5 things you can do towards making your work environment safer.

  1. Talk about your experiences
  2. Listen when others share
  3. Take advantage of your employer’s realisation (that yes, sexual harassment IS a problem!)
  4. Continue to hold management accountable
  5. Step in and intervene

1. Talk About Your Experiences

This is exactly how the #MeToo movement spread. People realised that they were not alone and began sharing their stories. You would be surprised to find out that you too are not alone. In my Speak Up Survey, 67% had experienced workplace sexual harassment yet only 14% reported it. 44% never told anyone.

You don’t have to report if you’re not comfortable or it was so long ago. Talking about it, even if only to your best friend at work, can be a huge relief. Buried wounds need healing and talking about it helps address the pain.

It took 25 years before I spoke about my own sexual molestation experience as a 17 year old. What prompted it? The fact that I was rolling out harassment awareness workshops in my workplace. I broke down in the middle of a workshop when I recalled the incident which I thought I’d buried. I needed catharsis and my consciousness brought it up for healing. What touched me was how the men who worked offshore (on oil and gas platforms) came up to me later to show that they cared.

You too may feel the need to speak about your experiences. It could be related to the case and within the company, or it could an incident from a previous workplace, your university or school, or from your childhood. This is the time to open up. Speak to someone you trust.

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you “

Maya Angelou

If you feel comfortable, share your story with more people at work. This will help them open up too. You will see how the environment changes as more feel willing to share their experiences because they know they are being supported.

Perhaps you could start a safe circle for your friends at work. Here’s a kit I designed after #MeToo to support people who had experienced sexual harassment. Although primarily for women’s groups, men can use it too – though I would suggest the genders don’t mix, to encourage more openness.

2. Listen When Others Share

In telling your story, you want to be heard. Likewise, you listen when your colleagues share theirs.

Listening means really listening. With presence and with empathy. Without interrupting, without judging and without making it about yourself.

Your colleagues may never have told anyone their story. Hear them, acknowledge their feelings, and validate them. Imagine you are watching an actor on a stage. You let her have her space. Throughout her performance, you pay attention and respond as an audience. When she has completed her performance (her story) and looks to you for validation, you do that. Validate her. Acknowledge her feelings. You don’t tell her how she should feel. Her feelings are hers. You don’t leap on to stage with your performance. This is her moment. It’s her story. Only if she invites you, can you share. Don’t advise her, unless she asks for advice. The first time a person shares their story, they haven’t really thought about what they should do. That comes later.

This applies to men too. As it’s harder for men to open up, I am designing a guide for men, with primary input from men.

3. Take Advantage of Your Employer’s Realisation

As devastating as a sexual harassment scandal is, this is the precise moment when your management is open to listening. They may have appointed investigators or counsellors. Speak to them. Tell them about the work environment, whether you have experienced harassment or witnessed it. You can request anonymity if it makes you safer. Your purpose is to feed back to your management so they can understand the full scale of the problem. Otherwise, they may just think this is a one-off case. It rarely is. Environments can encourage harassment and this is what you need to make clear.

If you are senior in the company, you can suggest this checklist. It is basic but is a start in the journey towards tackling workplace sexual harassment.

If you are still afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation, this means that your organisation has a much bigger problem. Management is not listening and unwilling to make the changes needed. If none of these avenues are open to you speaking up: the Board, HR, Compliance, Legal, any of the Board Committees and there is no safe reporting line, you may want to consider working elsewhere. You should not have to work where you feel afraid.

I do know that not everyone has the privilege of choice, especially those in the lower income bracket. Be aware of contract workers, particularly interns, cleaners and freelancers – most employment laws do not protect them. Let them know they have a listening ear, but always be mindful of breaching confidentiality. Some will not want management to know (for fear of losing their job) but welcome an empathetic ear.

4. Continue to Hold Your Management Accountable

This works if you are secure in your position and not worried about retaliation. After a while, the scandal dies down and everyone goes back to business as usual. If management have agreed to review policies, procedures and the work environment, ask them what they have done. Better still, offer to help. Management too can get overwhelmed and would welcome your support – well sometimes.

Keep up the pressure. Ask for updates during town-halls, or continue speaking to people in HR, Legal and Compliance. Keep the issue alive.

5. Step In – Intervene!

People in your office will be more conscious of their behaviour now. The next time you witness harassing behaviour, intervene. You could immediately stop it from escalating. You could call out sexual or sexist remarks the moment they occur.

If it is not possible to intervene on the spot, at the very least, ask the victim if he is ok. Offer support. As for the harasser, speak to them at the right opportunity. You could explain why it is sexual harassment. If it’s serious, inform their boss or HR.

After we began harassment awareness sessions in my previous company, I noticed how employees would call out people in meetings, but in friendly non-threatening ways. If someone lapsed and made a sexist remark, another employee would say, “hey, that’s sexual harassment!” and the speaker would apologise.

I worked in a male dominated environment. What I found interesting was that often, it was the men themselves calling out other men (and sometimes women). These men had gone through sessions where they heard their colleagues sharing stories of harassment and therefore could appreciate the hurt caused. Some of them had been harassed themselves and did not want to perpetuate it.

This does not happen overnight. It’s a journey, often of self discovery. As for an organisation that’s veering through a rocky scandalous path, you can moan like the rest of the passengers, or you can help steer it to safety. Good luck!

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