The most effective thing to do, one employment lawyer says, is to take contemporaneous notes
If you see something, say something.
The bystander effect is real: For instance, ousted NBC anchor Matt Lauer’s alleged sexual misconduct was “not a secret among other employees at ‘Today,’” several unnamed sources told Variety. And 16 former and current employees of Harvey Weinstein’s companies told the New Yorker the disgraced mogul’s pattern of predation was “widely known within both Miramax and the Weinstein Company.”
“Harassment law does not require (a non-management employee) to report harassment that occurs toward someone else,” Pasadena employment lawyer Ann Fromholz told Moneyish. “But is it the morally correct thing to do? Sure.” The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission encouraged employers in its 2016 task force report to incorporate bystander intervention training into their harassment prevention programs.
If you decide to take action after witnessing workplace sexual harassment, here are potential ways to help. (Not all, of course, will work in every situation or with every type of person.)
Confront the harasser. Many workplace harassers don’t even understand their behavior is inappropriate, Fromholz said. If you feel you can head straight to the source without fear of retaliation, “be specific about the conduct, be specific about the fact that it’s making people uncomfortable, and be specific that it needs to stop.” Use your judgment when deciding whether to mention the name of the person being made uncomfortable, as that could “put a target on their back”: You might say “people” are uncomfortable, for example, rather than naming specific names. “Don’t frame it as a threat,” Fromholz added. “It’s just a reasonable discussion between adults.”
Run interference. To “obnoxiously prevent there being the privacy that’s necessary for a lot of sexual harassment to happen,” said employment attorney Mary Kuntz of the Washington, D.C. firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, you might try gatecrashing what appears to be an unwelcome seduction in the office or at a work party. “You essentially run block for someone,” she said. “You insert yourself into conversations … You go take the seat next to the person who is trying to get the young thing to sit next to him,” she said. “You essentially don’t let them have that one-on-one engagement.”
You could also throw the victim a lifeline: “Walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get a Diet Coke?’” Fromholz said. “In the very worst situations, where it ends up in sexual assault, there sometimes is grooming behavior from the beginning … The person who ends up assaulting will say, ‘No, no, no, she’s fine,’ … so giving that person an option, an out, is a good possibility. You can’t promise they’ll take you up on it, but you do the best you can.”
Keep in mind, warned Kuntz, that this is “a temporary Band-Aid fix”: While you can intervene when you spot the behavior, you likely won’t be around every time it occurs.
Go to a manager. If you’re a non-management worker uncomfortable approaching the harasser — due to their personality or stature within the company, perhaps — “then the best thing to do is go to somebody in some position of authority who you are comfortable with,” Fromholz said. Notifying a member of management “puts the company on notice and triggers their legal requirement to take certain action” under Title VII, EEOC sexual harassment guidelines and state law.
Talk to the victim. You may not feel comfortable approaching them; they may not feel comfortable being approached. But if you forge ahead, be sure not to retraumatize the person, Fromholz said: Speak with empathy, realize their reaction may not be what you expected, understand they may be unwilling to talk, and don’t expect their memories of the incident to be as linear as yours. You might say something to the effect of, “Hey, I saw what happened. I wasn’t comfortable with it; I’d like to talk to somebody so that it can stop; and I wanted to talk to you first.” “Unless you’re somebody who’s trained … you’re not qualified to solve their pain,” Fromholz added.
Take contemporaneous notes. “Probably the most effective thing you can do,” Kuntz said, is to record details in real time of harassment you’ve witnessed, then make yourself available to testify should your colleague file a complaint. “Memories fade over time; even over a couple of days, you forget details,” Fromholz said. “Send a text to yourself — that’s a good way of making sure you remember the details that may become important.”
“It’s testimony like that that removes Matt Lauer … You have to have people who can say, ‘No, I saw this happen,’” Kuntz said. “That corroborating testimony helps, and it can bring permanent change as opposed to just running interference one night at a party.”
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