A behaviorally intelligent approach to handling sexual harassment claims
Reporting sexual harassment can be uncomfortable for all parties concerned. It takes courage for someone to step forward, and compassion and empathy are necessary. There can also be legal ramifications and responsibilities for the person who is approached with the complaint. This is a short guide to help you be prepared to handle this challenging situation in the most intelligent and positive manner. We have also included phrases that can be used as appropriate.
- Know the process: Being able to navigate the situation effectively requires knowing the protocols and procedures for what you would need to do. Take time to review all procedures and processes in advance of events and places where you will serve as a “Safe Person.”
- Take the reporting seriously: No matter what level of harassment is being communicated, do not minimize or deny what is being communicated. Do not attempt to make excuses or justifications for the perceived harassment (e.g. they probably were just trying to…). Avoid making value judgments of the situation. Remember that every person experiences the world differently and be sure to respect those differences. Even if the behavior is not something that you personally would not perceive as harassment, does not necessarily mean it is not actually harassment.
- Create a safe environment: Ask the person if they feel safe speaking about this in the moment. If they do not, ask the person how you might be able to facilitate a safe environment for them. Show compassion and listen attentively to the person. Assure them that you will not take any actions without their permission unless otherwise required by the law (see #10). Utilize appropriate body language and tone. Ask for permission before making physical contact (e.g. hug).
- Acknowledge the courage and the risk of speaking up: Be cognizant that the person who is reporting harassment is likely experiencing fear and uncertainty psychologically. Validate their concerns (do not deny or minimize them) and acknowledge that reporting takes courage. Ensure them that you are sympathetic to any potential or perceived risks and that you will work with them to ensure that they are safe.
- Give the person autonomy and agency: Ensure the person that is reporting that they will have the choice on how to proceed. Clearly communicate the process and the options that the person reporting can choose from. If the person chooses to escalate the claim, assure them that the claim will be handled in a professional, fair, and compassionate manner.
- Avoid judgment: It is critical that the person who is reporting a harassment claim feel’s validated, however, attempt to avoid making judgments or assessments of the situation.
- Take action, follow up: Follow the protocol as necessary and with expediency. If escalating to higher levels, ensure the person who is reporting is aware of the next steps and a timeframe for what to expect next. Follow up accordingly and reduce as much uncertainty for the person as possible.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help: In the event that you feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to proceed, ask the person if you can seek assistance from someone to manage the situation. Do not take matters into your own hands. Follow the procedures and work within the protocols to ensure an effective resolution of the situation.
- Maintain confidentiality: If you are someone who has received a claim, this implies that the person making the claim has extended you sufficient trust to share their situation. Demonstrate respect for that trust by maintaining confidentiality and discretion, except as otherwise needed to follow protocol and resolve the situation.
- Consider legal ramifications: Remember that some forms of harassment may be against the law. In the event that a law has been broken, follow the appropriate procedures to ensure legal compliance.
Phrases to consider using as appropriate:
- I believe you. It takes a lot of courage to tell me about this.
- It’s not your fault. You did not do anything to deserve this.
- You are not alone. I care about you and am here to listen or help in any way I can.
- I’m sorry this happened. This shouldn’t have happened to you.
- This must be really tough for you. I’m glad that you are sharing this with me.
- I can understand why you would feel that way. I can imagine I would feel that way too.
- You have options and you are in control here. I am here to help and will work with you to get resolution.
- We will not do anything that you are uncomfortable with.
- I’m not experienced in these things. Would you be open to involving a trusted colleague?
- Is there some other way I can help you feel safe or find another way of supporting you?