Offensive behaviour or sexual harassment, no matter the severity, leaves psychological scars. But when we speak to each other about these issues, we are able to remove the shame often connected with them. That is, however, easier said than done. It takes courage to speak up against the offender or to share your experiences with your manager, your employee representative, or a good colleague.
No one should have to carry the weight of experiences of abuse by themselves. That is why we have come up with 8 pieces of advice which might make it easier for you and your co-workers to have an open conversation about sexual harassment.
No matter where your experiences are located on a spectrum from severe sexual harassment to minor abuses, talking to someone from your workplace is a really good idea if a situation has taken place where your boundaries have been crossed.
It is the nature of sexual harassment to escalate, and if you were unable to say no in the situation, you might blame yourself. It is common to think, “was I wearing the wrong outfit, did I send some wrong signals, or am I just too sensitive?”
When you say it out loud to a co-worker (or employee representative), your experiences are no longer only happening in your own head. The next step becomes easier: Say no!
It is not easy to object when someone – especially someone more powerful than you – crosses your boundaries. You might need to practice in advance or mentally prepare yourself. Try to explain your experience as concretely and objectively as possible to your offending co-worker and explain how the experience affected you. He or she cannot disagree with how you experienced of the situation, as this is your experience alone.
One way to approach this is by staying in your own half. “I experienced that this happened, and it upset me. I would like to hear your version of the situation. But in the future, I would like you to avoid saying or doing this”.
Document your experiences in writing and take care to save any offensive emails, texts or images.
This material is not pleasant to store on your phone as an eternal reminder, and it might not be something you would like your partner to see. To avoid this, you can make an agreement with a friend or a co-worker to send them the material before you delete it from your own phone. Do not forget to let them know before you send it, so they do not think it is from you.
If you are not able to speak up in the situation, it is never too late to confront the offender. There is, in other words, no expiration date on offensive behaviour. But the sooner you speak up, the better. Both because the situation is in more recent memory, and because you are able to signal a clear “no” to the behaviour of your co-worker or manager.
Never hesitate to reach out to your working environment or employee representative. You can use them to discuss how they should proceed with the case, or if they should proceed with it at all. In some cases, you can agree that you make a clear objection to the behaviour, and if it happens again after that, your employee representative or working environment representative will move forward with your case.
Since employee representatives are the only persons at the workplace allowed to address the management on behalf of other employees, they might already be aware of others who have had similar experiences, perhaps even with the same offending individual. In that case, your employee representative can inform the management that they have been made aware of multiple similar occurrences, while keeping your identity secret.
It you witness an offensive situation involving your coworker, help him or her by asking them to talk to you about what just happened. Avoid making yourself a judge or believing that you must prepare for a trial to prove what happened. Instead, try to put yourself in their situation. Imagine that you were the person being treated in a condescending or harassing manner and try to think of how you would like your coworkers to support you in that situation.
If you fail to sufficiently object when witnessing offensive behaviour or direct sexual harassment, the situation might be twice as offensive to the affected colleague. If you are in doubt whether you should interfere, imagine that your colleague had instead received a slap in the face. That is how offensive behaviour is experienced mentally.
If a colleague approaches you to share his or her experiences, it is important that you make it clear that what they have experienced is unacceptable. Listen and ask questions. And if you do not know what to say, just say: “I am sorry to hear that. Where do we go from here and is there anything, I can do to help you?”. Avoid trivialising the issue or suggesting that your colleague should ignore it. He/she might not be approaching you because they want you to fix the issue or act as a collegiate defense lawyer – but to try to understand what happened, rid themself of the sense of shame, and perhaps gather courage to speak up to the person who has exposed them to offensive behaviour.
Even though you do not experience offensive behaviour or direct sexual harassment at your workplace, there is no reason to wait until it is too late. Rules should be set down in peacetime. Not just to protect you, but also to help management when it comes to discovering cases in the future.
You should lay down an official set of guidelines for sexual harassment, exactly as you, hopefully, already have about alcohol, smoking, stress, and sick leave. These might include performing a workplace assessment (APV) or sending out annual surveys asking employees not just about sexual harassment, but about offensive behaviour in general. While few experience sexual harassment, offensive behaviour is unfortunately more common.
IDA is happy to assist in setting up an APV and a sexual harassment policy
If you have been exposed to offensive behaviour, sexism or sexual harassment, contact IDA. Your professional life must be safe and secure.
Your experience of the situation is what matters. Broadly speaking, it is the offended individual who decides whether damage was done – not the offender.