Forbes with Sarah Neville 15 May 2019
It’s no secret that most sexual harassment goes unreported. Yet employers continue to insist that formal reporting is the best (and often only) option for victims. Those who are uncomfortable reporting are left with no alternatives and typically just endure the harassment. Isn’t it time we offered some other strategies these victims can use?
Just to be clear, reporting is an important tool in reducing harassment. Reporting needs to be the go-to in situations involving more egregious sexual harassment and can also be a strong catalyst for real change. If not for the bravery of Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd and others, Harvey Weinstein might still be producing films and assaulting actresses.
A large majority of victims do not report harassment.
Despite the benefits of reporting, the truth is that a large majority of victims of sexual harassment choose not to report. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst concluded that 99.8% of those harassed do not formally report the harassment. Furthermore, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that three out of four individuals who experienced harassment never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.
Why do so few come forward or even mention it to a manager? They’re scared. They don’t want to be labeled a troublemaker. They’re afraid of retaliation. They worry they will be ostracized. They fear their career will hit a dead end.
In an op-ed for the New York Times last week, Anita Hill wrote that we should “demand processes in which all sexual harassment and assault survivors are heard and not dismissed or punished for coming forward.” I couldn’t agree more. We certainly want a world where victims can come forward without these fears, but right now we’re not even close to living in that world.
Alternative strategies are needed.
Over and over again, I hear from women who are seeking harassment solutions that do not involve reporting. Given that most women are dealing with these situations on their own, I believe it’s time we started offering them some strategies. Clearly, these solutions wouldn’t be for those who feel they are in danger. Situations that involve sexual assault or where an employee fears for his or her safety must be reported. Instead, I’m suggesting we provide solutions for everyday harassment (sadly, that’s a thing). These situations would that include inappropriate joking or conversations, microaggressions or repeated requests for dates.
What would these solutions look like? Sarah Neville, Director of Open Line Communications teaches employees how to navigate many types of uncomfortable conversations at work, including issues surrounding sexual harassment. Neville suggests three steps for dealing with what she calls low-intensity harassment, including microaggressions, patronizing language, sexist comments or general condescension.
1. Clarify. Neville suggests employees may want to first clarify to be sure there was no misunderstanding. For example, “What did you mean by your comment?” or “Maybe I misunderstood what you said, did you mean..?”
2. Resist the urge to blame. Neville suggests that it can can be helpful to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible the offender is clueless and doesn’t realize how their behavior is being interpreted. For example, she suggests starting off with, “You may not realize this…” or “This was perhaps not your intent…”
3. Share the impact. Neville says we should then share how the offending behavior or comment affected us. It is important to focus on the event and not the person. Instead of saying, “You made me uncomfortable,” Neville suggests trying, “It might surprise you to hear this, but that kind of humor made me feel uncomfortable. It reminds me that men often objectify women, and as a result, I feel uneasy working with you.”
Bystander Involvement is key.
Not only do victims need strategies for handling harassing behavior, but we need to provide strategies for bystanders as well. Bystander involvement is essential to reducing sexual harassment at work, but often bystanders feel unprepared to deal with situations when they occur. If bystanders are provided with appropriate tools, then they will feel more comfortable intervening.
Neville suggests that “bystander intervention can happen in the moment, either by creating a diversion or by addressing the behavior directly, ‘Are you aware of how that sounds?’ or ‘I don’t think that kind of comment is in line with our culture here.'” She also believes that bystanders can be effective at addressing the offensive behavior in a subsequent conversation with the offender.
Practice is essential.
Whether through role-play or some other method, these strategies must be well-rehearsed. Otherwise, when a situation arises, employees will not be prepared to act. Neville, whose organization helps people practice these difficult conversations has found, “Most people find practicing these interactions uncomfortable, but valuable. As a coach stops and starts the interaction, they gain comfort and confidence in speaking the words aloud.”
These solutions may seem simple, but when employees find themselves in these situations, emotions are triggered. If the responses are not well-rehearsed, the temptation may be to call out the other person in an aggressive, disrespectful manner which will likely elicit a defensive response. The other even more common response to harassing behavior is to say nothing and stew. Neither of these alternatives leads to positive outcomes.
However, employees that are prepared to respond can do so in a manner that will likely bring about a positive response. Strategies like these should be a key part of sexual harassment and diversity training sessions. It’s time to empower victims of sexual harassment and provide them a menu of alternative methods for dealing with a variety of situations.