Sexual harassment can have devastating effects on the women who experience it. Victims of sexual harassment often experience depression, withdrawal, and a host of other mental and physical consequences. It’s natural to want to support a coworker who is experiencing the devastating effects brought on by sexual harassment, and even though you’re not a therapist or an employee rights attorney, there’s still plenty you can do to support your peers at work.
Guidelines For Supporting Victims Of Harassment
The first thing you’ll need to be able to do is recognize the signs of harassment. In strict EEOC terms, harassment at work is defined as unwelcome sexual behavior that “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
In practice, this manifests as other employees making comments about another’s appearance, striking up conversations about romance and sex, sending suggestive communications, using vulgar sexual language and making crass sexual jokes, unwanted touching, and a long list of other inappropriate behaviors. It might even go as far as blatant rape and sexual assault. You may notice that someone who is the victim of sexual harassment displays sudden difficulty with completing their responsibilities at work, seems withdrawn, and may get suddenly upset or distracted.
You can be supportive by showing compassion. If they come out to you directly with their story, tell them that you believe them. Don’t press for details, however, and don’t tell them what they “should” do next as this would be taking away their agency. There’s no right way to deal with trauma, and everyone experiences it differently. You also want to avoid asking questions that insinuate they did something to cause the harassment (that’s called victim-blaming).
Instead, you’ll want to point them to resources that can help without making judgment or making it sound like you’re giving them an order. If they start engaging in self-blaming behavior, you should challenge those notions and remind them that they are not responsible for the misconduct — but the perpetrator is. If they come to you following an assault and need accompaniment to management or to receive medical care, offer that assistance.
Additionally, you can ask them directly what ways you can be there for them as they deal with this harrowing situation. Once again, people are prone to processing their trauma in different ways. Being supportive is, in large part, about listening intently and just being there to help in whatever reasonable way you can.