I am a witness to inappropriate behavior. What do I do?

Note: If you witnessed an assault, document the incident as best as you can and please contact the police or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 right away for advice on what to do next. More information on what you can do is available on RAINN.

If you have witnessed any other form of harassment, read on.

(1) Call out the inappropriate behavior.

It’s best to comment or stop the behavior in the moment, when details are fresh in everyone’s minds.

There are a variety of ways to call out the behavior, and oftentimes, it’s simpler than you think. Here are some strategies for calling out inappropriate behavior at work that you can use independently or in combination with one another.

There are a variety of ways to call out the behavior, and oftentimes, it’s simpler than you think. Here are some strategies for calling out inappropriate behavior at work that you can use independently or in combination with one another.

 

Use “I” Statements

One way to call out inappropriate behavior is to use “I” statements. An “I” statement, along with the word “I”, focuses on how an action or behavior made you feel, rather than placing a label on the behavior or the person who exhibited that behavior. The purpose of using “I” statements is that it can help decrease the likelihood of the harasser becoming overly defensive about your comments and increase the likelihood that they are able to really hear you and learn from their mistakes.

Examples:

  • “Hey John, I felt really uncomfortable and worried when I heard the comment you made to Lauren during our last all-hands meeting” instead of “Hey John, you’re offensive”
  • “I noticed that you’ve made this remark about Mary in the past and it makes me uncomfortable.”

 

Casual statements

There are also off-the-cuff statements you can use to try to defuse the situation.

For example, if you witness sexist remarks during a work happy hour, saying something as simple as, “Come on, that’s not cool,” can help casually address sexist remarks.

Other possible phrases to confront individuals are:

  • “You know that’s not appropriate.”
  • “We know you’re better than that.”
  • “Why did you say that?”
    • Just asking the person why they made that statement, can stop them in their tracks. It will either make them think about what they said, or make them realize no one will co-sign that behavior
  • (Phrases adapted by Step UP Program Bystander Training)

 

Paraphrasing

Another tactic you can use is paraphrasing and repeating back what the harasser said. For example, “Did I hear you say that we should hire her because she’s hot? So are you actually saying that we should hire people based on their looks rather than their qualifications?”

 

Back each other up

If someone else in the room speaks up against a certain type of behavior and you agree with them, vocalize your support for that individual. This lets people in your office know that there are multiple employees in the room who think that this behavior is not tolerated.

The more people who speak up, the less alone and isolated people who are targets will feel and the more empowered they will be to stand up for themselves.

Also, it encourages whoever spoke up to do so again because they show they’ll have some social support if they do.

(2) Document the incident.

Follow this documentation guide to document the incident. Note the name of the individual targeted, the name of the harasser, other employees present, as well as the time and date that the incident occurred.

(3) Approach the target and open a conversation.

Approach the target after the incident happened and check in with them. Find a safe place outside of the workplace (like a nearby coffee shop) to talk. See how they’re doing. Offer support. How did it make them feel? Open up an honest conversation.

You can start by asking, “Hey, I noticed [the behavior] during the meeting. Do you want to talk about it?”

Use open-ended questions instead of persuasive language, such as “Did you feel attacked during the meeting?”

When you approach the target, you’re recognizing that something was wrong with the interaction with the harasser. You are showing the target that someone is on his or her side and will support them. The target may be scared, shocked, or angry about what happened, but will be comforted knowing that there is someone by their side who sees and believes  them.

(4) Remind the target to document the incident.

It’s important that there is documentation for every incident that the target experiences. You might want to offer to act as a witness in order to make the report stronger.

Use these guides for documentation to help with this documentation process.

Let the target know what actions you are willing to take so they don’t feel alone. Don’t wait until afterwards to speak out. Call it when it’s happening, even if the target says nothing. They may not know what to say, to be afraid until other people speak out.

(5) Encourage the target to report the issue.

The final step is to encourage the target to report the issue. Reporting is essential as corrective action cannot take place until HR is aware that something is going on.

Remember that there are many reasons why the target of harassment may be nervous about reporting an incident. Some of the top reasons include fear of retaliation from the harasser or employer, distrust in HR departments, shame associated with reporting incidents, and economic and career implications for speaking up.

One way to help them address these fears is to remind them that they have rights that protect them from the consequences for speaking up. There can be real ramifications on the target for reporting harassment (especially in small or more casual workplaces) and offering ally support is essential in making the target feel safer. You can inform them about their rights and options, or share BetterBrave’s Guide for Targets of Sexual Harassment for them to read where they can learn more about what to do if HR fails to deal with the situation.

(6) Offer to report the issue with the target or instead of them.

You can offer to file a report alongside the target, especially if you have additional pieces of documentation that can help strengthen their report. Speaking up takes a lot of courage so knowing there is someone else that believes the target will make them feel better.

You can also offer to file your report first or instead of the target. It doesn’t matter who reports it as long as someone does. Once a report is made about harassment, HR has to investigate it. Remember, you have the same rights as the target and protected by the law.
 

I was not a witness, but my co-worker confided in me. What should I do?

Although you may not have witnessed the situation, many of the same steps apply.

(1) Provide your co-worker or friend resources that they can read or guide them through their situation.

The moments after experiencing sexual harassment can be confusing and lonely. Show your friend or co-worker the Guide for Targets of Harassment so they can be well-informed about their rights and options.

(2) Encourage your co-worker or friend to document what happened and report the issue.

Make sure that they have the incident(s) documented as evidence. It’s important that there is a time-stamp and as much detail as possible. Remind them that the more facts they can include in these documents, the better.

Reporting the issue will be the only way that your company is given a chance to stop the harassing behavior. The more employees that come forward about a specific harasser, the more the company can do to stop the harasser.

If they are worried that they don’t have any evidence, here are some tips for circumstantial evidence you can share with them.

(3) Let your friend know that they are not alone and you are there to support them regardless of their decision.

Let your friend or colleague know that they have multiple options for what they can do next, whether it is reporting to HR, confiding in experts like employment lawyers, or finding a support group or counselor.

We all come from different backgrounds and have different life circumstances that impact what might be the best next step for each of us. That means that not every action (such as going to the press) will be necessarily right for us.

(4) Document the conversation between yourself and your friend or co-worker.

Even if your friend or colleague is not taking steps to document the action, you documenting and time stamping the conversation can be another piece of evidence that can be used to backup your friend or colleague, if they eventually bring forth the evidence of the inappropriate behavior.

If you are a supervisor or manager where this occurred, you are legally responsible for also bringing this to the attention of your Human Resource department.