What to Do If You Witness Sexual Harassment at Work

Over the last year, the #metoo movement has made sexual harassment a subject that people are increasingly willing to talk about and seeking justice for. In our blog, we have dedicated many posts to subjects surrounding this disturbingly frequent violation. Much of the discourse has, understandably, focused on the victim and the perpetrator.

In today’s post, we approach this issue from a different angle: from that of the witness. If you observe sexual harassment towards a colleague, you may feel uncomfortable. You may recognize the behavior is wrong. But you may feel powerless to help.

This should not be the case. Even if you’re not directly involved in the harassment, you can still take action. We’ve laid out some basic steps you can take. Not all of these options may be appropriate for your situation. Use your best judgment:

Confront the perpetrator. This may be a good option if you’re comfortable approaching the harasser without fear of retaliation. Talk to them about what you saw, and approach it from an educational standpoint. Tell them why the behavior is inappropriate, without specifically identifying victims.

Approach the victim with compassion.You shouldn’t expect that a victim will open up to you when you broach the subject of their harassment. Be empathetic and simply let them know that you’re concerned. Tell then what you witnessed, and that you want to report it to make it stop.

Be the annoying third wheel. If you notice one colleague repeatedly making unwanted advances towards another colleague, you can insert yourself as interference. Force your way into any one-on-one conversation. If you see the two of them interacting, you can also approach the victim and offer them an innocuous way out of the conversation—such as inviting them to get a coffee with you. Note that this strategy is only a palliative fix—it is not a sustainable solution to the problem.

Report to management.Tell someone in a position of authority over the perpetrator about the incidents you’ve witnessed. Doing so serves as official notice to the company that there is a sexual harassment problem in the office, and they have a legal obligation to take corrective action.

Take detailed notes. Do this immediately after any incident you witness—before you forget important details. Record what was said and done, the time and location and who was involved. Such a record can serve as valuable testimony for the victim.

No one should have to suffer sexual harassment in the workplace. Even if you’re not the target of such advances, you still have the power to effect positive change. If you see something, say something.