How to Avoid Workplace Harassment: A Psychologist’s Toolbox

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From #MeToo to #TimesUp, we’re uncovering the unfortunate truth of workplace harassment: it’s everywhere. While no victim is responsible for their perpetrator’s behavior, there are things every woman and man can do to avoid being a victim of harassment.

 

Unwanted words, unwelcome touches, advancement opportunities with strings attached, and bosses with “benefits” are just a few ways workplace harassment manifests. And the negative consequences on victims’ mental health? Numerous. Shame, fear, anxiety, anger/rage and loss of self esteem top the laundry list of usual, emotional suspects.

 

Harassing someone at work threatens their livelihood — a basic human need — and forces him or her to choose between safety, sanity and financial resources. No one should have to make this choice.

 

Victims or potential victims of harassment: you cannot control workplace aggressors. But there are things you can do, preemptively and reactively, to avoid being a victim. Here are some tips to help:

 

Communicating Boundaries

“I didn’t want to make it awkward,” “I don’t want to be mean, “I don’t want to be punished or fired” are common reasons victims give for not standing up for themselves. But whether it’s guilt or fear driving your silence, it’s time to overcome and establish clear boundaries.

 

Setting clear boundaries is a great first line of defense, especially when the intentions of your perpetrator are unclear or unknown. If the perpetrator doesn’t intend harm — let’s say they make an inappropriate joke — communicating your discomfort will help them become more aware of their actions. And if you’re concerned with “being mean,” this is a great solution: you create a safe space for yourself and help them improve their workplace social skills. Win-win.

 

Often times people are so caught off guard they clam up and don’t know what to say. Communicating boundaries is not one-size-fits-all, but here’s a basic script: put a hand up and say, “Stop. That behavior makes me uncomfortable,” or “I need to let you know … that behavior/joke/comment doesn’t work for me.” The goal is to make sure the other party knows you’re uncomfortable and you do not want that behavior to continue in the future.

 

Let’s say an incident occurs that makes you uncomfortable, but you only realize hours, days, weeks or months later that you missed an opportunity to communicate boundaries. There’s no reason not to double-back and establish boundaries after the fact. (Hey! You’ll even have time to plan a less-emotional response.) The script can go something like, “Remember that time when you said, ‘[Fill in the blank?]’ That made me very uncomfortable, and I want you to know that behavior will not work for me moving forward.”

 

If the behavior happens again, you can say, “I told you this behavior doesn’t work for me and I am going to report this to HR.” If you know you’ve communicated very clear boundaries, it makes reporting the behavior much easier. Speaking of …

 

Reporting the Behavior

Easier said than done, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Reporting harassment shouldn’t even be a question — your human resources department (in theory) exists for this reason. But when asked why they stayed silent, again victims site guilt- or fear-based reasons. But imagine the guilt you’ll carry when and if you hear other people are harassed by the same person …

 

It’s for this and the following reasons that it’s important you document harassing behavior.

 

  1. It needs to be “on the record.” If other women or men come forward, their stories will corroborate yours and vice versa. The more stories on the record, the better basis HR will have for punitive action or termination.
  2. It’s healthy to stand up for yourself. Don’t feel your own self worth? Defending yourself is step one.
  3. It’s unhealthy to prioritize the “what ifs.” Making decisions based on the possibility of getting fired, being punished, or hurting feelings is not sound logic. You should make decisions based on actual information available at hand and not potentials. You can (and certainly will) address any of those “what ifs,” if or when they happen.
  4. You don’t want to work somewhere you’re not protected. If you report the behavior and nothing is done, you can make informed decisions. Do you want to work there? Or for this person? Should you escalate the issue to higher authorities? Remember: it seems like we don’t have choices about where we work, but WE DO. And no, it’s not fair that you, the victim should have to leave a job, but principles aside, YOU have to be responsible to yourself and your safety, especially if your employer is not.

 

Coping After the Fact

If harassment occurs, there are ways to cope and come out the other side.

 

Start by grieving. First, face the fact that the person — the perpetrator — was not the person you thought they were. Feel the full force or your anger, shame, depression. Cry or yell. And most importantly, talk to someone you trust.

 

Report the behavior (if you haven’t already). Trust authorities will do what they can. If a crime occured, report it to law enforcement.

 

Then, after the grieving and reporting, and once you feel more emotionally settled, reflect on your behavior. What happened? What could you do differently next time? No blaming! No shaming! You simply have more information now, and you can put it to work for you. Make a plan for the next time, heaven forbid.

 

Special Advice for Men

Men are victims, too! As a society, we usually assume harassment victims are women and perpetrators are men, but more times than we realize, the tables are turned.

 

Men so rarely feel comfortable coming forward in the face of harassment — do they feel even more shame than women? It’s possible. First, they have to contend with a social stigma that they should “feel lucky” for being hit on by a woman. Second, when they do come forward, their concerns are usually dismissed. And third, there’s the age-old fear of appearing weak.

 

For these reasons, we have to remember to encourage men, as much as women, to set boundaries, report inappropriate behavior, and seek support. Being a victim is not exclusive to one gender.

 

Man or woman, we hope these tips will help you prevent workplace harassment or ease the pain if you’re a victim already. If you’re struggling to overcome harassment, we can help. Please contact our office for support.

 

To your emotional health,
Dr. Dabney

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