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What to Do When You Witness Sexual Harassment at Work
Even if you’re not the target, seeing harassment happen can mean emotional and professional consequences
When you see harassment happening in the workplace, the best thing to do is something. Intervene in the moment. Talk to the harasser. Talk to the victim. Talk to a supervisor. Document what happened.
But you should also take some time to gaze inward. It’s normal to not feel okay after witnessing sexual harassment, even if you weren’t the target. Sexual harassment is among the most psychologically harmful job stressors, says Kathleen Rosplenda, an associate psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies workplace harassment. And research has shown that bystanders, like victims, can suffer a host of professional and personal consequences — including disengagement from work, depression, stress, and the various health issues that come with it.
That’s especially true if you have your own history of trauma, in which case witnessing harassment can bring up feelings of powerlessness or memories of your own bad experiences, says Debra Borys, a clinical and forensic psychologist. “Even for someone who themselves has not been through any type of abuse, trauma, or assault,” she adds, “it can still be traumatizing.” If this applies to you, learn how to navigate your emotions and decide what to do next.
Find your support network in or out of the office.
Don’t wait to begin processing what you’ve seen. Trying to tamp down your emotions will only make them fester.
“Definitely tell somebody,” Rosplenda says. “Get support any way you can.”
Ideally, talk to someone who’s not connected to the situation, like a friend or a therapist. A level-headed listener removed from the workplace environment “can be comforting as well as clarifying,” Borys says, and hearing an outside perspective can help you work out what you’re feeling and figure out how to proceed.
In a situation where feelings of powerlessness are common, being there for others can help you regain a sense of purpose and control.
Be a source of support for both the victim and other witnesses.
Venting about your feelings may be an important first step, but while it can temporarily make you feel better, it doesn’t change the situation, Borys says. One tangible way to help—besides reporting the harassment — is to then create space for others to talk about what happened. Reaching out privately to the target of the harassment and letting them know you saw what happened can provide validation and comfort to both of you.
The same goes for offering support to other people in your position. If there was more than one bystander, the simple act of discussing your shared experience can provide comfort by helping you feel less isolated. In a situation where feelings of powerlessness are common, being there for others can help you regain a sense of purpose and control. There’s also strength in numbers when it comes to reporting: By banding together ahead of time, you and your fellow witnesses can help the victim build a stronger case against the harasser.
Know that nothing is a quick fix for how you’re feeling.
Unfortunately, speaking up to management or the harasser may come with its own set of emotional issues. Rospenda says that if you report harassment, file a complaint, or confront the harasser and things don’t get any better, your mental health can take an additional hit. “When you see it happening and nothing is being done about it, that just makes you feel more powerless,” she says.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take action. If you decide not to act after witnessing harassment, that can lead to guilt in the future, especially if the perpetrator continues their behavior. “People can kind of torture themselves over that, even if they had very understandable psychological and practical reasons for not coming forward,” Borys says.
Make a choice about your professional next steps.
If your office suddenly (or not so suddenly) feels too toxic, you have two paths forward: Try to change the culture or think about leaving. If the latter sounds like the better choice, know that you’re not overreacting. Research on workplace bullying suggests that it’s equally likely to inspire turnover among witnesses as it is to push out the victims.
If your office suddenly (or not so suddenly) feels too toxic, you have two paths forward: Try to change the culture or think about leaving.
Marjan Houshmand, an assistant professor of management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, attributes this to the greater sense of unfairness if people are singled out, as opposed to environments where everyone is in the same boat. “It’s stressful. It’s immoral. And it’s not pleasant to see other people being mistreated at work,” she says.
Communicating dissatisfaction about office culture to management can be one way to improve things. But if you feel powerless to change the culture, the stress could build. “The level of stress and anxiety that it is inducing in some individuals might have long-term psychological, even physical, health concerns,” Houshmand says, “so sometimes the best option is to leave.” If you don’t want to find a new job, or can’t, even taking a short break after seeing the harassment can help preserve your mental well-being. In short, use whatever strategy is feasible to make a bad situation better — for past and potentially future victims, but also for yourself.