I was thinking about two different responses I have seen to a harassment complaint – in both, I was a third party. One was a great response that recognized the harm done, while the other seemingly blamed the victim. Ironically, the great response was from a group I had less than full respect for, while the poor response was by someone I have great respect for – I guess that shows that properly responding to a complaint isn’t necessarily a skill that all people have. I use strong language here because I do think there are appropriate places for strong language. This is one of them.
I’m talking about this in employment context, but it also applies to other organizations – even groups of friends when someone might confide in you about a wrong someone did.
Before I get into too much detail on what not to do, I’ll tell a somewhat anonymity story of the good response.
Doing the Right Thing
One of my past coworkers was in an interracial marriage and had a picture of him and his wife on his desk. I’m sure I saw the picture at times, but it was nothing remarkable to me – just a family picture, a fairly common item in an office environment. Someone I worked with, however, didn’t agree that this was a common office item – and left a note telling the worker, essentially, that he disapproved of the man’s “nigger bride.” Obviously, highly, highly, highly offensive and a demonstration of true asshole status on the part of the note-writer.
My coworker, we’ll call him Bob, went to HR and reported the incident. HR immediately took the issue very seriously and recognized it for what it was – not just a potential lawsuit (yes, it was that, at least if not handled properly), but, way more importantly, something that had the potential to greatly affect the ability of people in the office to work together to accomplish the company’s goals. And, even more importantly – something that was incredibly hurtful and potentially frightening. I don’t know if Bob was scared or not, but it certainly would have made me look at my coworkers differently.
HR’s response was, with Bob’s permission, to call each of us who had access to Bob’s office into HR in private, and to interview us to see if we had any idea who might have done such a thing. Obviously one of us did it (it was a locked, secure office environment), and they no doubt interviewed the asshole. I was shocked when I heard what happened, and, although I couldn’t give any useful information to HR, I did let Bob know what I thought of the person who did it and offered any support I could provide.
They never did find the racist asshole. Nor did they substantiate the discrimination complaint – there simply wasn’t evidence beyond one piece of paper. But even without substantiating the complaint, it was taken seriously as a real complaint, where a real harm was done. Bob wasn’t lectured on how to respond to people, how some people might be bothered by a picture of an interracial couple, or that he needed to lock his door better. Maybe someone intended it as a joke, but that still wouldn’t have made it acceptable behavior and the joker still would have been a racist asshole. Regardless of the reason for the person doing it, Bob was a victim. And, through a proper investigative process, other coworkers who learned of the event were able to offer support for Bob – to show him he wasn’t alone in his anger and upset.
A Stupid Response
I’ll talk about someone else who raised a complaint. The complaint was about verbal sexual harassment. When the harassment was reported, the first response was, “Are you sure that it was intended that way, and wasn’t just someone who innocently said the wrong thing or didn’t understand that their words could be taken that way?” In other words, the very first thing that was said by authority was, “you could be wrong.” Not, “I’m sorry.” Not, “We’ll get to the bottom of this.” Not, “we don’t tolerate that behavior.” No, it was an excuse for the harasser. This was followed by a lecture on “ways to respond” to such talk.
Never was an investigation discussed, nor was permission sought to interview other people, such as the people present at the time of the incident (who could substantiate the claim, potentially). Certainly nobody expected this manager to fire the harasser on the spot just on the basis of one person’s unsubstantiated word (after all, it could be an attempt to smear someone else who really is innocent). But they did expect that a complaint would be taken seriously and not dismissed immediately, and that, even if the complaint couldn’t actually be substantiated (which is very far from being proven false), the victim would receive at least understanding of her feelings of betrayal, powerlessness, and vulnerability. But, no, she was told that it might help if she learned ways to respond to people doing that.
Maybe it would help if she learned ways to respond. But that’s not a decent response to a victim. They aren’t reporting it to be lectured. They are reporting it because they want your help responding to the wrong committed against them, not told that they themselves are responsible for people doing bad things to them. And not conducting interviews with the witnesses missed a great opportunity to make sure that the workplace stayed supportive – and that the support was obvious. By interviewing witnesses, it could be made clear that people in power see this as serious and that there was a victim of what might have seemed to be innocent words to some. With this new insight, the witnesses would recognize this behavior in the future for what it is and perhaps act on their own to stop it when they see it.
In addition to being told she could learn to respond to bad behavior by others, she was also offered a chance for engagement with the harasser. Of course this is terrifying to a victim and probably the last thing that is needed. Most people don’t want to confront the people who did harm to them. Instead they want appropriate authorities, when an act of evil is reported, to investigate it and deal with the situation. They don’t want to build understanding with their harasser.
The harasser is still employed, while the victim left (because of her treatment). The victim absolutely has a claim against the employer legally, but, more important, the organization has shown itself to not give a damn about their employees. At least not when it counts.
Here’s my recommendations, should anyone report harassment or bullying to you:
- Don’t lecture the victim, even if you haven’t verified the story. Especially if you haven’t verified the story.
- If it’s important to the victim, it’s important. Period. Don’t dismiss, make light of it, or tell the victim that it might not “really” have been bad.
- Actually investigate. Seek permission to talk to witnesses and people who might be able to shed light on the events.
- Use the investigative process to show how seriously you take the allegations. Use it as a teaching moment for all in how not to respond and why to speak up when evil is observed. It’s also a chance for people to learn that there was a victim, so they can offer their support to the victim.
- Unsubstantiated is not the same as not true. Make sure the victim knows that you see the difference.
- Even seemingly innocent or joking behavior can be harassment. That’s no excuse for mistreatment of others.
- Don’t go so far in maintaining an impression of impartiality that you fail to demonstrate empathy. Let the victim know you understand and see what is wrong. You don’t have to punish someone without substantiation, but at the same time you don’t need to throw that into the victim’s face.