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Supporting Workers Facing Harassment

Creating a supportive environment for people reporting potential harassment

It is a well-documented reality that many employees who experience workplace harassment never report it to their employers or to a public agency. This is due to a variety of personal and environmental factors, and personal choice. Victims and survivors tend to be hesitant about reporting workplace harassment they experience due to:

  • Not being heard or understood by coworkers or managers
  • Not being believed and having to defend themselves
  • Thinking that the issue can’t be corrected or the conflict resolved
  • Being disrespected in the complaint process
  • Being perceived or blamed as the one who is causing a problem
  • Fearing a lack of workplace advancement
  • Being fired or retaliated against because they filed a complaint
  • Having to go through a lengthy internal, adversarial, and/or court process
  • Getting labeled as too sensitive, vindictive, greedy, or dishonest
  • Facing workplace rumors or judgements about their character or conduct
  • Feeling silenced or invalidated in the process

Understanding the effects of workplace harassment on an individual

People who have been exposed to incidents of work-related harassment can have a range of responses and emotions. Their reactions and feelings about situations can also change over time. Many people feel pressure or need to mask their feelings when they are in the workplace. The demand to keep working and suppress reactions to instances of harassment in the workplace can exacerbate the difficulties they are experiencing.

Being harassed, discriminated against, or assaulted at work can seriously affect one’s ability to effectively do one’s job, and lead a successful life. Workplace abuse can affect employees’ mental, emotional, and physical health. Over time, a victim of workplace harassment can begin to experience anxiety, fear, and other physical, emotional, or mental symptoms that indicate something is not well within their working environment.

The workplace should be a safe place for everyone. Working in an unsafe, hostile, or uncomfortable work environment not only affects workers’ quality of life, but also their quality of work.

Importantly, harassment at work cannot be viewed in isolation. Hateful, offensive, dominating, or other bullying conduct that is based on sexism, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, ableism and other forms of prejudice are part of a systemic problem. Many of our workplaces are built within structures of historical oppression, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Members of legally protected categories must face prejudice and exclusion on a daily basis in the world outside of work. When they also experience discrimination in the workplace, it can take a toll on their mental health and their overall hopefulness and happiness, and have significant and lasting effects on their career plans or prospects. These individuals deserve all the respect, understanding, and support possible from their Vermont employers.

There is always more that we can do to help people feel safe to talk about harassing or discriminatory conduct they are exposed to at work. Managers should explore ways that their systems and practices might encourage, or discourage, reports of harassment.

Ways to make it easier for workers to file complaints about workplace harassment:

  • Name multiple people to whom reports can be made, and ensure a diversity of representation in gender, race, ability and sexual orientation (at a minimum) among those people.
  • Use an online or electronic reporting system, so that reports can be made discreetly and without delay.
  • Train your managers and supervisors to have an awareness and sensitivity of the difficult decision an employee makes when they report harassment. Employees should feel their complaints are taken seriously.
  • Appreciate that if the workplace has a history of ignoring complaints, then employees are more likely to keep silent about harassment. This also means the reverse can be true.
  • Offer complainants a variety of ways to potentially address the behavior they are reporting, depending on the severity of the conduct. Explore ways to give them more agency in the response or outcome, so that they are empowered through the process.
  • Consider “testing” the reporting system every so often, to see whether the process is working as intended, and whether adjustments or more training might be needed.
  • Explore ways that victims can have more support in the reporting and investigative process, such as by inviting them to have a support person or representative of their choosing present for complaint-related meetings.
  • Help all employees have access to counseling services and other support by investing in an employee assistance program.