How Coworkers Can Help

Coworkers are essential in creating work environments that are welcoming and positive for all. The resources here are for people who are not necessarily targets of harassment or discrimination, but who want to do more to promote the safety, equality, and dignity of their coworkers.

We have compiled resources to help individuals learn how to effectively support victims of harassment, interrupt workplace behavior that could lead to harassment, and serve as allies for others. You will find more information about the following topics:

Providing support and respect to victims and survivors of workplace harassment
Ways to offer help to a coworker experiencing harassment or discrimination
Tips for witnesses involved in workplace harassment investigations
Resources for bystanders
Resources for allies

 

Providing support and respect to victims and survivors of workplace harassment

By understanding what victims are going through and how to support them, you may be able to help them feel more empowered, respected, and understood.

It is no easy task to disclose an incident of harassment or other discrimination in the workplace. In some cases, reporting can feel like a vulnerable, dangerous, or even life-threatening act. An employee might fear losing their job or their professional reputation. Some might fear losing workplace camaraderie, friendships, and rapport with fellow coworkers and employers. Others might fear backlash or retaliation for speaking out against a workplace injustice. Most victims just want to make the conduct stop, so they can do their jobs free of harassment.

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 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
  • Fearing being fired or retaliated against because they filed a complaint
  • Having to go through a lengthy internal, adversarial, and/or court process
  • Facing workplace rumors or judgements about their character or conduct

Members of legally protected groups often face prejudice and exclusion daily in the world outside of work. When they also experience discrimination in the workplace, it can take a toll on their mental health, their overall hopefulness and happiness, and have significant and lasting effects on their career plans or prospects. Your coworkers deserve all the respect, understanding, and support possible from their Vermont employers, colleagues, supervisors, subordinates, contractors, and customers.

As a coworker, you may be able to help a victim cope with their feelings by being a supportive, understanding, and empowering ally in the workplace.

Ways to offer help to a coworker experiencing harassment or discrimination

If you are seeking to be respectful and supportive towards a victim of workplace harassment or other discrimination, here are some suggestions.

When they first come to you:

  • Let a victim’s story be heard when they want to share it. Do not force the individual to disclose acts of harassment until they feel ready to do so. Rather, offer encouragement for their own sense of resolution and share support to help make it happen.
  • Listen actively and purposefully. Maintain attention and eye contact. Don’t interrupt or talk over them. Help the victim feel seen and heard during a difficult and confusing time. Your task is to be a safe person that demonstrates support. If a victim is coming to you, it is likely that they trust you enough to share a potentially vulnerable interaction.
  • Believe them. Many victims don’t share their experiences because they think they won’t be believed, or that their feelings will be discounted. Victims are less likely to be believed because many perceive harassment as an uncommon act. Unfortunately, it is much more common in the workplace than many would like to acknowledge.
  • Avoid making assumptions based on your own experiences or perceptions of the situation.
  • Communicate in a way that shows empathy, support, and validation. Don’t play “devil’s advocate,” try to be objective by taking the side of the employer, question their version of events, or downplay their experience.  Center the victim - their feelings and experience - in the conversation, and not the perpetrator or other actors. Do not shift the focus to yourself.
  • Confidentiality and consent matter. If an individual shares a vulnerable experience with you, refrain from sharing the details with others. Don’t reveal their story to others without permission.
  • Give them time. Going through the healing and recovery process can be a long and bumpy road. Often victims must continue to work despite fears that harassment will continue, or retaliation might result from their report. Check in with them - it can help to be reminded as time goes by that you are still available for support.

Consider the state of the victim. There are some statements that you might share to be helpful, but which could have the effect of being hurtful or disempowering to a victim of harassment. Here are a few examples of statements that might not be helpful:

  • “I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it.” A person’s intent doesn’t change the impact of their behavior.
  • “You’re being sensitive.” This is a judgment and devalues the feelings of the victim.
  • “Just put it out of your mind.” This is a denial of the experience of the victim and communicates that you do not welcome their feelings. The more we ignore inappropriate behavior, or lewd comments, the worse they can get.
  • “Why didn’t you just … [insert judgment of how you think they should have reacted here]” When listening to a victim, it is important not to impose your judgment on another person’s retelling of a situation or dynamic.
  • “It’s not that big a deal. It was only one time.” Comments like these diminish the experience of the victim.
  • “They’ve never done that to me.”  Just because you did not witness or directly experience an incident does not mean it didn’t happen. 
  • “I’m really surprised. They don’t seem like the kind of person who would…” Typically, we think only bad people do bad things, but this is often not the case.  Good, kind, and well-intentioned people can discriminate and make offensive comments and statements that cause harm to others.

If they want you to help:

  • Ask the person if they are seeking help, and what kind of help they would like. Only offer advice if that is what is requested. Unsolicited advice can be unconstructive or even triggering for some harassment victims. Try asking:
    • May I offer you some advice regarding this issue?
    • Can I share with you how I handled a similar situation in the past?
  • Before taking steps to help resolve someone else’s conflict, here are some things you can ask them:
    • How can I support you with this situation?
    • Is there something I can do to make things easier?
    • What would you like me to do with this information?
    • Where would you feel safest having a conversation about what happened to you?
    • What do you need right now?
    • Do I have your consent to share this with another employee who can help?

Be mindful of where you stand in relation to the victim you are trying to help. Depending on whether you are a friend, coworker, supervisor, or in another position relative to a harassment victim, different considerations and actions may be warranted. For example:

  • If you were witness to harassment or inappropriate workplace conduct, regardless of whether the victim asked you to keep the matter private, you still probably have an obligation or at least a strong interest in reporting the conduct to the employer. It is important to note that if you do choose to report the misconduct that you witnessed, it is courteous to let the victim know that you will be taking such action. Read below for more on what to do if you are a witness involved in a workplace harassment investigation.
  • If you are a supervisor, HR personnel, or manager who learns of problematic conduct from a victim or witnesses or by other means, you should not avoid the issue. Failing to address problems of this nature can contribute to a hostile work environment and magnify a bad situation. Also, you can become personally liable for harassment you are aware of and fail to address. There is more information about responding to harassment complaints and preventing harassment in the For Employers section of this website.

Tips for witnesses involved in workplace harassment investigations

If you are a witness to work-related harassment, and a complaint is filed by you or anyone else, it is likely that you will be involved in an investigation. Your role and testimony could be crucial to an employer’s determination of whether harassment or other inappropriate conduct actually happened. Here are a few tips for you:

  • Always be completely honest and forthcoming with investigators about harassment cases. Do not guess, speculate, embellish, or hide information. Speak about the facts: what you’ve observed, seen and heard. Refrain from sharing your opinion about whether you think someone is capable of discriminating or committing harassment.
  • It usually does not help for you to discuss the complaint or investigation with coworkers or others connected to the workplace, especially in the workplace and especially while the investigation is ongoing. Vermont is a small community, and the rumor mill can have a negative impact on victims, the people accused, your workplace, and potentially your employer in general. 
  • Many coworkers feel uncomfortable with having to possibly “rat” on a fellow coworker. In these types of cases, however, it is important to keep in mind that you must always be honest with your employer, or potentially face discipline yourself. Also, harassment on the basis of race, sex, gender identity, religion, place of birth, disability, sexual orientation, and other protected categories is unlawful, and your employer may be able to put a stop to the behavior - before it becomes unlawful - with the benefit of the information that you provide.
  • Remember that it is not your job to decide whether unlawful discrimination or harassment has occurred. It is your job to be honest about what you’ve seen and heard without judgment of the parties involved.

Resources for bystanders

All too often victims of harassment in the workplace feel isolated in their experience and that they alone are the ones who must put a stop to offensive, inappropriate, or discriminatory conduct, or endure it in silence. Their sense of powerlessness and marginalization can be magnified when coworkers avoid confronting inappropriate conduct they witness.

On the other hand, if coworkers have education and skills about how to intervene in instances of prejudice, bias, microaggressions, bigotry, or other offensive conduct, a work environment that could have become hostile can be transformed to a place of safety and support.

Below are some resources to explore bystander intervention and how you can act as a coworker to stop workplace conduct that could give rise to harassment or lead to a hostile work environment.

Resources for allies

Tips for becoming an effective workplace ally
  • You can start now. It is never too late, or too soon to become an ally for others.
  • Be prepared to learn and make mistakes in this role.
  • Make way for coworkers from marginalized identities to be prioritized, centered, and highly valued in your workplace. Notice when others fail to do this.
  • Get comfortable exploring and challenging your own privilege, bias, and prejudice.
  • Learn to acknowledge harms experienced by others who have less privilege and power than yourself.
  • Leverage the power you have to make a positive impact on toxic or unhealthy workplace dynamics you observe. Confront problems early on and with an eye towards the safety and well-being of all potential victims of workplace harassment or discrimination.
  • Be mindful of the impact of your words and conduct, and hold yourself accountable when you cause harm unintentionally.
  • Equip yourself with skills and communication strategies that help you be more effective with a diverse range of people. Practice calling out inappropriate conduct, calling in others to join you as an ally, and listening actively to the needs and voices of people without your privilege or perspective.
  • Learn about diverse cultures and communities from multiple perspectives.
  • Get educated about the work of movements led by historically marginalized groups.
What to do if you unintentionally harm a coworker

It is likely that in your journey as an ally, there will come a time when you accidentally offend or hurt someone you are trying to treat respectfully. It is best to accept that this is probably going to happen. You are never going to do it perfectly. It is a constant learning process and one that never ends.

If you have said or done something harmful, you should not expect someone to tell you verbally, or wait for it to happen. Pay attention to body language, which can communicate that harm has occurred. Some cues can include silence, delayed response, shift in body stance, or change in tone of voice. Consider whether you should engage in conversation later after you have reflected on what happened and what you could have done differently. When you try to make amends, do not center yourself or your feelings in the discussion. It is about acknowledging harm.

If the person you offended or hurt has confronted you on your behavior, here are some ways that you can respond respectfully, without doing more harm to that person.

  • Listen actively and without interruption. Respond only to validate their experience.
  • Avoid getting defensive, changing the subject, or shifting the conversation to being about you. Keep the focus on the other person’s experience and not on your reaction.
  • Don’t pressure them to say more than they feel comfortable sharing with you.
  • Refrain from criticizing the way they communicate with you, their tone of voice, or demeanor. Listen carefully to identify their needs and feelings, and what you could have done differently to avoid harming them.
  • Apologize for causing harm.
  • Promise to do better next time.
  • Actually do better next time, by shifting your behavior and norms.
Confronting unconscious bias

A necessary part of becoming an effective ally is to understand, confront, and remove the harmful impact of our own internalized biases.

Resources for allies against racism and xenophobia
Resources for LGBTQIA+ allies

Straight and cisgender people who want to be allies to LGBTQIA+ workers in Vermont can learn about what LGBTQIA+ people experience in the workplace, and how to best make them feel welcomed and accepted.

Resources for allies against discrimination against people with disabilities in the workplace