Supporting a Coworker Who Has Experienced Workplace Sexual Harassment or Assault

Whether workplace sexual harassment or assault happened recently or long ago, it is common for survivors to have numerous responses to such a traumatic event. Many of these responses may show up in the workplace through the expression of psychological, emotional, physical, behavioral or cognitive responses to trauma.

As a coworker, you may be the first person an employee who has experienced workplace sexual harassment or assault turns to for assistance and support.

Common Signs

As a coworker, you may notice that a fellow employee:

  • Has significant and ongoing difficulty concentrating on work tasks or meeting deadlines.
  • Avoids common areas and interaction with colleagues.
  • Is repeatedly absent or late to work or meetings.
  • Receives phone calls and/or emails that result in an employee being distracted or upset.

*This list is not exhaustive. Individuals experiencing workplace sexual harassment or violence may exhibit one or more signs, or none at all. This in no way indicates the veracity or severity of their experiences.

Trauma-Informed Peer Responses

As their peer you can help when you:

  • Recognize that sexual harassment is more about power than sex. It is therefore critical that you don’t take away the survivor’s power by telling your colleague what to do. She or he may come to you for help without any intention to report or pursue the situation.
  • Believe your coworker and stay supportive. It takes courage to reach out.
  • Don’t ask what she or he did to cause the harassment; someone else’s abuse of power is not your colleague’s fault.
  • Instead of asking “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so distracted?,” try “What has happened? Can I help?”
  • Ask what the survivor needs. Maybe it’s for you to be an ally and accompany your coworker to speak to management or human resources, or just continuing the conversation and helping them address the impact of the harassment on their well-being or work. Offer resources, support, and assistance when you are able.
  • Review the employee manual and workplace harassment policy to help your colleague navigate the process of reporting the harassment, if they request it.
  • Take care of yourself, too, and acknowledge any personal trauma this might bring up for you.