First, victims of sexual harassment need to remember that they are not to blame for what is happening. Sexual harassment is unwanted attention, and unfortunately, most of the time, ignoring it will not make it go away; it often makes it worse. So, what can you do if you are being sexually harassed? Start building your support system by telling your family and friends about the harassment. Then, write it down. Get a journal, a simple notebook will work fine, and write down everything that happens with the person who is harassing you. Most of us think that we will remember everything, that some events are so awful there is no way we will forget them. But we do, or we end up getting important details mixed up.
Write down all the details of the harassment. Start by writing down the dates, times, and places where the harassment occurred. Rather than saying, ‘On the unit where I work,’ say, ‘at 2 pm at the nurse's station when I was documenting the patients' vital signs.’ Write down exactly what happened. Did the person step too close or try to touch your hair or body? What did they say? Did they make it impossible for you to get past them? Was there anyone else around who saw or heard what was happening? Keeping a good record of what took place will help ensure that it is not just your word against the person harassing you. You don’t want a situation where you say that some unwanted conduct happened on such and such a day, because that is how you remember it, only to have the harasser, prove that they were not working that day. A written record stops this from happening. Also, keep anything that the person harassing you sends to you, such as emails, notes, voicemails, or pictures(Legal Aid at Work, 2023).
Tell caring coworkers about what is happening. You could discover that others are having the same struggles as you but don’t know what to do about it. If others are suffering sexual harassment, it is worthwhile to put together a joint complaint. This makes it more serious and lets management know it affects more than one employee and could become more widespread. Also, ask your coworkers to be alert to what is happening. If they hear or see anything that is unwelcome sexual conduct, ask them to please come forward. Having witnesses to what is going on helps to strengthen a complaint. But use caution when talking to coworkers. Know the people that you are talking to and can trust.
It is also important that you talk to the person who is harassing you about what they are doing. Make it plain to them that you do not welcome their conduct or want anything to do with it and want them to stop. It may be too much to stand before the harasser and tell them these things, but that is not a reason to let it go. Often, the person doing the sexual harassment counts on their victim being too embarrassed, shy, or afraid to do anything about it.
A way around this is to write them a letter instead and send it to them. This is a good move because it provides further documentation of the harassment. The letter should include as many facts as possible, including dates and a description of what happened. Let the harasser know how their actions are affecting you and your work. You are angry, afraid, embarrassed, constantly on edge, and dread coming to work. Say what you want to happen from now on. Things that can be said include, “I want our relationship to be strictly professional. I want to work with a different supervisor.” Think about this before writing it: Would you be happy changing to a different shift or a different unit, and is there a supervisor that you would feel more comfortable working with? You can also say, “I don’t want you to come close to me, to touch me, or try to touch me, or to make comments about my physical appearance or my body” (Legal Aid at Work, 2023).
Some people may find that writing a letter is too much for them. English may not be their first language, and they can feel awkward trying to find the right words to describe what happened or is happening. Others may be concerned that their level of English is not ‘good enough’ to tell their story. However, it is not about perfect English or stylish writing. Use everyday language, the words you know and are familiar with, to put your concerns in writing. No one will be looking at the quality of the writing but at the described concerns. Getting a friend or coworker to help write the letter or read it over once it's completed is also possible. The most important part is to keep a copy of the letter.
How a harasser reacts to having their behavior called out depends on them. One response is that they will try to make little of the incidents and laugh them off. They may say, ‘Come on, I was only joking. Everyone else knew it was a joke; why are you so thin-skinned.” Or “I thought we were better friends than this. I would never complain about anything you say to me.” These are examples of the harasser trying to put the blame back on the person who is the victim of sexual harassment, trying to make them feel guilty about standing up for themselves. But even if some of what the harasser said or did was intended as a joke, according to the law, harassment is how the person at the receiving end felt about it. If the victim felt harassed, then it was harassment, regardless of what the intent of the doer of the action was. As for using the excuse “we’re all friends here,” friends do not say or do anything that will hurt, humiliate, or abuse each other. No matter how the harasser responds, it should not stop the harassed person from moving forward with their complaint.
Another problem someone can face is what to do if the person harassing is a patient. One of the steps the employee can take is to set boundaries with the patient. Let them know that you do not want them making sexual comments to you or asking questions about your personal life. Also, tell them that touching you is not allowed. This can be said in a kind but firm manner. However, this may not work if the patient is mentally ill or has a disorder that causes them to be confused and not know where they are or who they are talking to. Sometimes, a patient will confuse a staff member for their spouse and think they are having an intimate moment or conversation with someone close to them. In these cases, the supervisor or manager may need to get the social worker or other therapists involved to work with the patient on this problem (Androus, 2023).
Sexual harassment by patients, whether in an acute care hospital, assisted living, or a nursing home, should not be viewed as ‘part of the job.’ It is not part of anyone’s job description that they have to be able to handle incidents of sexual harassment from a patient on their own. An employee may fear that if they are not able to deal with sexual harassment from a patient independently, they may be seen by their coworkers and supervisors as ‘not fit for the job.’ Unlike a regular hospital stay, patients in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes can be there for months or even years. They may be cared for by the same assistant for long periods, which can change the patient and caregiver relationship. However, like all other types of sexual harassment, this too is the responsibility of the facility to deal with, not the employee on their own (Pennington, 2022).
Sometimes, when dealing with older patients, they may not know that their actions and statements can be taken as sexual harassment. What a patient may have got away with saying to a caretaker 20 or 30 years ago is not okay in today’s world. This does not mean that their behavior should be excused or ignored; it should be pointed out that these actions or comments are no longer allowed. If the caretaker feels uncomfortable having this conversation with the patient, they should ask the supervisor or social worker to discuss this problem with the patient. Often, in these cases, the patient will feel embarrassed by what they have done and apologize for offending. They may want to talk about how they grew up and the culture in those days. Information sharing can lead to a better working relationship between the patient and the caregiver (Fenwick, 2021).
The facility should not shy away from dealing with these types of sexual harassment because they don’t have a policy in place to deal with them. Any facility that has older or confused patients should realize that sexual harassment of the staff by a patient could occur, and they should have a written policy in place that speaks to it. Some steps can be taken to address the complaint when it does happen (Fenwick, 2021).
An employee experiencing sexual harassment should also reach out to their supervisor - if that is not the person who is doing the harassment. If their supervisor harasses them, they must talk to the manager or go directly to the human resources department. The employee can go to their union representative if a union exists in the facility. This person should be able to help and guide the employee in getting their complaint to the attention of the right person in the organization. Ask the human resources department if the facility has a sexual harassment policy; if there is one, get a copy. Follow the employer's complaint procedure. Once the facility management and the human resources department are made aware of the complaint, they should assist the employee in bringing forward their complaint (Legal Aid at Work, 2023).
All employers with more than 15 employees must follow Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, making sexual harassment unlawful. Employers have a legal responsibility to ensure that the workplace is harassment-free and to respond to employees' complaints about sexual harassment. Once an employee makes a complaint, it must be fairly investigated, with speedy and useful action taken to correct the situation. Every complaint of sexual harassment must be taken seriously (Legal Aid at Work, 2023).
Employers and managers should know that taking too long to investigate complaints can discourage staff. An employee who makes a sexual harassment complaint should ask to be informed about what is happening with the complaint, how long the process will take, and who will be their contact person (Wisconsin Gov, 2023).
After the sexual harassment complaint has been reviewed, the first step is to interview the person who made the complaint. This can be a stressful experience for the employee, and the person leading the interview should say that they know how difficult and stressful it is and do what they can to put the employee at ease. During the interview, the employee should be ready to answer questions about the incidences of sexual harassment. It is important to remember that the person or people doing the interview are not there to take sides or to decide who is right or wrong. It is their job to stay professional and to gather the facts. The employee should not be put off by this and realize that the interviewer is there to get answers to the questions of who, what, when, where, why, or how; they are not there to make a judgment. Employees should know they are not being cross-examined but encouraged to give as many exact details as possible (Wisconsin Gov, 2023).
As well as talking about the incidences of sexual harassment that happened, at the interview, the employee will also be asked about how these incidents affected them. Sometimes, this can be the hardest part to talk about. Listing facts and dates is one thing, but discussing fear, embarrassment, and vulnerability is something else. The employee should be prepared for this before the interview and know that if they get emotional while talking, that is okay, too. But they must spell out clearly that the conduct of the person who was harassing them was unwelcomed. If they gave in to the harasser's demands because they felt threatened, they must also say that. Giving in to the demands does not mean they don’t have a case for sexual harassment (Wisconsin Gov, 2023).
If there is a time lag between when it happened and when the employee came forward with their complaint, the employee might be questioned about the delay. The employee needs to be able to state why it took them so long to report the harassment and have that clear in their mind before the interview. The answer may be that they thought the harasser would get tired and stop, didn’t want to be seen as causing trouble, or were afraid of retaliation, especially if the harasser was a supervisor or manager (Wisconsin Gov, 2023).
During the interview, the employee may also be asked how they want this situation fixed. This is something that the employee needs to think about before the interview. The employee may know exactly what they want, and that is not to have to work with the person who is sexually harassing them anymore. They may be okay with changing to a different workplace within the facility or to a different shift.
If the employee hasn’t given the outcome much thought, some of the questions they need to ask themselves are: can they continue working alongside this person as a coworker or working for them if they are the supervisor? If the employee is still around the person who was sexually harassing them, will it affect their ability to do a job? Would the situation at work be awkward or embarrassing? The employer may suggest moving the employee, at least temporarily, while the complaint is being investigated. However, this move should not be to a work situation or shift that the employee does not want or is less favorable than their present workplace. It should be voluntary; the employee has the right to accept it or not (Wisconsin Gov, 2023).
The employee making the sexual harassment complaint may also be asked if they want counseling during the interview. The fast answer may be, “I’m fine. I just want it over and done with.” This can describe how the employee feels at that moment, but it is wise to consider doing counseling; if not now, they find it helpful later(Wisconsin Gov, 2023).