Dealing with sexual harassment and bullying at work

In recent years there has been a cultural shift demonstrated by movements such as #MeToo, which have facilitated or driven corporate response to sexual harassment at work. This welcome change has largely rested on two components: the first is on cultural awareness raising regarding sexual harassment, bullying and policies; the other is the prevention of, and response to such behaviours.

There are two main deficits to this approach: a neglect of the psychological impact of sexual harassment on victims, perpetrators and the groups of employees or workforce as a whole; the other deficit is a lack of integration of policies and initiates targeting sexual harassment with occupational mental health policy and psychological help for employees. This article deals with the psychological effects and argues for a clear integration in policy and practice.

Sexual harassment episodes and complaints often activate highly charged emotional reactions as the intrusive nature of unwanted sexual attentions and behaviours resonate with people’s anxieties of being physically violated. This is the primary reason why individuals, groups and organisations may respond defensively to sexual harassment complaints, ranging from denial (‘it was just banter’; ‘she makes it up’; ‘he/she is overreacting’), to siding with either the ‘victim’ or the ‘perpetrator’, to immediate condemnation of the ‘culprit’.

When this occurs, organisations may rush into action (e.g., fast-tracked disciplinary actions or a priori defence of the alleged perpetrator) or behave as though paralysed in both their thinking and action.

It should also be borne in mind that at least two parties are involved in sexual harassment cases (the alleged victim and perpetrator) and that they are likely to be both psychologically affected by what happened or what is alleged to have happened.

The primary objective of the response of the employer to sexual harassment episodes and complaints is to try and maintain – or re-establish – its capacity to think ‘under fire’, in contrast to being swept away into action by emotional storms taking place within the organisation.

To support this process, a pathway should be followed and employees with managerial roles (e.g., HR and line managers) should keep to their specific roles and tasks, rather than being pulled in different directions by group pressures.

The following pathway could be considered and adopted in a sequential way:

1. ‘Triage, Assess, Respond’

2. Early meetings with alleged victim and alleged perpetrator –

• The alleged victim and perpetrator should be met individually by TWO different employer’s representatives (i.e., HR/line manager).
• The objective of both meetings should exclusively be to convey to the relevant employees that the employer understands that they may be going through a difficult time and that they may consider seeking specialist help for the purpose of discussing their state of mind and obtain independent support. In this way the employer conveys the message that the employees’ psychological needs are taken seriously, listened to and responded to.
These meetings should not include the discussion of the details of the sexual harassment incident(s), nor convey the impression that the employer is ‘on their side against the other party’.
• It should not be recommended that as a first step the alleged victim and perpetrator should seek help from Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs). This is because, with a few exceptions, EAPs counsellors and psychotherapists are not trained to carry out the assessment of mental health conditions which sexual harassment episodes may have sparked off. This also applies to alleged perpetrators as the psychological reaction to sexual harassment complaints may have devastating consequences for them, including unbearable social shame and suicidal attempts.
• The employers’ representatives should only make ‘recommendations to seek specialist help in their own time’, rather than conveying the message that ‘it is always good to talk’ and ‘the sooner the better’, as we all differ in terms of our capacity and timing when addressing our psychological needs.

3. When in doubt on how to understand and respond to sexual harassment episodes and/or claims, do consider having a brief telephone triage call with a clinical specialist, and an employment lawyer, as appropriate.

4. Should the alleged victim and perpetrator seek specialist help, do consider making reasonable adjustments to enable them to attend specialist treatment.

5. Consider that the funding for specialist mental health treatment is mostly covered by private healthcare insurers, depending on terms and conditions.

6. Investigate the complaint, in keeping with established employment procedures.

7. If/when necessary, consider a fitness for work occupational mental health assessment to be carried out by your specialist occupational mental health service provider.

8. It is normal practice that during the investigation process employers maintain strict confidentiality over their findings for the purpose of providing duty of care towards their employees. This process is however often accompanied by an official curtain of total silence, even when it is common knowledge among staff that an alleged episode of sexual harassment has occurred and/or a complaint has been lodged.

This approach can result in the flourishing of speculations, gossip and unhealthy dynamics in the workforce. Consideration should therefore be given to the possibility that, when it is common knowledge that an episode of sexual harassment is being investigated, HR and/or line managers may communicate to staff that ‘the matter is being addressed by the organisation’, without any further detail being released. A simple statement of this nature conveys the message that the employer remains in the driving seat and retains its capacity ‘to think under fire’ and provide psychological containment to its workforce, in contrast to feeling overwhelmed by emotional turbulence.

Dr Lorenzo Grespi