“Why didn’t they speak up before?”
This question is often asked when people come forward with complaints of sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred years ago.
One reason victims often don’t speak up is because the incident was traumatic for them. In her article, “These are All the Ways Sexual Harassment Can Make Your Life Miserable,” Meera Jagannathan says that “unwanted sexual advances can wreak havoc on your mind, body and career.”
If unwanted sexual advances can cause such damage, imagine what sexual assault or rape can do to a person. (Sexual harassment includes verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted. Sexual assault includes touching breasts, genitals or anus without permission. Sexual misconduct is an umbrella term that includes sexual harassment, sexual assault and any conduct of a sexual nature that is without consent or has the effect of threatening or intimidating the person against whom such conduct is directed.)
In his book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk — founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Massachusetts — explains that, because trauma is unbearable and intolerable, many who experience it become so upset when they think about it that they try to push it out of their minds and pretend that the incident(s) never happened. It’s easy to understand that people who can’t bear to think about such incidents can’t bear to talk about them either.
Probably the most prevalent reason victims don’t speak up is that they are frequently retaliated against when they do make complaints. In the workplace, retaliation comes in many forms, such as the complainant:
• Being fired, demoted, or having their hours reduced;
• Having their working conditions changed such as their job being made more difficult, being more closely scrutinized, being transferred to a less desirable position or being unfairly disciplined;
• Being threatened or verbally/physically abused.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the federal agency that accepts, investigates, and prosecutes harassment, discrimination, and retaliation complaints in the workplace), received 39,469 retaliation complaints last year, which accounted for more than half of the total complaints it received.
Even though retaliation is illegal and employers who are found guilty of it are heavily fined, it still happens. For example, after filing an internal complaint at an O’Reilly Auto Parts store in Orlando about sexual misconduct (groping, vulgar comments and gestures, and demands for sex), two female employees were retaliated against: one was sent out on deliveries with the wrong auto parts and had her hours reduced and another was fired after asking for a transfer. The EEOC filed a lawsuit in May against the store on the employees’ behalf, seeking back pay with interest and compensation for past and future losses because of the emotional pain and humiliation the women suffered.
Employers who fail to prevent retaliation from occurring exacerbate the effects of trauma, according to a 2013 study by psychologists Carly Parnitzke Smith and Jennifer Freyd. “These results suggest that institutions have the power to cause additional harm to assault survivors.”
What can employers do to protect their employees from retaliation? Mostly, resist the automatic urge to go into self-defense mode when employees make complaints about incidents involving the workplace. Additionally, don’t let anyone — managers, supervisors, co-workers, or third parties — take any kind of adverse action against the complainants.
As for protecting themselves from retaliation complaints, employers should:
1. Create a policy against retaliation (this should be part of their mandatory harassment/discrimination policy).
2. Have an open-door policy that identifies various people to whom employees can complain.
3. Tell complainants about the anti-retaliation policy and what to do if they feel they’ve been retaliated against. Tell employees who’ve been accused of wrongdoing about the policy and what they need to do to avoid an additional complaint of retaliation.
4. Refrain from making any changes in the complainant’s pay, benefits, duties, title or working conditions following the complaint unless you have a defendable business reason for doing so.
5. Follow up with the complainant to ensure they haven’t experienced any retaliation.
6. Document all of the above.
Being subjected to unwanted sexual behavior, being retaliated against and being sued for retaliation are all traumatic events that can and should be prevented.
Robin Paggi is a training and development specialist with Worklogic HR.