How to create a workplace culture that helps abuse survivors come forward

Original article: Meera Jagannathan, MarketWatch | Nov. 29, 2018

Amber Heard spoke volumes on victim-blaming without ever naming her ex-husband.

“When a woman comes forward, she will be met with skepticism, hostility, and shame,” the 32-year-old actress, who split from Johnny Depp in 2016 amid domestic abuse allegations he has denied, said of survivors in a new Glamourprofile. “All a man has to do is point to an incentive. He will. Or society will.”

The “Aquaman” star, who received a temporary restraining order against Depp at the time, ultimately donated her $7 million divorce settlement to the American Civil Liberties Union (“with a particular focus to stop violence against women,” she said in a statement) and the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles.

Around 25% of women and 11% of men in the U.S. say they’ve experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner, and reported an intimate partner violence-related impact such as injury, fearfulness or concern for safety over the course of their lifetime, according to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. One in six women and one in 33 men have experienced rape or attempted rape, per the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

Meanwhile, American workers reported experiencing 36,500 sexual assaults and rapes while working or on duty between 1993 and 1999, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The victims in eight out of 10 workplace sexual assaults and rapes are women.

Skepticism, hostility and shaming are “still a reality for many victims when they come forward,” Vaile Wright, a licensed psychologist at the American Psychological Association and expert on sexual violence and sexual harassment, told Moneyish. “With new awareness around #MeToo, I think those responses are maybe becoming less accepted on a broader scale. But I imagine that that pattern is still frequently happening.”

Here are a few simple ways to create a more positive work environment for victims of abuse, violence or harassment to come forward if they choose -- or, at a minimum, feel respected and comfortable at work.

If you’re in a leadership position, “be really clear” about what kinds of statements are acceptable and unacceptable, University of Washington professor of psychology Carolyn West told Moneyish. Instead of issuing broad or general statements, she said, provide examples of the kinds of behaviors that are considered harassing or problematic.

“What is the message and the tone that (leadership is) sending to everyone in the workplace about whether it is a workplace that is welcoming, and where everyone should expect to be treated with dignity and respect?” added Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “And how are supervisors and managers in leadership held accountable for ensuring that environment?”

Show that unacceptable behavior won’t be tolerated. “If survivors can see that there will be consequences, and people will be held accountable if they engage in harassing behaviors, they’re more likely to reveal that versus if the culture in the institution says, ‘Well, we’re going to look the other way; it’s going to be a joke; we’re going to retaliate against victims for revealing the abuse,’” West said.

“If people see from past experience that complaints aren’t taken seriously or investigated appropriately, or that harassers aren’t held accountable for their behavior, then people don’t trust the company or that system -- and there is no incentive for them to come forward, because it becomes a huge risk for them,” Raghu added. “Why come forward if you’re not going to be believed or if nothing is going to change?”

While discussing #MeToo or stories of abuse in the media, create a safe environment free of rape jokes, slut-shaming or disparaging comments about survivors, West said, while calling out any bad behavior you see in real-time. “There will be victims/survivors in the workplace … That’s got to be assumed,” said Susan Strauss, a Minnesota-based workplace harassment, bullying and discrimination expert. “So discussions about these things need to be (done) with sensitivity.”

Show that you are a safe person to talk to. “Victims in our midst need to hear us talking about it in a way that says, ‘I know that this happens a lot; it is wrong; it is against the law; and no one deserves to be abused in any way … for any reason,” domestic violence survivor and expert consultant Julie Owens told Moneyish. “When victims hear this, I think they breathe a big sigh of relief because they feel like, ‘Maybe this is someone who’ll understand me.’ And when and if they decide to disclose, you’ll be the person they go to.”

Eliminate fear of retaliation. “One of the biggest reasons people don’t come forward is they’re afraid of retaliation,” Raghu said, citing outcomes like being penalized at work, having your hours cut, being ostracized or not being believed. “A lot of addressing that means a lot of training of managers and supervisors, who are often the ones who might be receiving those reports from people.” (Retaliation is the most common claim alleged by federal workers, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)

Educate yourself so that you’re less likely to fall into “rape myths” and stereotypes, West said, like the misconceptions that sexually promiscuous women get raped; that women falsely allege rape to get back at men; and that most rapes are perpetrated by strangers. Education “can help by making us aware that victims are all around us, and (by) helping us to not blame victims for their sexual abuse,” she added.

If someone does disclose a history of physical or sexual violence to you, West said, “start by believing that the person is actually telling you the truth about what happened to them” rather than asking if they’re sure the incident occurred or suggesting they’re mistaken. Be open and compassionate and ask what the person needs to feel safe, she added, and offer to connect them with resources around domestic violence or sexual assault in your community if you feel less than equipped to handle the situation yourself.