What happens when sexual harassers return to work

Not just Hollywood: Survivors share their stories
Not just Hollywood: Survivors share their stories

After an incident of harassment in the workplace, after the complaint is made, after the punishment is handed down, even after a suspension is enacted, what happens next?

With some kinds of claims — singular instances, for example, or non-physical offenses — an accused harasser may be sent to training or put on suspension. But after that, they can sometimes return to work.

Much of the aftermath depends on how the company handles that initial incident, as well as any that came before it, and whether the employer has an explicit policy on harassment, or just figures it out as the need arises.

"I can't emphasize how much the organization sets the tone," says Elissa Perry, professor of social-organizational psychology at Columbia University. "People often like to talk about harassment as though it's only between two people ... the context is so important to understand what dynamic will play out when this person returns."

Related: The ways companies silence women at work

Caroline, a theater employee who preferred not to use her last name, experienced harassment on the job, but not by someone she worked with on a daily basis. He was there temporarily, working a festival. But during that time there were several incidents that made her uncomfortable — "lascivious" comments and unwanted physical contact, like one time when he grabbed her and lifted her off the ground.

She decided to make a complaint, but her supervisors offered her a deal: she could take the days off, with pay, and avoid seeing him while he worked the rest of the festival.

At first, she considered it. But something about the arrangement felt unjust.

"It wasn't that he was taken out of the workplace, it was me that was taken out," she says. "I enjoyed that job. You meet other theater people. Missing out on work was missing out on opportunities to meet new people."

At workplaces that cycle harassers in and out of the normal workflow, however, employees may experience feelings of fear or resentment toward their employer. Those emotions can be felt by all employees, not just targets of harassment, Perry says.

When Caroline told her sister about the situation, she said they agreed she should still go to work. Her bosses placed her in another position, where she wouldn't have to interact with him as frequently — but he still walked by her often.

Phyllis G. Hartman, owner of PGHR Consulting in Pennsylvania who previously served on the Society for Human Resources Management's ethics panel, says she always asked the targets of the harassment what they would like to see happen after an investigation. Some companies will assign the person who made the complaint to a new role, team or department, but Perry says it's often more helpful to instead move the harasser.

"The burden for accommodation shouldn't be on the victim, if she's found to be the person legitimately who was mistreated — and it's usually a she," Perry says. "It shouldn't be completely on that person, and an organization that is less tolerant and more aware and more inclusive should understand that."

Related: The link between the gender wage gap and sexual harassment

Too often, Hartman says, human resources will receive a complaint, hand out the punishment and even make plans for a harasser's return, without updating the original target of the harassment.

"I think it's very important to get back to the victim and say, 'Look, you came to us. We investigated. We discovered various things,'" she says. "You want to assure them that action has been taken, because I think if you don't do that, the individual always wonders and thinks maybe nothing happened."

Now months removed from the incident, Caroline says she talks to others about her experience: what happened, and what she wishes had happened differently.

"Now I'm always like 'Girls! Advocate for yourselves in the workplace,'" she says. "I'm more outspoken about it now. I call it out where I work now."

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