Ask Addi P: When Should I Report Sexual Harassment?

Reporting Sexual Harassment

Dear Addi,

I was working late and saw a supervisor trying to kiss an employee. She looked uncomfortable, avoided the advance, then walked away. I'm uncomfortable reporting sexual harassment to HR, especially when it doesn't involve me. But I also feel like there may be something improper going on. What should I do?

— Dilemma in Dallas

Dear Dilemma,

That would be awkward, and you are asking the right questions. Since I don't know much about the people and organization involved, I can't give you a straightforward simple answer. It looks like we are dealing with a supervisor and an unwanted sexual advance toward a subordinate. So, it's important to take what you saw seriously and be concerned.

The first thing to consider is whether it is sexual harassment. The EEOC explains:

It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include "sexual harassment" or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex.

I don't know how well you know the people involved or the larger context of what you observed. Some of the possibilities are that it may have been a single event that was resolved when she indicated she was not interested. It may be a consensual relationship that was having a difficult moment. Or it may be that this supervisor is sexually harassing this person and perhaps other employees. What you observed, and the possibility that it was sexual harassment, makes it important to find out more.

Start with the employee who was involved. Find a time and place where you can speak in confidence, tell her what you saw and that you were concerned for her. If she tells you she was uncomfortable or is having problems, lend support. Also, let her know that you both need to let HR know what's going on.

If it seems like an isolated incident, she is not upset or worried, and she doesn't want you to report it, then you have a dilemma. Employers have a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of sexual harassment, which means that employees, especially anyone with supervisory responsibilities, need to let the organization know when there is a situation involving potential sexual harassment. Even if one person sees it as an isolated instance, there may be more involved. So, while it's often easier and more comfortable to let it go, silence can mean that it will happen again. Use your best judgment about whether the conduct was sexual harassment. At the very least, write down exactly what you saw, who was involved and the details of your conversation with dates and times so you have a record in case it was not a one-time event and the issue comes up again.

In this case, you saw a supervisor try to kiss a subordinate and that the advance was unwelcome. I would suggest that you let someone know. If you are uncomfortable talking to HR, at least go to your own supervisor. Some organizations offer anonymous reporting hot lines and other processes that can make it easier to let the organization know about your concerns.

Any victim of sexual harassment or person reporting sexual harassment is protected by law against retaliation for bringing the conduct or situation to the attention of the organization. And most HR and legal departments are sensitive, caring and will do their best to keep the matter confidential during any investigation. So, while reporting sexual harassment can be uncomfortable, it's the only way to address the problem and work toward change.

In short, when in doubt, say something.

Take care,

Addi P.

Addi P. is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and not legal, accounting or tax advice. The information and services ADP provides should not be deemed a substitute for the advice of a professional who can better address your specific concern and situation. Any information provided here is by nature subject to revision and may not be the most current information available on the subject matter discussed.

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