Determine quickly what the individual approaching you wants. Ask “What would you like me to do?” or, “How would you like me to help you?” This will help you avoid misunderstandings and clarify the person’s objective in approaching you. Respect his or her decisions and don’t impose what you think you would do under the same circumstances.
Be respectful. Do not dismiss the complaint as trivial; avoid telling the person to “grow a thicker skin” or saying that the alleged perpetrator “means well, but sometimes slips.” Although they may be intended to help, these comments can make the person feel discounted. Try to keep in mind that what may seem unimportant to you may be offensive or threatening to someone who has different life experiences or less power.
Acknowledge the courage needed to approach you and the difficulty of the situation. If the person cries, remember that tears have various meanings and are often a sign of frustration and anger in professional settings. Acknowledge the person’s emotions without labeling them, by saying something like: “This must be difficult for you.” Something as simple as handing the person a box of tissues can be helpful and also can serve to decrease your discomfort. Avoid asking the person to leave because he or she is in tears; instead, allow time for the person to regain composure.
Remember that the fear of retaliation is common among those who have been sexually harassed and is often the reason they do not bring complaints forward. Reassure the person and explain that the university has created a network of resources to assist in responding to harassment complaints. University policy operates in conjunction with federal and state laws to prohibit retaliation against complainants. Retaliation against persons who participate in an investigation or assist someone in making a complaint also is prohibited. The policy applies even when a complaint ultimately is not substantiated to a degree required by law.
Be neutral. Avoid comments such as, “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it” or, “Oh, she does that to everyone,” which may sound as if you are defending the accused. Also avoid comments such as, “Well, you’re so young and pretty” or, “You shouldn’t have been in the lab by yourself at night,” which may sound as if you are blaming the person confiding in you.
If you elect to support the person, you should not feel obligated to follow the matter through to its final conclusion. If you become uncomfortable with your involvement at any time, acknowledge your discomfort and let the person know that you are sorry but you cannot continue in the support role. Acknowledge how difficult it must be for him or her and encourage the person to consult a campus resource to receive appropriate assistance.
If the person asks you to contact a campus resource, be sure you understand whether you are free to mention his or her name, or other identifying information such as the department or the alleged harasser’s name, before you approach the campus resource for assistance.
It is generally best for all persons involved and for the effectiveness of any investigation into the matter if confidentiality is maintained. You should not discuss the situation with anyone unless the person has the authority to assist in the investigation or resolution of the matter.
Remember that conversations between a faculty or staff member and another individual are not privileged communication and can be elicited in the course of legal or administrative proceedings that might ensue.