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I’ve witnessed sexual harassment, what should I do?

“My teammate has been making inappropriate advances to a young colleague. She clearly feels cornered and doesn’t dare stand up for herself. Should I do something?”

This is an understandable reaction: faced with sexual harassment, we’re not sure how to react. Is it really my business? Won’t I look like a trouble-maker? Isn’t it up to them to sort it out among themselves? Maybe it’s not such a big deal, maybe I’m blowing it out of proportion?

Sexual harassment is any behaviour towards people, based on their gender, that is perceived as offensive, disrespectful or unwelcome. It can take various forms, such as sexual remarks or advances, threats or inappropriate physical contact.

If we witness sexual harassment, we can take action at various levels, depending on several factors, particularly how high up we are in the Organization and how removed or involved we are.

For instance, we might speak up immediately, as the incident is occurring: “I saw what you just did and I don’t think your behaviour is acceptable.” You need a certain degree of authority and distance to be able to intervene so directly.

Another option is to confront the person responsible one to one, straight after the incident: “I saw what you just did. How do you think that made our colleague feel?”

We can also offer the victim support: “I saw what just happened to you. Are you OK?”, and remind them about the CERN support services that are there for them.

As a last resort, we can report the behaviour in question to management or human resources. But, even if we think we’re doing the right thing, we need to be careful not to go against the victim’s wishes. It might be hard for us to understand, but sometimes they might prefer to wait before doing anything.

Although the main victim of sexual harassment is obviously the person on the receiving end of the inappropriate behaviour, the situation also has other harmful effects, particularly on the team: the atmosphere becomes toxic and the morale and health of the whole team suffer. That’s why it’s best for those who witness sexual harassment to take action wherever possible, as appropriate to the circumstances.

If you need advice on how to proceed, check the CERN's Response Channels.

Pierre Gildemyn

If you’d like to comment on any of my articles or suggest a topic that I could write about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Ombuds@cern.ch.