Sexual Harassment – When Is The Right Time to Speak Out?

Posted on January 29, 2018. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The question about when to speak out is not the central issue of sexual harassment. The central question should be Why does sexual harassment still happen? and the What can be done to prevent it? Answering the second of those central questions is a two part process in my view, but I digress.

Like me you’ve probably seen a lot of comments about speaking out about sexual harassment. It snowballed from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey and in Australia Don Burke, Robert Doyle  and Craig McLachlan.  Some sources have been praising  celebrities and others have been praising the women who are speaking out. But not all comments are positive.There has been criticism of the accusers about why they waited so long. There has been criticism of the celebrities and managers now speaking out despite remaining silent at the time it was all going on.

And this is what I want to write about. When is the right time to speak out?

This post has been a long time coming – news broke about Harvey Weinstein back in October 2017. I admit that I have thought long and hard about this post because it is important to be able to discuss a contentious topic in a way that inspires reflection and change rather than a keyboard war. (Hint – it takes time to find the right words to express both your message and sentiment – perhaps what victims of harassment are trying to do)

What is the right time for a victim to report?

The right time will vary but it will only be be when the person feeling harassed feels comfortable and safe to speak out. OR when the person reaches that tipping point where they have to report it  (yes sexual harassment happens to men as well as women and many of our trans gender community have experienced it too. #metoo covers a lot of people). Comfort and safety are created within an individual (also called empowerment) as well as by the environment (an abuse of power is typically behind sexual harassment rather than sexual gratification)

Ideally anyone who feels they are being harassed or bullied will speak out at the time and to the person behaving inappropriately. That could be in many forms, but it needs to be clear in making the point that the behaviour is unwanted and inappropriate. Instances where an imbalance of power and influence exists (such as a senior manager and a junior employee or an actor auditioning for a well established film producer) re usually intimidating in their own right and it’s rare that the behaviour will be “called out” in the moment. Then we also have the impact of shock.

A colleague of mine who is a talented photographer especially of live music was subject to harassing comments and stares from two patrons at a recent gig. She was shocked and taken aback to the point where she was unable to speak in the moment. The two walked off and she did too. Later she felt angry at herself for not saying anything at the time. Many of us have offered supportive comments recognising that shock may have stolen her words in that moment and that she needs to be kind to herself.

What about the enablers?

These are the people who:

  • witness harassment yet say nothing
  • know what is happening and do nothing
  • subtly (or overtly) support the harasser (have you ever heard a phrase like “But Pat is our best sales rep, surely we can’t risk our sales results by taking action on this complaint?”
  • tell a person who mentions that they feel intimidated or harassed to “suck it up” or to “be mature about it”

Enablers are perhaps the greatest untapped resource that can prevent harassment and protect high quality interactions.

What are the top 3 things that we can do?

  1. Stop looking to place blame
  2. Investigate thoroughly and impartially
  3. Assess the environment to understand how such behaviour was allowed to happen

We must avoid taking a “side” to either support for the victims/accusers or criticise  their timing. When serious allegations are made they must be investigated. When questions are asked about why accusers and observers/witnesses/enablers remain silent they need to be answered. The two lines of inquiry can be concurrent. In fact they must be concurrent if we are to maintain a grip on the central issue of dealing with and preventing harassment and abuse of power.

What should we look out for?

There are many signs and signals – too many to go into here however these would be my  top two suggestions.

1. Sadly false allegations are made – some of them due to a genuine misunderstanding and miscommunication, but others are deliberately made. Let’s not assume that all allegations are fake. Every allegation must be treated seriously, investigated and any action taken must be based on the evidence and the outcome of the investigation.

2. Changes in the level of performance or mood of an individual. Quite often a person who feels harassed will withdraw and their work will suffer. Others try to work even harder and more to prove their worth and overcome the situation that way)


My work in HR and with clients sometimes involves me in investigating workplace allegations and creating plans of action after an investigation has concluded. The majority of my work is, thankfully, with forward thinking clients who engage me to assist them to prevent environments where inappropriate behaviour can develop or survive. This is the best place to start changing the timing of when victims of inappropriate behaviour speak out. If you would like to talk more about this topic please email



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