What does a Survivor-Centered Approach to Workplace Harassment Look Like?

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

Since #MeToo become a mainstream movement over a year ago, followed by the revelations of disgraceful abuse that sparked #AidToo in the international aid and development sector, companies and organizations have been frantically trying to figure out what to do to address harassment at work. There have been CEO pledges, events, panels, reports, and articles. And yet one such report, written by an informal group of women aid workers who went rogue and sent out their own survey of other women aid-workers, found that 75% of respondents from 8 UN agencies and 18 international non-governmental organizations do not trust their organization to keep women staff members — and women and girls who benefit from humanitarian aid and development — safe.

Reckoning with the reality

The reality is that in order to stop harassment at work, most organizations will have to reckon with a deeply rooted organizational culture that centers the needs of the organization (particularly its perceived liabilities) and those in positions of authority over the people who have been harmed. Visible and invisible hierarchies of power are pervasive in our society and that does not stop with our institutions.

Visible power hierarchies are formalized into our institutions through chains of command and concentrations of money and buying power with the people at the top. These power hierarchies create the space for harassment and abuse to fester, particularly when power goes unchecked, which is why transparent systems of accountability that give power to people lower on the chain of command are so important.

Invisible power hierarchies are tricky because we often don’t know they are there, especially for those who are affiliated with the dominant group. The inequalities stemming from social identities — such as gendered identities (man, woman, non-binary) and racial identities (white, black, brown, and various shades in between) — result in invisible power hierarchies. Many organizational cultures perpetuate these hierarchies by ignoring them and pretending they aren’t there.

Visible and invisible hierarchies of power reinforce each other, which is why we have a global economy and political system where people who are cisgender, able-bodied, white, and male are more likely to be CEOs, billionaires, and high-level politicians.

Why report harassment if you have no power?

Studies from the United States show that 71% of women do not report sexual harassment. Further, 75% of women who do report incidences of harassment experience retaliation — a backlash against them for speaking out, which is illegal but still pervasive. Survivors and victims are not going to come forward if they do not think they will be helped, supported, and listened to by people in power. And if survivors and victims don’t come forward, harassment will continue.

To get survivors and victims to come forward, you need policies that will support them and reporting processes that they are comfortable using.

You need an organizational culture that encourages self-awareness of our own power and privilege — and empathy for how that may harm others.

You need to designate financial and human resources to getting victims the support, healing, and protection that they need, want, and deserve.

You need to be transparent about the incidences of harassment and how your company handled them to show that you take it seriously.

You need a way for the people who have institutionally less power in an organization to hold the people at the top accountable to their responsibilities as leaders.

In other words, throughout each of these stages, your organization must prioritize the needs and voices of survivors and victims. This is a survivor-centered approach.

Centering the people who are most impacted

I use the terms survivor and victim interchangeably because both words are true. As Mary Koss and Mary Achilles say in their study about restorative justice responses to sexual assault, the term ‘survivor’ brings a sense of empowerment to someone who has been exploited while the term ‘victim’ embodies the outrage that they and their communities rightfully feel.

Image by Cynara Development Services LLC

A survivor or victim-centered approach to addressing workplace harassment prioritizes the needs of the person who has experienced harm. It gives them a voice at every stage of the prevention and response process.

It also recognizes that a person can experience harm even if the offender did it unintentionally. It recognizes that the impact of an action is more important than the intent of the person who acted.

It gives power to the person who was harmed, flipping and equalizing the power dynamic that harmed them in the first place. Ultimately, identity- or vulnerability-based harassment (i.e., sexual, gendered, racial, age, etc.) is about the exploitation of power, whether knowingly or not.

Survivor-centered approaches should allow the victim to make decisions about the processes that influence and affect them, including the extent to which they want to be involved — if at all — in an investigation about the claim and consequences for offenders.

Finally, a survivor-centered approach does not ignore the needs or rights of the accused offender. It does not simply render them powerless. They, too, deserve to have a voice and say about what happens next, but not in a way that will cause further harm to the victim.

Where to begin?

To many of us in the aid and development community, CEO pledges have felt largely empty, in part because they are commitments to do something they were supposed to be doing anyway, with no indication of how they would make tangible changes to their organizational culture, practices, policies, and systems of accountability.

But CEOs are not entirely to blame. Our sector — like many others — lacks a blueprint for how to make meaningful change toward survivor-centered responses to harassment. Organizations don’t know where to begin because they don’t even know the scope of the problem. They lack data, information and a strategy for going forward.

After spending the last year working with clients, researching survivor-centered approaches, learning about restorative justice, and engaging with other experts in the field, I’ve drafted a blueprint for what a survivor-centered approach could look like at four different levels of an organization’s harassment prevention and response process: organizational culture, allocation of resources, reporting and investigative policies, and accountability. Specific markers of a survivor-centered approach in these categories are outlined in the image below.

Institutions can start by taking stock of where they are on each of these markers.

For example, to what extent are your company’s values clear about expectations for workplace behaviors and how their impact bears more weight than the intent? To what extent does your organization collect data about harassment through anonymous reporting channels to understand the scope of the problem? If you have data, what does it tell you?

Once you are aware of the extent of the problem, you can chart your path forward, centering the people who are most impacted — and likely to be impacted — by harassment. Bring them on as partners as you develop and implement your strategy. And let go of some of your power.

Lindsey Jones-Renaud is the Owner and Principal Consultant with Cynara Development Services. I choose to share my identities because they influence how I understand and experience harassment; I am a woman who is white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied and a United States citizen.