Sexual harassment and “he said/she said”

Written by Bob Rose and Robyn Porterfield:

Organizational psychologists are often asked to look at sexual harassment cases. It is hard to imagine that any business today does not recognize the need to deal with sexual harassment at work.  Nevertheless, there are still companies that feel that sexual harassment cases are largely insoluble if there are no witnesses; they think this makes the situation “he said/she said.” (Harassment is not always male against female but it quite frequently is, thus our use of he/she in this article). Industrial Psychology Expert Witnesses will find this article useful.

This apparent lack of an easy solution makes some companies feel either powerless (or in some cases “off the hook”) about situations lacking witnesses.  This powerlessness is unfortunate because, as Dzeich and other researchers point out, some harassers act out only when alone with the victim — insuring that there will be a lack of witnesses in some cases.

This powerlessness is a misconception; many legal scholars (citations available on request) – and the EEOC – say that a lack of witnesses is not the end of the investigation.

“For example, the fact that there are no eye-witnesses to the alleged harassment by no means necessarily defeats the complainant’s credibility, since harassment often occurs behind closed doors.”  (EEOC guidance on vicarious employer liability for unlawful harassment by supervisors, 1999).

The same document says credibility factors of the person alleging harassment include not only witnesses but such common sense factors as: does allegation sound believable? Does the person seem to be telling the truth? Does the person have a reason to lie? What is the past record of the alleged harasser?

Businesses should have a clear policy against harassment of any kind.  If there are incidents they should react quickly, forcefully and thoroughly.  Simply asking the alleged victim “do you have any witnesses?” is the first of what should be many steps.

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