H4: Communicating with victims of harassment
Appropriate communication with a harassment reporter should focus on two areas: first, appropriate communication style, and second, appropriate information and expectation sharing.
One of the most important things to remember when you are communicating with someone who reports suffering harassment is that harassment is, by design, intended to intimidate and upset. As a result, you will likely be addressing someone who is frightened, angry, hurt, or a combination of all three. Most reporters will have had to gather their courage to reach out to you for help. They may be worried that they will receive a dismissive response. Whatever the merits of the report itself, you can go a long way toward making the reporter feel safer than they may have feared simply by approaching it, and the reporter, with empathy.
What makes communication empathetic? The English Wiktionary defines "empathy" as "identification with or understanding of the thoughts, feelings, or emotional state of another person". Your goal in empathetic communication is to signal to the victim that you understand that this is a stressful and/or frightening situation for them, and that you are approaching it from that perspective.
Some ways to communicate empathy will involve your choice of words and phrases. Try to use language that shows you approaching the report with concern and attention, like:
- "I understand"/"could you help me understand" – Try your best to let the reporter know that you are not just reading the words they wrote, but rather are truly trying to grasp the situation. If the initial report is clear and thorough, show them that you understand their situation. If you need to ask questions to get a handle on the situation, don't hesitate to ask them – but ask them in a way that communicates "seeking to understand" rather than skepticism or doubt about the report.
- "That must be (frightening/hurtful/etc)" or "I see that you are (frightened/hurt/etc)" – Active listening is an important skill in these situations. Your communications to the victim should indicate that you understand why they felt it necessary to reach out to you.
Avoid using words and phrases that indicate skepticism or disinterest, like:
- "I disagree" – remember that they are reporting the situation to you as they understand it. Negative assertions and disagreement won't help you understand the situation better, and may lead the reporter to believe you are not here to help. (See section on responding to non-actionable reports if, after review, you believe they are misunderstanding or misrepresenting the situation.)
- "Nothing we can do" – there certainly will be cases where you cannot take action. However, there is a difference between simply shrugging and saying "nothing I can do", and offering things like advice or alternative routes forward. Even if a situation does not call for administrative attention, you may be able to help the reporter with suggestions of other venues for them to try, new communication strategies, or referrals to support organizations.
- "(Harasser) (is a long-term editor/is respected by the community/has no history of this)" – Sometimes harassers have a good reputation on their project; often it is others relying on this reputation that allows them to operate for as long as they do in ways that would lead to anyone else being sanctioned. It is important not to offer opinions on the person accused of harassment, and focus instead on the reported behaviour or actions.
Sharing information and managing expectations
Though your communications to the victim should be empathetic, as described above, remember that the investigation is your responsibility, not the victim's. For the privacy and safety of all parties, it is neither desirable nor appropriate to actively involve victims in the actual investigation or communications about the investigation, although you should, of course, make sure you have the full details of their complaint. You should be prepared to set reasonable expectations with the victim about what information they will receive and when they will receive it.
- Offer the victim as concrete a timeline as possible. Your goal should be to let them know what to expect. While you will never be able to promise them a certain result or a certain closure date, you should be able to give them a sense of the projected progress of their investigation. Consider whether you can offer the reporter a "check in" date.
- Alert them to any substantial delays that may alter the timeline you offered. Remember that while, to you, this may be one of a dozen active cases, to the victim it is likely a much higher (and more emotional) priority. Sudden, unexpected silence or lack of apparent progress will feel much more alarming to them than you might expect it to.
- Contact the victim in a timely manner to request any additional information your investigation requires. Particularly when an investigation involves multiple people, small delays can compound – someone will be away for a week, someone else's internet will go down for two days, and rarely will everyone be able to attend to a case at the same time; try not to add to that by putting off simple steps like asking an important question.
- Overshare. Again, this will be an emotional situation for the victim, and you may be tempted to err on the side of giving them as much information as you can. Remember, though, that the victim is not a neutral or confidential party, and an alleged harasser does not lose their right to privacy simply by being reported. Additionally, while an investigator must review evidence carefully to avoid reaching a false conclusion, seeing that rational evaluation unfold may distress reporters.
- Make promises you may not be able to keep. While you may wish to reassure a victim with "I promise we will stop this behavior" or "You will have an answer by Tuesday", such a reassurance will backfire if you then prove unable to follow through with it. Know your limits, both in time and in your role.
Keeping yourself safe: your personal information
People who work on harassment complaints can become targets themselves and have their names and communications spread on the internet. When communicating with both the reporting party and the accused, use some simple rules to protect yourself.
- Realize that anything you write may be shared or "leaked" publicly. Think about how your words could be taken out of context, or used against you, as you write.
- For communications, consider using a separate email address, one that does not give personal details in the address name.
- Do not give personal details in your communications. Sometimes it is tempting to give personal experiences to empathize with victims (e.g. "I saw a very similar situation when I worked at my campus help center in Mumbai"), but you need to protect your own privacy.
Keeping yourself safe: your emotional well-being
Try to remember that while empathy is valuable, over-empathizing with a victim can make things more difficult for both you and them. If you connect too closely with the reporter, they may develop unrealistic expectations about what you can provide. You also risk exposing yourself to "secondary trauma", where you begin to experience the same negative effects as victims do. This will limit your ability to help people long-term and could lead to recurring psychological problems in the future.
Be realistic to yourself about what you can and cannot do, and realize that some distance and barriers will help you perform your role better. You can't solve all problems by yourself!