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How you can help a colleague who's being sexually harassed

People who engage in sexual harassment often do so when no one else is around. Whether it's making an unwelcome advance or demanding sex in exchange for a raise or promotion, many harassers are careful to make sure that if the victim comes forward, they'll only have a "he said/she said" case.

However, sexual harassment can occur out in the open -- in an office, at an after-work social function or while colleagues are traveling. Harassers may not realize that this is what they're doing and that it's illegal. They may simply believe that no one will say anything -- particularly if they're in a position of authority.

There are strategies you can use immediately if you witness an instance of sexual harassment. The National Partnership for Women & Families recommends the following possibilities, depending on the situation:

Confront the harasser

You should do this only if you feel it's safe and won't escalate the situation. You should also be confident that the victim of the harassment wants help. Tell the harasser that their behavior is inappropriate and that they should stop it.

Interrupt or distract

Instead of confronting the harasser, focus on the victim. Ask them a question, start a conversation or call them away. This can put an end to the harassment, at least for the time being, and allow the person being harassed to get out of the situation without calling attention to the harassing behavior. If you don't feel comfortable or safe doing this, you may be able to find a colleague or supervisor to do so.

Whether you're able to put a stop to harassment in the moment or not, it's helpful to make some notes about what you witnessed. Before reporting the incident to anyone, talk to the person who was harassed. Let them know that you're there to support them, and tell the appropriate people what you witnessed if they want you to.

People who report sexual harassment that they've witnessed or support a colleague who has been harassed are protected under the law from workplace retaliation, just as victims who report harassment are. You can't be fired, denied a promotion or otherwise suffer because you spoke up about or reported the harassment of a co-worker. If you believe that you're the victim of retaliation, it may be wise to talk with an attorney who can help you protect your rights.

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