Is making a formal complaint always ‘the right thing’ to do when you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment? What if it just makes a bad situation worse? Many of those who came to #metooNZ with their stories found the complaints process more damaging than the crime. Alison Mau investigates.

Emily’s story

Emily* decided to act when she realised the colleague who had been sexually harassing her for months had done the same to others in their office. The action she took, which felt so right at the time, led to a physical and mental decline. Eventually, she quit her job in despair.

The new job Emily had started with such optimism fell apart after the co-worker waged a campaign of harassment; in person, by email and over social media. He would ask for hugs, comment on her appearance, often talk about touching her.

“He used his position as my trainer and my friend to ask me inappropriate questions about my sex life, and if I would do (sexual) things for him. There were numerous emails, comments and physical touches that left me more than uncomfortable.”

One of the most common criticisms of the Me Too movement is that victims are merely “having a whinge”, rather than helping themselves by laying complaints through the proper channels.

The #metooNZ team found this to be largely a myth. Many survivors we talked to did complain, and most of those started with their employer’s official complaints process. They tried their best to “do the right thing”, and that’s where things started to really unravel.

Most saw formal action as very much a last resort, and Emily was no different - she did everything she could think of to defuse the situation herself. But she struggled to find a way to make the behaviour stop, without sparking all-out war with a person she had to work alongside every day.

When I shut it down, he would call it a joke. If I just didn’t respond I’d have multiple emails pressing the issues and accusing me of being a bad friend.

After eight months the toll was beginning to show.

“I started gaining weight, no longer taking care of myself, becoming socially withdrawn and struggling with my own mental health.”

She asked to be moved to another team, and things were better until she discovered others had been harassed by the same colleague, over the course of two years. Emily knew something needed to be said, and laid a formal complaint.

“I thought I was doing the right thing at the time - I struggle to consider whether I would again.”

Many New Zealanders who brought their stories to the #metooNZ team had already tried to “do the right thing” by laying formal complaints. Rather than a resolution, most found what followed brought them ongoing trauma. An actor voices Emily’s* story.

Many New Zealanders who brought their stories to the #metooNZ team had already tried to “do the right thing” by laying formal complaints. Rather than a resolution, most found what followed brought them ongoing trauma. An actor voices Emily’s* story.

Those who work in dispute resolution and training say the process often stumbles at the outset, thanks to a lack of effective processes, and simple human nature.

Most companies are keen to “tick the box” that shows they have a policy in place, says Jan Eggleton, who runs anti-harassment training through her business, Hardcases.

Jan Eggleton, an anti-harassment trainor at Hardcases.

Jan Eggleton, an anti-harassment trainer at Hardcases.

Jan Eggleton, an anti-harassment trainer at Hardcases.

“But then an actual case will be brought to a middle manager, who’s been promoted because they’ve been around forever, and they have no people skills, and they mess it up.”

The deeply personal nature of these kinds of complaints is also a roadblock, with managers at a loss to know how to act.

“Often the people at the top think ‘we have a safe culture’ but down in the weeds, managers and team leaders don’t know how to deal with this stuff - it’s awkward and embarrassing,” says employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg.

The Star Trek phenomenon

Eight weeks after laying her complaint, Emily was interviewed and repeatedly asked to justify her own actions. She was told not to talk to anyone else at work.

“There was never a discussion of safety and well-being while at work. Just that EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) was there for support.”

The #metooNZ team found this was common. Often the complainants were told to stay silent while investigations dragged on for months. In a number of cases they were sent home on leave while the alleged harassers stayed in their jobs. This was commonly done with good intentions - both employee and employer seizing upon leave as an opportunity to keep all parties safe - but would end up causing greater harm to the complainants. Upon returning to work, they would find colleagues treated them differently, as if they were marked, or tainted.

Dyhrberg, who was named Wellingtonian of the Year for her work on harassment issues, calls this the ‘red shirt on Star Trek’ phenomenon; the screen trope where the wearer of a red uniform is always the first to die.

“The person is marked out and people will avoid them,” she says.

Sometimes it’s just that awkwardness, that ‘I don’t know what to say, so I won’t say anything at all.’
Employment lawyer Steph Dyhrberg

“There is always stigma attached to whistle blowers. In my experience it’s the whistle blower who invariably leaves the organisation.”

Aroha* has come close to doing exactly that. She was sent home for a month after submitting a written complaint about ongoing sexual harassment from a colleague. Co-workers were told she was “away sick”, but when she returned, “the majority of staff were not talking to me at all.” She felt singled out and shunned. She’s wondered whether leaving her job altogether might have been easier.

It’s one of the reason victims sometimes choose not to complain, says Eggleton.

“Women in my experience don’t want to take a complaint, because A, they want to stay at work and B, they don’t want to cause a fuss for the harasser either because they have to work with that person.”

Left alone

In case after case we saw, victims of harassment said they felt abandoned and ignored as their complaint was investigated. They often pointed to an information vacuum as the one major source of trauma and re-victimisation.

“It takes courage to bring a complaint,” Eggleton explains.

“They sit at home and think: ‘If I don’t do something about it, my husband’s going to go down there with a baseball bat.’ And so they make this huge decision and then they get left in the dark.”

Dyhrberg, who regularly conducts harassment investigations, says this is “pastoral care” that needs to be handled better by the organisation involved.

“The process tends to be focused on the respondent’s natural justice rights, because they can sue if they are disadvantaged by a process that is not fair.

“Because they’re the ones in the hot seat, we tend to focus a bit too much on their rights and sometimes neglect the complainant’s need to know what’s going on.”

Policy does not necessarily equate to effective action, the experts warn.

Dyhrberg says law firm Russell McVeagh is a prime example. In emphasising its “zero tolerance policy” on harassment, it may have created an even worse issue for itself and its staff.

“That phrase gives the impression that everything’s going to a formal complaint, through a disciplinary process and someone is going to get punished.

“Most people don’t want some guy to lose their job over it, but zero tolerance gives the impression that, oh gosh if I report this they will come down on him like a tonne of bricks.”

Dyhrberg has been advocating for a “lower-level” approach where the range of possibilities starts with “a caring conversation with the person who raised the issue”.

She walked that talk herself, after being subject to inappropriate behaviour by a drunk colleague on the dance floor at a legal function.

“I rang the HR manager at his firm and said I’d like to meet with him and his manager, and they handled it really well.”

Companies need to be looking at other reporting methods, too. Dyhrberg is a fan of tech-based solutions that make it easy for complainants to log their issues in a genuinely anonymous way.

The investigation into Emily’s case found she had been harassed over an extended period of time.

But she was not permitted to know anything at all about what consequences he faced, if any.

It seemed like case closed, but Emily was given one promise of action - her workplace would be given sexual harassment training. Emily says she saw this as a win; one tangible outcome that might make a difference to others in her organisation.

Does training work?

Anti-harassment ‘training’ is common, at least in larger organisations. But it’s more often an online module to be completed by new hires, than a thorough and effective regime. The idea that a 20-minute, click-through online tool is sufficient to change hearts and minds is challenged by international research, which shows training needs to be several hours long and in-person, with an independent facilitator from outside the workplace to have any real effect.

This might sound like good news for training companies like Eggleton’s, which offer long-form, small group training - but there’s also research to suggest that any training may be futile in organisations where the whole culture needs to change fundamentally. Four hours of finger-wagging won’t work, but helping bystanders understand where they can step in, and teaching people what they can do to support a healthy workplace culture, might.

Emily waited for such a regime to be introduced for her colleagues, but nothing happened. Months later, after repeatedly asking management, she was told a mistake had been made - training should never have been offered as an outcome of the investigation.

“I was exhausted, furious, unstable and struggling to comprehend that everyone in a position to support me was not prepared to do so, or say that this situation was not okay,” she says.

She’s now conflicted about the Me Too movement; proud of those willing to stand up and hold people to account, but “petrified by the unknown consequences” of doing that herself.

I came out worse for wear for complaining, than if I had said nothing.

“It’s been years since this incident. I no longer consider the harassment itself as an issue that affects me. But the process and the effects of speaking out do.”

* Name changed

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Journalist: Alison Mau
Video producer/director: Jo Raj
Videographer: Phil Johnson
Kathryn George
Editor: John Hartevelt