HR Management & Compliance

How to Respond to a Harasser? 10 Things to Say

“How should I respond to a harasser?” is a question I’m often asked when I give talks about sexual harassment that occurs in public spaces,” says Holly Kearl. In today’s Advisor, she shares specifics of what to say to harassers.

Kearl, a program manager for the AAUW, is a national street harassment expert based in the Washington, D.C. area. Her work has been cited by the United Nations, the BBC News, The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, Ms. magazine, and ABC News. She is the author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women.

Here are Kearl’s suggestions for dealing with harassers:

Unfortunately, there is no one “best” way to respond to sexual harassment in every circumstance, in either public places or the workplace. Harassed persons must decide for themselves based on what is happening, where, and by whom, which response will make them feel both safe and empowered.

However, the more informed people are about options for responding, the better they can be at making that decision.

Most people know how to ignore or avoid a harasser, but many may not know how to have an assertive response. Learning assertive responses is very important because those are often the most effective kind for holding the harasser accountable for his or her actions and deterring future harassment and because it usually feels empowering to the harassed person.

To expand your repertoire of options for responding to harassers, here are five suggestions for how to talk to one and 10 ideas for what to say. These suggestions are informed by former DC Rape Crisis Director and anti-sexual harassment trainer and author Martha Langelan, Defend Yourself founder Lauren R. Taylor, and sexual harassment expert and “godmother of Title IX,” Dr. Bernice Sandler.  (We’ll have two stories about people who successfully stopped harassment in tomorrow’s Advisor.).

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Five Suggestions for How to Talk to a Harasser

  1. Use strong body language. Look the harasser in the eyes; speak in a strong, clear voice. Show assertiveness and strength through your voice, facial expressions, and body language.
  2. Project confidence and calm. Even if you do not feel that way, it is important to appear calm, serious, and confident.
  3. Do not apologize, make an excuse, or ask a question. You do not need to say sorry for how you feel or what you want. Be firm.
  4. You do not need to respond to diversions, questions, threats, blaming, or guilt-tripping. Stay on your own agenda. Stick to your point. Repeat your statement or leave.
  5. Decide when you’re done. Success is how you define it. If you said what you needed to say and you’re ready to leave, do so.

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Ten Ideas for What You Can Say to a Harasser

  1. Name the behavior and state that it is wrong. For example say, “Do not whistle at me, that is harassment,” or “Do not touch my butt, that is sexual harassment.”
  2. Tell them exactly what you want. Say, for example, “move away from me,” “stop touching me,” or “go stand over there.”
  3. Make an all-purpose anti-harassment statement, such as: “Stop harassing people. I don’t like it. No one likes it. Show some respect.” Speak it in a neutral but assertive tone.
  4. Turn what they say or do around into a joke or make a clever statement in response. A woman in France was grabbed by a man with his friends on a street corner. When she turned around and said, “Congratulations, is that the first time you’ve ever touched a woman?” his friends laughed at him and none of the men ever bothered her again when she saw them in the future.
  5. Use an A-B-C statement (and be very concrete about A and C): Tell the harasser what the problem is; state the effect; and what you want. Here is an example: “When you make kissing noises at me it makes me feel uncomfortable. I want you to say, ‘Hello, ma’am,’ from now on if you want to talk to me.”
  6. Identify the perpetrator: “Man in the yellow shirt, stop touching me.” (This is especially useful if other people are nearby).
  7. Attack the behavior, not the person. Tell them what they are doing that you do not like (“You are standing too close”) rather than blaming them as a person (“You are such a jerk”).
  8. Use the “‘Miss Manners’ Approach” and ask the harasser something like, “I beg your pardon!” or “I can’t believe you said that,” or “You must have me confused with someone to whom you think you can speak that way,” combined with facial expressions of shock, dismay, and disgust.
  9. Ask a Socratic question such as, “That’s so interesting – can you explain why you think you can put your hand on my leg?”
  10. Buy a notebook and write in bold letters on the cover “Sexual Harassment.” Take out the notebook when you are harassed and ask the harasser to repeat him/herself so you can write it down. Make a big show of asking for the date, time, checking the place you are at, etc.

In tomorrow’s Advisor, two examples of harassment victims who followed these examples, plus an introduction to the most comprehensive HR website on the Internet.

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5 thoughts on “How to Respond to a Harasser? 10 Things to Say”

  1. Suggestions 3-5 on “How to Talk to a Harasser” are contrary to the principle of active listening. Any person who follows them is at least negligent in regard to the truth regarding the alleged harasser’s actions, and can (should!) be brought to court on slander charges if she is mistaken or if there has been a miscommunication.

  2. from yr advice you say use the best of suggestions, that is ok. harassing one is a disease. once one is caught in it his or her disease become chronic. that means there is deadly disease.
    Stern look may be okay if the harasser is afraid if star you make.
    powerful voice with which you shout that may unnerve
    so it is true you have to use the kind of actions that can cause or stir fear in harasser, may be your suggestions need to be tried before commenting after all one has to put that in real situation to check its effectiveness, depending upon the kind of harasser

  3. Maybe the haras “e”.someone hew is being harnessed return from one place heading to another mite no how to get help. He or she can stop and tell the person to stop being derogatory language. Idif it continue s. Info a eeco
    Violation has happened to it. Violated rights doing normal public hours. Just take civil action

  4. Well I would do the
    same let that person know how uncomfortable they are making me feel in if it condition then tell a supervisor or manager so that something could be done about it so the person that is the harasser want do this to someone else

  5. something else you maybe could do is let one of the co workers know what is happening so you want be left alone and the stock room with this person

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