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Street Harassment

Do employers have a responsibility to protect their employees during their commute? HR Daily Advisor editor Stephen Bruce talks with “Stop Street Harassment” author Holly Kearl in the latest HR Compliance Corner video blog.


This is Steve Bruce for the HR Daily Advisor. Today we’re talking with Holly Kearl, a national street harassment expert based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been cited by the United Nations, BBC News, 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.

SB: Holly, what is the employer’s responsibility regarding street harassment – that is, harassment that workers face on their way to work or on their way home?

HK: Well Steve, employers don’t have any legal responsibility to address that sort of harassment, but I really think that if an employer cares about their employees and cares about retention and how comfortable employees are feeling and how productive they are in the office, that’s something that they should consider and possibly address. I’ve found in my research that about 1 in 10 women have said that street harassment has caused them to leave a job before, because they just got tired of getting harassed going to and from that location. Anecdotally, other women have said that a bad harassment experience on their way to work sort of leaves them not in a good position to do their work for a few hours. So, they’re not very useful to their employer in that state. I think that it’s certainly something that employers need to be cognizant of.

SB: We recently ran an article about this topic, and we had a number of responders, mostly women, who were incensed that the issue had even come up. They were saying ‘we don’t need special protection,’ ‘we’re grown-ups,’ ‘it’s patronizing to offer us this protection.’ What would you say to them?

HK: Sure. Certainly many women may not face harassment, or may feel very equipped to deal with harassment if they do face it. But these women have to understand that not every woman feels that way. If you think about young women who are just starting out on their first jobs, especially maybe women who have moved to a city for a job, they may not be used to the harassment. They may feel very upset and threatened by it. And I think that what companies can do is not target just women. Maybe there are men who feel harassed, possibly for other reasons, maybe because of their sexual orientation or their race. So I think that again, just being cognizant of what their employees may be facing during their commute could be beneficial to employers. That doesn’t mean providing special treatment for those employees. It could just mean something as simple as incorporating training, as employers do for workplace sexual harassment, incorporating and acknowledging that their employees may be facing harassment on the street and how should they deal with it, how can they deal with it, what are some assertive responses that they can give. And that can be gender neutral. That’s applicable to everyone. If some women and men feel like they don’t need that training, that’s fine, they don’t have to necessarily listen to it. But they do need to acknowledge that that could be very useful to other people.

SB: If employees feel uncomfortable, what do you recommend that they do?

HK: If employees are feeling uncomfortable during their commute – it depends on the circumstances and what’s happening, but having an assertive response is always a good idea if you feel safe with that. That can be as something as simple as telling the harasser ‘No, stop harassing me. Back up.’ I think a lot of times, especially women, are trained to be very polite, or to ignore the harasser. These sort of responses aren’t going to deter that harasser from harassing them again. Whereas responding with ‘Back off’ or ‘Leave me alone,’ something like that, should be more likely to deter them from harassing you again. They may not like it at first, but they probably won’t do it again. I think that certainly, depending on what sort of harassment is occurring, you can report it. If it is someone flashing or stalking or grabbing you, consider reporting that.

I think it’s also always good, if you feel comfortable engaging bystanders, to say ‘hey, this person is harassing me. I don’t feel ok about that. Let’s do something.’  Or yourself, as a bystander, being cognizant of what’s going on around you, and jumping in and helping someone, so that the environment sort of changes where harassment is not ok, and everyone is acknowledging that, and trying to address it.

SB: Thanks. Is there anything else in particular that you would add to help employers understand what they can do or how they should do it?

HK: I think that with some jobs, there may be more of a possibility for harassment than others, whether it’s during the commute or on the job. One recent example for the journalism world was journalist Lara Logan from CBS, who was sexually assaulted by a group of men in Egypt last January. What really struck me when Lara Logan spoke out was that she was not even aware that there was a big harassment problem in Egypt. While harassment is a global problem, it was really heightened in Cairo. There have been lots of recorded instances on video camera of men, groups of men, harassing and assaulting Egyptian women, especially during Eid, a festival in September. It just floored me that she had no briefing on this. I don’t think that this is something that women specifically need briefings on, but just generally, if a journalist is going somewhere where there is known harassment, known assaults of this nature, at least giving them some heads up about that, and some tips about what to do.

Another example, if there are jobs where women and men need to stay late for networking events, or just if they have late shifts and they may feel unsafe getting home, I think that it could be a great idea to offer carpool options, or the company will pay for a taxi service for the woman or man to go home, sort of getting creative about how to handle that so that people feel like they can stay for those events; they can stay for work and get home safely, but also so they don’t feel targeted as being weak. For example, I know that there have been women who’ve said ‘I’ll pay to drive and park, even though I only work two blocks from my house, just because I feel unsafe going home at night’ or ‘I have to wait for my husband,’ — especially maybe in the winter months when it gets dark earlier—‘and he’ll drive me home.’ I think that that’s very disempowering to feel like ‘I can’t even get home on my own.’ But if that’s just sort of an option, for a woman or a man employee to take advantage of, someone will feel less targeted, and that could be an option to help them stay on the job and to be productive and to move the company forward and to still be safe.

SB: Thanks very much for joining us today, Holly.

HK: Thank you, Steve.

SB: You can find out more about Holly’s work at www.hollykearl.com. This is Steve Bruce for the HR Daily Advisor.