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Sexual Assault in the Workplace: Compassion Trumps Credibility

Sexual assault in the workplace is a serious issue, an issue that has garnered a lot of extra attention as of late, with many big companies facing allegations and investigations right now. The media has been all over big brands in the last couple of months, for the stories of sexual assault happening among their employees or in the workplace.

In any case of sexual assault, it’s important to remember that there’s nothing rare about it, it’s how companies react to these allegations that can brand them as leaders or part of the problem.

FACT: sexual assaults are extremely common, 460,000 sexual assaults happen every year in Canada. Of that number, 33 out of every 1,000 sexual assault cases are reported to the police. Perhaps more importantly, only 2-4% of reported sexual assaults are determined to be false reports.

In understanding the statistics, companies should realize that in the majority of cases, these are very legitimate claims and need to be taken very seriously. However, some companies jump into PR mode when a sexual assault claim arises, and go on the defensive instead of putting their energy where it can be most effective—in care and compassion for the victim.

Brands are worried about losing credibility, but in going on the defensive, they end up hurting their business even more, and the victim too. A perfect example of this misstep, is what happened to Uber this past month. After a huge BuzzFeed investigative story was posted, it was unveiled that 6,000 complaints involving sexual assault were filed against Uber. Instead of going the compassion route, Uber posted a very defensive open letter on Medium, which proved only to cause more scrutiny towards the company, and re-traumatized the immense number of victims.

“Our analysis for all of these results shows five tickets that allege an actual rape occurred (0.0000009% of rides in the three years from December 2012 to August 2015) and 170 tickets with a legitimate claim of sexual assault (1 in every 3.3 million trips).” [Uber on Medium]

Needless to say, the response to the public concern over the high number of complaints, led to some serious scrutiny by many.

So Uber apparently thinks it’s okay to defend itself by announcing that only 1 in every 3.3 million passengers is sexually assaulted? Even if that number was 1 in every 3 billion, it would be one too many. Uber has an obligation as a company to ensure the safety of its passengers and to use figures like this as a form of defense is an insult to everyone who has ever reported such an incident. [The Next Web]

So how should a company react when a sexual assault claim is brought against their business or an employee?

  • Assure the person bringing forth the complaint that the matter is being seriously looked into. Walk them through the process and what will happen next, and be sure to offer support both on a professional level and through required HR resources or third-party resources (therapy, crisis lines, etc.).
  • Consult with your HR department and upper management on how to proceed with the situation internally and externally. Be sure to inform staff of the process occurring and provide the necessary support, as trauma can have a ripple effect within a workplace. The Government of Canada has some great resources on responding to trauma in the workplace, we also have additional resources on this on our website here.
  • In many cases, an external communication plan will be needed. If you don’t have the resources in-house, consult with both an HR and PR representative on how to address the situation publicly and with compassion and information.

If your company does not offer insurance-covered therapy with a certified trauma specialist, please check out our Therapy Grant Program for any employees dealing with the trauma associated with sexual assault. You can follow us on Twitter for more resources.

— Written by Amber Craig [Twitter]

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