Sexual Abuse in the
Workplace: Helping a Coworker Overcome a Traumatic Experience
By Arny Alberts
You have been informed that a coworker in your workplace has
recently suffered through a serious trauma in their personal life.
The details of their sexual abuse case were reported on the local
news the night before and appear in several newspapers today.
Further information concerning this individual was sent via e-mail
by the company human resources department. The ensuing gossip around
the water cooler led to a meeting with your manager and coworkers to
discuss the current situation. An online web search provides the
detailed scenario right at your desktop of all the events that took
place. There is no doubt that questions and concerns about this
individual come into the thoughts of the entire workforce in your
company. What happened to them? What are they going through? Are
they coming back to work?
departments have documented processes and programs to deal with
internal issues that affect personnel in the work place. Even if an
employee’s personal problems overlap in to the work environment,
such as traumatic experiences, human resource departments work to
provide assistance to every employee. But, if there are few or no
precedents, dealing with an employee’s sexual abuse could pose
unforeseen problems. The steps to take for the individual can look
great on paper, but what will actually happen when they return to
the work place? What do you say upon your first encounter? Has
anyone told you specifically how to handle the situation? When you
see them from a distance, what will your initial reaction be?
experiences, witnesses or hears about trauma in their everyday life.
Trauma typically results from shocking experiences such as a death
in the family, fire that destroys a home, natural disasters or
serious injury from a traffic accident. But, trauma can also impact
someone in a series of mental, physical or emotional experiences
that span over time. When these experiences are brought into the
workplace, there are dealt with by employees in a variety of
different ways. Just because you experience or witness trauma, it
does not make you an expert in dealing with your coworkers’ trauma.
Here are some suggestions to follow:
If you know your coworker has been through a traumatic experience,
the only wrong decision to make here is not communicating when they
return to the office. Communication becomes a simple choice of right
versus wrong. The right decision is to communicate in any way or
option available to you at the time. Communicate in a way that you
can emotionally handle – but communicate. The effected individual
will acknowledge the attempt even though their own emotions may
inhibit any sustainable response. The fearful emotions mounting from
their return to work can quickly escalate into isolation if some
form of communication is not attempted. The KISS (Keep It Short and
Simple) method might work best here, not attempting too much at
once. The short list below provides a few types of communication
If you meet
up with this person unexpectedly in the workplace, start a
simple conversation about anything generic or non-specific. Let
them know that you are approachable and listen to them if they
decide to talk. Remember, they have taken a large step coming
into the work place and an even larger one even speaking to
another person. The initial conversations will most likely not
deal with their recent trauma, but the success and honesty will
open them up for future, deeper conversations with you or other
A personalized note with some words that tell this person you
are thinking of them and the recent struggle they have been
through. Let them know you are available if they want to talk
and you have their best interests in mind.
let this individual know you really care about them. The sound
of a person’s voice goes a long way when someone feels insecure
or upset. If they choose to talk and open up, listen and let
them share their experience.
If you can’t communicate anything other than a simple smile at
the time, do so. One warm smile could make a difference and give
this individual the strength to come back to work the next day.
Follow Your Heart:
matter what form of communication you decide to choose, follow your
heart as you proceed. Remember this individual is the same person
you knew before their trauma was disclosed. Be honest and sincere.
You may not be able to empathize, but listening and being yourself
will help bring their life back to normal. If fear prevents you from
taking action, imagine what this individual is going through each
day now that they have reentered the workplace.
Internet or library for information about the type of trauma your
coworker has endured. Gaining knowledge and understanding of what
they went through, what they are currently going through and what
could happen to them in the future will help to eliminate the fear
of initiating communication.
Relaying a similar
traumatic experience with a coworker will not relieve their
problems. But it will provide some sense of hope for their future.
When you show your human, vulnerable side you send a clear message
to them that they are not alone. They are not alone in what they
experienced, and they are not alone in the workplace. A single
display of confidence from another person who has suffered will
provide them with the belief they will eventually recover.
Listen /Don’t Try
a situation when this person decides to open up and discuss some of
their personal, traumatic experiences with you, just listen. Let
them talk and get any part of the story off their chest. This person
is not looking for suggestions to cope with what happened or ideas
to help them resolve any lingering issues. They desperately need
human contact; they want to trust someone and they are attempting to
make an earnest connection with you. A conversation with this person
could easily make you feel uncomfortable or uneasy; you might want
to end it just as quickly as it began. But listen, you must realize
you have been elevated above coworker status, you are their friend
and you need to act like one.
Sexual abuse is
becoming a highly visible topic in our world today. Each day new
cases are reported through local television stations and in
newspaper articles. Doctors, therapists, well- known and first time
authors write books about their individual sexual abuse experiences
throughout our country. It is disheartening to see how widespread
this problem stretches. So many families across the United States
are affected by sexual abuse in one way or another. Not only are
families struggling to deal with the effects of sexual abuse, so is
the business world. Every business must decide how to deal with
sexual abuse victims in their workplace. Every coworker must decide
how they are going to communicate – no decision, no communication.
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