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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?

Human resource 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?  

Each person 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:

Communicate: 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 media:

  • Verbal: 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 coworkers.   

  • Card/E-card/E-mail/Written Letter: 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.   

  • Phone Call: 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.

  • Warm smile: 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: No 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.

Find Facts: Search the 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.

Share an Experience: 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 Fixing: During 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.

Read other articles and learn more about Arny Alberts.

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