How should ombuds refer to parties in sexual harassment cases?

By Chuck Doran and Megan Winkeler

As mediators, we know that words matter. As MWI expands our work into organizational ombuds services, this idea was recently reinforced. In a client meeting with a company’s sexual harassment committee, we discussed what words to use to name a person who brings forward a concern to the ombuds, as well as the person being named.

Typically, we would use “complainant” and “respondent,” or we might call them “accuser” and “accused.” However, both words frame the parties in a way that’s unhelpful in an ombuds process. An ombuds serves as an impartial dispute resolution practitioner who contributes independent, confidential, and neutral assistance to employees. Both of those terms are loaded with judgment, and it can set the wrong tone from the very start of the process. Using litigation-inspired terms by default misses an opportunity to promote a more effective ombuds process.

Barriers to Reporting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The word “complainant” can hold heavy weight for people bringing forward sexual harassment concerns. Ample research shows that many people, mostly women, refrain from reporting sexual harassment in the workplace – and for good reason. One study found that 75% of those who brought forward sexual harassment claims faced retaliation. Myriad anecdotes from women who have come forward with the #MeToo movement reflect this. Whether it is a disgruntled manager giving you less interesting assignments, a harsh performance review, or co-workers knowing you as the “sexual harassment person,” there are legitimate fears surrounding the reporting of sexual harassment complaints.

In a New York Times story about why women don’t report sexual harassment when it happens, one woman gives a perfect quote for why victims don’t want to be labeled “complainers”:

“[Reporting sexual harassment is] made into such a big deal that you have to make a decision: Do you want to ruin your career? Do you want this to be everything that you end up being about? … What you really want to happen is that it doesn’t happen again.”

Not only do victims just want the harassment to stop, but companies should as well given the cost of sexual harassment claims. In 2015 alone, the EEOC reports that employers paid out $125.5 million in cases filed with the Commission. This does not take into account cases settled through litigation, pre-litigation settlement, arbitration, or private mediation. In raw numbers, the cost is staggering. The resulting loss of human capital from failing to address sexual harassment in an organization is even more staggering. Victims of sexual harassment who could not or would not report incidents experience the psychological and physical symptoms of PTSD. The impact goes beyond the victim as well. Co-workers who witness sexual harassment, male and female alike, report lower well-being and higher rates of organizational withdrawal.

So the stakes are high, and the words we use have an impact on who reports sexual harassment and their satisfaction with the process. We want to relay to victims that reporting is an informal procedure, and their reports remain independent and confidential as long as they need it to be. Given that formal reporting is the least common response to sexual harassment in the workplace, offering an informal and confidential process increases the likelihood that victims will come forward with incidents.

Shifting From Blame to Impact

We also have an opportunity to separate intent from impact when naming those who are accused of harassment, allowing the ombuds to remain neutral and reducing the likelihood of retaliation based on the fear and stigma of being “accused.” By focusing the terminology on the perpetrator’s actions and the impact those actions had on the victim, the ombuds can focus their work on changing behaviors rather than placing blame, per se. This allows the perpetrator to feel less defensive and increases the likelihood that they will engage with the process. All of this helps to change toxic culture and behavior, which is the ultimate goal of the process.

Going back to the meeting we had with a company’s sexual harassment committee, one committee member had a great suggestion for how to describe “complainants” and “respondents.” She suggested that those who bring incidents to the ombuds be called “the impacted.” This focuses attention on what matters most in these cases – the impact the harassment has on the victim. It also signals to those experiencing harassment that the ombuds process is different than processes which names victims or complainants. It is less formal and focused on impact and action. Committee members also suggested to label the person who is accused of sexual harassment as “an actor.” This allows the ombuds process to appear more neutral, and it avoids immediately pre-judging the person who is named. This increases the likelihood that “the actor” will take part in the ombuds process and listen to what the impacted has to say.

What words do you think are most effective for an ombuds to use when describing those who bring forward an incident and the person they name? Let us know in the comments below.

Download MWI’s Free Article:  What to Consider When Selecting an Ombuds

To learn more about MWI’s organizational ombuds services, contact Chuck Doran at 617-895-4026 or cdoran@mwi.org.

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