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Ask HR: What Should a Witness Do When a Client Sexually Harasses a Co-Worker?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today. 

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here.

I work as an account manager for a marketing services company. A liaison for one of our clients has made multiple inappropriate sexual comments about one of my co-workers. The liaison made some comments without her knowledge, but he has recently made them directly to her. I am unsure of the best way to handle this. Should I report the behavior to our HR department or someone on the client side? —Kamar

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: First, I am sorry you had to witness this kind of inappropriate behavior. However, I commend you for recognizing that this behavior is not fit for the workplace and seeking to assist your co-worker. Often when we think of sexual harassment in the workplace, we think of the victim reporting the behavior, but witnesses and bystanders also play a pivotal role in reporting harassment. Understandably, your co-worker should not be subject to sexual harassment, but you and your other colleagues should not be subject to such behavior either, even as bystanders. All employees deserve a workplace free from hostility and toxicity.

Policy can't magically solve all of our workplace problems. Workers need to tend the behavioral boundaries in their workplaces as well. If you feel comfortable, you may want to speak directly to the liaison and tell them their behavior is highly inappropriate and makes you and others feel uncomfortable. Try to keep your comments to the point while maintaining your composure.

Also check in with your co-worker and see how she's doing. Be empathetic to her situation and ask how you can support her. It may be as simple as providing a witness statement about the incidents or accompanying her to report the behavior to your HR department.

HR can't be everywhere; nor do they see everything happening in the workplace. Ultimately, they need workers' help in protecting the workspace. It is best practice to speak with your employer's HR department as they are typically the point of contact for company policy. Be sure to include as many relevant details as possible, such as when the incidents happened and who was present. Your HR department will be able to take the next steps and speak to the parties involved. HR may alert relevant management and consider if any adjustments to the workplace or interactions with the client should be made.

I applaud you for wanting to take action. I am certain your colleagues and employer will appreciate you for reporting the client's behavior.

I submitted FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) paperwork to my HR department, which they approved. Because I felt it was sensitive information, I did not give the paperwork to my manager. I went directly to HR. I later found out that someone in the HR department told my manager the details of my condition. Can HR give confidential information to my manager? —Naomi

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: HR can share some information about an employee's leave under FMLA, but there are limits to what details they can provide. Generally, personal information is only communicated on a need-to-know basis so a manager can make necessary accommodations or adjustments to work assignments.

When your FMLA absence is approved, HR is permitted to tell your manager that you will be out on leave for a certain number of hours, days or weeks, depending on if the leave is continuous or intermittent. Understandably, HR would need to share this information to assist with scheduling and help your manager plan for coverage during your absence.

And when you return from an FMLA absence, HR can inform your manager about any work restrictions or accommodations required to perform your job. For example, you may be on light duty and unable to lift heavy objects or stand for extended periods, or you need to work in an alternative capacity.

Additionally, HR can reveal relevant details about your medical condition to the manager if your manager is also responsible for first aid and safety. In such a case, HR may share the information, as needed, when your physical or medical condition requires emergency treatment.

Outside of an investigation of FMLA compliance by government officials and the exceptions I have outlined, FMLA paperwork and related medical certifications should be kept confidential. I encourage you to speak to your HR representative about your concerns.


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