Equal opportunity laws and workplace policies address various forms of harassment, and many organizations offer formal channels for complaints, such as human resource officers, Title IX coordinators, or hotlines. But what if someone doesn’t want — or isn’t ready — to bring a third party into a situation, or they’re not sure the behavior warrants an escalation to management or law enforcement?
That’s where drafting a letter can help.
“Drafting a structured letter offers potential benefits in situations that feel miserable,” said MIT Sloan’s“People who are dealing with harassment and bullying often find it helpful to organize their evidence, feelings, and wishes for change and discuss them with others whom they trust.”
Rowe, an adjunct professor of work and organization studies, is the author of “‘Drafting a Letter’ for People Dealing with Harassment or Bullying: How Did this Option Evolve? How May it Help?” She spent decades teaching negotiation and conflict management and listening to hundreds of stories as an organizational ombudsperson for the MIT Ombuds Office. The incidents people described ranged from acts of carelessness (such as a male colleague who routinely forgot to zip his trousers) to cultural taboos (an employee who made a Muslim colleague uncomfortable by offering food with their left hand) to abuse and harassment that warranted a formal escalation.
“Many people who experience harassment and bullying at work feel they have no options,” Rowe said. “Some are willing to speak up to the offender, and some will use the formal grievance channels available to them. But many are confused, hurt, and afraid.”
To help people address their mistreatment or harassment, Rowe suggested that they draft a letter as a structured way to organize the facts and their emotions around the situation. Sometimes just writing a letter in their head is enough, she said.
For people to better understand the options available to them, Rowe said, it helps to identify what has occurred; think through what harm, if any, has resulted and how they feel about the situation; and determine what they think should happen next. When the facts and feelings have been collected and the writer understands what they might want from the offender, they may see different potential ways to respond. At that point, they may wish to deal directly with the offender — or not.
“Having the evidence together supports options for just thinking things through, gathering more evidence, informal discussions, mediation, or a formal complaint,” Rowe writes in her paper.
Rowe recommends dividing a letter into three parts:
- Start with the facts. Lay out what happened in simple, straightforward language. This first section should not include opinions, judgments, or feelings about the situation. If you aren’t sure about whether something is factual, use language like “I believe (this happened)” or “I think (this was the case),” Rowe writes.
- Add your opinions. Once you’ve laid out the facts of the mistreatment, you can include your thoughts and feelings on what happened and how the person’s behavior affected you. For example, “I could not work or sleep for weeks” or “What you did was profoundly upsetting.”
- State the desired remediation. The final section of the letter includes what you think should happen next and a specific remedy, if possible. For example: “I’m asking you to stop commenting on my appearance and clothing.”
“The theory behind this is to start neutrally and civilly with the list of the facts: Here are the facts as I see them, here is how I feel about these facts, here is what I’d like to ask,” Rowe said.
After privately discussing the draft with a trusted resource, the writer should consider next steps. They might want to use the facts and the statements of harm and feelings in a formal complaint addressed to the organization rather than to the offender, Rowe said. If you think only an authority can stop someone’s words or behavior, you may indeed want to pursue an official grievance.
“In this case, the organization decides what will happen next,” Rowe said.
Once a formal complaint has been made, it’s out of the hands of the person who filed it, because there are often legally required actions that must be taken and/or additional people who are obligated to get involved. But for those situations in which someone wants a particular behavior to stop and they want to limit those involved, writing a letter can be an effective approach.
Margaret Andrews, SM ’92, the founder of the leadership management organization the MYLO Center, took one of Rowe’s courses during her time at MIT Sloan and was asked to write a letter for class. Andrews said she learned that the beauty of the letter lies in “the process of processing.”
Writing something forces you to find the right words, Andrews said. There’s no dancing around things the way one can when speaking. Finding those right words will likely take several attempts, which in turn helps clarify and specify the problem and potential next steps.
What are some informal options after drafting the letter?
After drafting a letter, the writer may ask for harassment training in their work unit, without specifying an offender or incident. They may ask for reassignment if they feel the situation is hopeless. Or the writer may wish to talk with the offender alone or with a friend, Rowe said.
If the writer decides to take action, sending a letter “works surprisingly frequently to stop abuse, especially if the writer can prove that the letter was received,” Rowe writes. “Sometimes it serves as a platform to help communications between the people involved.”
If not, and the abuse continues, “a copy of the letter can later be used as evidence, to illuminate the nature of the offense and demonstrate that the letter writer has tried to get the behavior to stop,” Rowe writes.
If you do decide to send the letter, ask one or two people you trust, in private, to review it with you, or at least consider asking someone you trust for their perspective on the situation.
“Oftentimes, the person writing the letter can’t see the emotion that’s still in it,” Andrews said. “It helps to have somebody read it for you — somebody who is dispassionate about the situation.”