Library Leadership

97. Better Handling of Sexual Harassment with Katie McLain Horner

What do we do in libraries when patrons sexually harass staff? On this show, I speak with Katie McLain Horner, Head of Circulation & Reference at the Lake Bluff Public Library. She shares why personal experiences dealing with this issue led her to think and write about ways to support staff who experience this troubling problem. In this episode we learn how not to respond to sexual harassment, what steps to take if is someone reports an incident, how this can be especially sensitive for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members of our staff, how important it is to ask staff what they need in these situations, and even what the documenting of sexual harassment incidents should look like. 

Transcript

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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

What do we do in libraries when patrons sexually harass staff? On this show I speak with Katie McLain Honer, Head of Circulation & Reference at the Lake Bluff Public Library. She shares why personal experiences dealing with this issue led her to think and write about ways to support staff who experience this troubling problem. 

On this episode we learn how not to respond to sexual harassment; what steps to take if someone reports an incident; how this can be especially sensitive for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members of our staff; how important it is to ask staff what they need in these situations; and even what the documenting of sexual harassment incidents should like like. This is invaluable information that all of us can utilize to support our most important resource, our staff.  Enjoy the show!

Katie, welcome to the show.

Katie McLain Horner:

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: It’s great to have you here talking with me today about better handling of sexual harassment. You recently had an article on this in Public Libraries Magazine. As we start, what made you think and write about this topic?  01:47 

Katie McLain Horner:

Well, it started with I—unfortunately had a number of uncomfortable experiences and interactions with patrons in my work in public libraries that led me to want to talk about this on a profession level, because I learned very quickly that it can be very detrimental to your mental health to deal with this type of harassment on an ongoing basis, and it’s just not fair for library staff to have to just put up with this type of behavior day in and day out.

But as I took on my first managerial position, which is the position that I’m in now, as Head of Circulation & Reference, I started to realize that it’s also not fair to expect frontline staff members to shoulder the burden of enacting this type of really big, systemic change in their libraries. So, that’s why I started speaking about this from a managerial point of view, because it’s time for managers, library administrators, and directors to step up and start looking at how they can take proactive measures to support their staff when they encounter harassment.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: And you say there are definite ways not to respond to sexual harassment, can you share some of those with us?  03:14 

Katie McLain Horner:

Yes, the biggest thing that you definitely do not want to do when someone comes to you with a report that a patron made them uncomfortable is—you do not want to dismiss or minimize reports from staff by saying things like, Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t a big deal, or they didn’t mean it like that. You don’t want to make it seem like this is something that the employee should be flattered about. I’ve heard stories from staff members who’ve brought complaints to their managers and their manager has said, Oh, it’s just a testament to your good customer service that they only want you to help them, and only want you to assist them even when you’ve got other things going on.

Or, in my own experience I had someone say, Well, maybe they just want to date you, is that so bad? And, I was like, Yes, yes it is that bad, because that’s not why I’m at work. Another thing that has come up from other people saying that their managers, or their administrators, have told them that they need to stop reporting so many issues. If that’s something that has come up, there’s no easier way to communicate to your staff that you’re not interested in supporting them is by telling them that you don’t want them to report these types of things.

Then finally a big issue that I’ve also seen is turning the discussion about a patron’s behavior into a discussion about what the staff member was wearing, or what they may have said to encourage that type of behavior. This is especially a really bad way to respond to sexual harassment, because your employees are not responsible for managing other people’s behavior, especially not with their clothes, their wardrobes. You trust your staff to be professional, so you should trust that if your staff member reports an issue they did not do anything to encourage that type of reaction from the patron.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: Protecting employees from harassment is non-negotiable as leaders. When someone approaches us about something that’s happened, what are the first steps we can take to do this?  05:14 

Katie McLain Horner:

The first thing that a manager, or a library leader, can do is start by really listening to what your staff members are telling you without jumping to your own conclusions. You may have your own thoughts about how you might have handled it, or how you might have reacted to it, but your staff are the experts of their own experiences. They know best what they experience and how it made them feel. You need to trust them and you need to listen to them about what happened and what they need.

One of the most helpful things that happened to me when I first started—just talking about this at my own library and saying, Hey, we we’ve got a problem, is that my director gave all of the staff members explicit permission, not only to tell patrons to knock if off, if we were in an interaction that was making us feel uncomfortable, but we were also given explicit permission to simply stop assisting them and leave the situation. 

That was really—that was a game changer because up until then we always thought we just had to tough it out and continue assisting the patron because that was our job. But, our director said, No, you don’t need to continue helping them. You don’t have to say anything. You can just turn around and leave. That is what I tell my own staff, that if they find themselves in a situation like that with a patron—providing “good customer service” should be the last thing that they worry about. My concern is making sure that they get themselves out of that situation safely and that the patron’s behavior is addressed. We do not need to worry about whether or not the patron’s question was answered at that time, because we’ve got bigger problems going on.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: Reporting sexual harassment can be especially complicated for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ members of our staff. How can we sensitively support people in these areas?  07:05 

Katie McLain Horner:

This is obviously a really, really large area for discussion, and I always note that when I talk about this I myself, am a white CIS gender heterosexual female, and so I can’t speak to what it’s like to deal with harassment as a person of color, or someone who’s LGBTQ. But, one of the biggest things to understand is that for those staff members there are other complicating factors happening when it comes to experiencing and reporting harassment. It can include racial aggression, homophobia, transphobia, a fear of if they report the situation will they be outed—will their sexual orientation be outed at work against their will? There are just lots of really, really difficult issues that come into play with that. 

For managers and administrators, it’s really important to—for us to do our own research. Seek out information from people and organizations who are already talking about these issues from their own experiences, and get some perspective about what is helpful in these situations and what the challenges are for someone who is reporting these types of issues. 

It’s always important as a manager to walk the walk in order to create a safe, and trusting space for your staff, but it’s especially important for anyone who manages someone who is LGBTQ or manages someone who is not white. So, it’s really especially important to walk that walk and really try to create as much of a trusting environment as you can to make it as comfortable as possible for a staff to come to you with their concerns.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: One of the most helpful things we can do when it comes to sexual harassment is ask staff what they need and get input from them before making any changes to safety procedures or protocol. Can you share with us how this is to be done?  09:14       

Katie McLain Horner:

This can happen in a couple of different ways. On an individual level, if a staff member comes to you with an incident that happened with a patron, ask them what would be helpful for them in that moment. Do they need someone to cover the desk for a few minutes so they can, you know, take a break and escape to the staff office? As manager, are you able to ask the patron to leave, or directly address the situation? Does the staff member not want anyone to intervene—just needs a couple of minutes to themselves? 

I had a manager that did this with me when I reported certain incidents. I found it really helpful because it communicated to me that she was concerned about my wellbeing, and that she wanted me to feel safe and to make sure the situation was taken care of. 

On an organizational level, you want to make sure that safety discussions aren’t just happening at the administrative or managerial level. This is an all staff issue. So, it’s important to talk about safety issues in your regular department meetings, all staff meetings—create multiple avenues for staff to provide feedback, whether that’s anonymous forms, suggestions, or comment boxes. Just make sure you have multiple ways for staff to provide feedback, if they’re not comfortable speaking out in front of everyone. If it’s supposed to be an anonymous form of providing feedback, make sure that it is truly anonymous. 

If you’re looking at making changes to a safety procedure, you want to identify the stakeholders for whatever decision you’re trying to make, just like you would with any other issue. So, in a lot of cases it’s going to mean involving your frontline staff making sure that they’re kept informed throughout the entire process—get their feedback, and make sure they’re involved with the process. Safety’s not a need to know issue only for a few people. Some administrators may want to avoid worrying their staff, but it’s so much better to handle these issues transparently so that everyone understands what’s going on, and what they can do to prepare themselves in case they encounter a situation where they need to take action.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: What should the documenting of sexual harassment incidents look like?  11:45 

Katie McLain Horner:

Ideally it should be as simple as possible. The incident form should be easily accessible, so make sure that all staff are trained on how to find it, and how to fill it out. Make sure that there is clear communication about when the form should be used. I am a big proponent of the ‘when in doubt document’ philosophy, because even if you don’t need to take action after a particular interaction with a patron, it’s still important to create that record so in case it happens again, or happens to someone else, or it escalates, you have that record that there was an issue, and then you can take appropriate steps.

When it comes to documenting an incident the big things to focus on are who, what, where, and when. Don’t worry about the why, why the patron may have acted that way. That’s not really the issue. We don’t need to know why they did it, we just need to know what the behavior was so that we can ask that the behavior stops.

You’ll want to make sure to keep staff informed about what happens after an incident is documented—what are the steps after that. If there is a significant incident, again, keeping with this idea of making sure that all staff are kept aware—if something significant happens let staff know what happened. You can avoid using staff names, you know, you don’t have to say who it happened to, just say that there was an incident, this is what happened, these are the measures that were taken, and let them know if you were going to be taking any steps to address future incidents. But, clear, simple, consistent documentation and communication is always a good road to take.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Is there anything else you’d like to share?  13:36 

Katie McLain Horner:

A lot of these suggestions don’t just apply to sexual harassment.  They can also be used in other incidences where staff safety may be at risk. The big one right now, of course, is staff who work in libraries where they have to enforce COVID protocols, or mask mandates. It’s really important to make sure that you’re creating a safe work environment in as many ways as possible for your staff, because your frontline staff are dealing with a lot right now—and even before COVID. They’ve been dealing with a lot for quite some time. So, it’s really, really important to make safety a consistent priority, not just when something happens, but making it a—just making it a priority across the board so that everyone feels like if something happens they are prepared and that they trust that their organization will be able to take measures to keep them safe.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #8: Do you have a favorite management, or leadership books or resources, and why?  14:40 

Katie McLain Horner:

Yes. My number one favorite resource for this is the blog, Ask a Manager, which I’m sure has been recommended multiple times, but it’s not just a resource for managers. This is honestly one of the best resources I’ve ever found for any type of work related issue.  Allison Green, who runs the blog really, really excels at things like explaining how to communicate clearly, how to set boundaries, how to address difficult work situations. She just has such a straightforward, common sense approach to workplace issues that her blog has been absolutely instrumental for me in my career. I got my current job using tips from her on how to revamp my resume and my cover letter. So, it’s just a fantastic blog. 

Another blog that I really like—it’s not work related, specifically, but the blog, Captain Awkward, is really, really wonderful for anyone who wants scripts on how to set boundaries, and advocate for yourself and your needs, how to navigate tricky relationships. It’s very much a relationship focused resource. But again, Captain Awkward’s blog has also been very instrumental for me in terms of defining my mindset as I take on more challenging roles at work that involve more challenging interaction with people. It again, just has been an invaluable resource for me.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #9: Katie, in closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?   16:21 

Katie McLain Horner:

You know, I think the meaning of libraries for me is just—it shifts. I very much still believe that they can—libraries are life-changing sanctuaries for people. That was definitely what I believed when I first started working in libraries. I still do believe that today, but more than ever I very much believe that libraries are also about the people who provide these services, because we literally could not do the work that we do without our staff, and our volunteers. As the discussion about what the role of libraries is in our communities continues, and as that discussion changes, I really hope more conversations will center around the people that are doing the hard work day in and day out, because I feel like in a lot of conversations their presence kind of becomes invisible. So, I really want to see libraries become, not just examples of what they could be for the communities, but really standing up for their own staff that provides these very important services.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #10: The content that you’ve give us here today will really help us do that. Dealing with sexual harassment on the front lines is not something anyone in libraries should have to deal with, and you’ve given us a lot of tools, and things to think about in order to support them, so thank you.

Katie McLain Horner:

Thank you very much for having me on to talk about this.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have monthly updates delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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