Sexual harassment from patrons has long been a significant issue for library employees, but front-line staff are often the ones who bear the burden of enacting change, while having the least amount of power in the workplace. It’s time to place the responsibility for enacting meaningful change where it belongs: with managers and administrators. This article looks at some of the best (and worst) practices for managers when it comes to supporting staff and addressing sexual harassment claims.
When I’ve given presentations or interviews on dealing with sexual harassment from patrons, I typically start off with this story: I was a very young part-time customer service employee, just a few months into my job.
A patron stopped by the desk and asked me a reference question. As I was looking up this information, the patron, out of nowhere, said, “You’d look really good with a boob job.”
In my memory, I finished helping this patron find what he needed, and then I found a couple of coworkers and told them what had happened. They were aghast and said I should have had him removed from the library, but that thought hadn’t even occurred to me. I just assumed that my responsibility was to continue assisting him, because to me, that was just part of my job as a front-line employee.
Years later, when I started talking about addressing sexual
harassment from patrons on a professional level, I was a full-time
reference assistant with many more higher-level responsibilities, but I was still primarily a front-line employee, and so my talks often focused on what front-line staff could do to advocate for themselves and address inappropriate behavior in the moment. Basically, what I wished I had been able to do when that patron casually recommended that I consider breast implants.
Now, as I write this article, am two and a half years into my first managerial position as the head of circulation and reference at a new library, and as I gathered my thoughts, I realized that my perspective had drastically changed. While I firmly believe that all library workers should have the tools and the encouragement to protect themselves and stand up against patron harassment, I realized that we need to start putting more responsibility on managers and administrators.
When I’ve talked to other library workers, one of the most frequent comments I’ve heard is that staff want to take action, but they don’t believe their managers will listen to them. In some ways, I think part of this may be rooted in a general fear of speaking up against sexual harassment, but I also know many people who have either faced consequences when they’ve filed
reports against patrons or have had their concerns outright dismissed when they tried to talk to their administrators.
This is not acceptable. Managers have a responsibility to create a safe work environment for their staff, and we cannot recuse ourselves from that
responsibility. The fact is, frontline staff can’t enact change if
their managers are unwilling to listen, and so it’s time to take a
hard look at the work environments we’ve helped create and figure out how we can (and must) do better by our staff.
HOW NOT TO RESPOND TO CLAIMS OF PATRON SEXUAL HARASSMENT
“Legally, I don’t think what they did is considered sexual harassment”
While there is definitely a legal definition of sexual harassment, some library managers make the mistake of thinking that if a patron’s behavior doesn’t fit the legal definition of sexual harassment, there’s nothing to be done. However, libraries are able to set their own guidelines and consequences for patron behavior, and a patron’s behavior doesn’t have to meet a legal definition for it to be inappropriate. So if a patron is making your staff uncomfortable, you can ask the patron to stop and impose consequences if the behavior continues.
“That’s not sexual harassment! You’re a guy/ the patron was a woman”*
*While I am using binary genders here, library employees of all genders can experience harassment. More on this point later.
Because the overwhelming majority of library employees are white
cis-het women,  the most common narrative in situations like this is
of male patrons harassing female employees. However, anyone can be subject to harassment from patrons, regardless of gender. I vividly remember someone telling me a story about a male coworker who was being followed and harassed by a patron. When the employee reported it to his supervisor, the supervisor told him, “Well, that’s just a testament to
your customer service skills! You should be flattered!”
There is nothing flattering about feeling trapped in a situation like this, and comments like that practically guarantee that your staff will not feel comfortable bringing another incident to your attention again. If your staff member has told you that a patron is making them uncomfortable, listen to them and figure out a solution so that they don’t have to find themselves in that situation again.
The same goes for interactions between people of the same gender. I had a situation where a female patron made a comment about my appearance (specifically the shape of my body in the skirt I was wearing) that she clearly intended to be flattering. However, I was extremely uncomfortable, as the comment carried sexual overtones, and I was concerned about other patrons overhearing her and adding their own commentary about my body.
It doesn’t matter who the staff member is, or who the patron is. If a patron makes a staff member feel uncomfortable, managers have a responsibility to take the situation seriously.
“Well, I’m sure you must have done something to make the patron say that”
When I’m at work, I’m there to be helpful and courteous to patrons, but I’m there to work. And yet I can barely keep count of the number of times a patron has hit on me or asked me out because they believed that general politeness (or even general physical proximity) equaled romantic interest. Most libraries have behavior standards for staff when assisting patrons that requires them to be pleasant, friendly, and helpful, so if you trust your staff to interact professionally with patrons, why would you immediately jump to the conclusion that your staff member is at fault when they report harassment?
“I know what the patron said was inappropriate, but your clothes really are too short/too tight/ too revealing—what did you expect?”
I cannot emphasize this enough: do not do this. It doesn’t matter what the employee was wearing. It doesn’t even matter if what they were wearing technically violates your library’s established dress code. Your staff are not responsible for managing a patron’s behavior, especially not with their clothes.
I think back to a time when an HR manager told the female desk staff that we should be cautious about what we wore, because the desks placed us below a person’s eye level, making it easier for patrons to look down our shirts. (So not only did we have to worry about conforming to the dress code, we had to worry about conforming to the dress code from literally every possible angle.) I believe I said something about how we would still be dealing with unwelcome comments even if we wore giant burlap sacks, because the problem wasn’t with our clothes. It was with the patrons.
I also remember a story from a former colleague who experienced a scary moment when a patron cornered her while she was working by herself and made uncomfortable comments about her outfit. After the patron left, she ran back to the staff office, but was too afraid to say anything until months later because she was afraid she’d be written up for violating the
dress code. Hearing her recall that incident was heartbreaking, and no employee should ever have to put their safety at risk out of fear of being reprimanded. If you’ve been telling your employees to be mindful of what they’re wearing in order to deter unwelcome comments, this needs to stop immediately.
“Oh, he’s older/from a different era. He didn’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable”
I don’t care how well-meaning the patron was—if I’m uncomfortable
with someone hugging me, touching me, or making comments about my appearance, then that takes precedence over the patron’s desire to say or do those things to me.
I would also presume that our patrons are perfectly aware of what era they’re living in. Times change, and people are expected to change with it. If a patron protests that their behavior wasn’t intended to hurt anyone, or that people are “too sensitive” nowadays, your response as a manager should be “It doesn’t matter. Your behavior made my staff member uncomfortable, and it needs to stop.”
“You’re submitting too many incident reports”
I’ve run into a lot of people who believe that documentation should only happen when the incident is serious enough to contact law enforcement or otherwise ask the patron to leave the building. But I’m a firm believer
in the “document everything” mantra, and documenting incidents, even minor ones, creates a written record in case a patron’s behavior continues or escalates or in case multiple staff members report the same problematic behavior from the same patron.
Shortly before I left my previous job, our administrators at the
time told staff that we were submitting too many incident
reports and needed to cut back. We were not given any guidance as to what the reporting procedure should be or what constituted a serious enough incident to report—we were just told to stop. They may as well have sent an email to staff saying, “We don’t care about what’s going on at the desk, and we’re not going to help you if you feel unsafe.”
HOW TO WALK THE WALK
Enacting significant change is going to take a lot of effort for your library as an organization and for you as a manager/administrator. But protecting your employees from harassment is a non-negotiable part of a manager’s job, and this is necessary, ongoing work for everyone in a library leadership role.
So let’s talk about best practices; things that you can start doing right now to show your staff that you’re willing to “walk the walk.”
Listen to your staff, and believe them
This sounds like such an elementary concept, but after listening to stories from dozens of library workers across the country, it’s clear that this is a recurring issue. If an employee tells you that a patron has harassed them
or made them uncomfortable, remember that they are the experts of their own experiences. Listen to them. Get the details of what happened. Check to make sure they’re okay. Don’t minimize their experience.
Explicitly give staff your support and permission to handle uncomfortable situations
When I first brought the issue of persistent patron harassment to
my director’s attention several years ago, one of the first things he did was send out an all-staff email saying that he had been made aware of these issues, that he would support us 110 percent if we reported an issue, and we would not be reprimanded in any way for these incidents. He also gave us explicit permission to tell patrons to knock it off, as well as permission to literally walk away from any situation that made us uneasy. And whileit took a while for my coworkers and me to build up the courage to stand up to these patrons, it helped tremendously to know that our director supported us.
Know that experiencing and reporting sexual harassment is especially
complicated for BIPOC and LGBTQ library staff members
Reporting sexual harassment can be extremely fraught for staff members who are not white, cisgender, or heterosexual for a number of reasons. Not only do women of color, particularly Black women, experience a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment in the workplace compared to their white female coworkers, but their experiences of sexual harassment are often compounded by racial trauma and racist sexual stereotypes. For an unfortunately illustrative example of this, think
back to the recent viral footage of reporter Brianna Hamblin, who was sexually and racially harassed by a man who was passing
by the camera.
The same goes for any LGBTQ staff working at your library.
LGBTQ people face a much higher risk of sexual violence and a 2017 Harvard study found that just over half of the surveyed LGBTQ adults reporte experiencing sexual harassment. A significant number of
LGBTQ employees in the UK reported being harassed at work, yet 66 percent chose not to report the incident to their employers. To make matters even more difficult, about a quarter of the people who chose not to report a harassment incident said that they were afraid ofbeing outed at work.
Unfortunately, these are complicated issues that deserve much more discussion and attention than I am able to provide in this article. However, it is critically important that all library managers and administrators
proactively educate themselves on how BIPOC and LGBTQ people experience harassment, and to create a safe environment for any current or
future staff to report these issues without fear of repercussion, judgment, or being outed.
Ask your staff what support they need
One of the most helpful things that a previous manager did for me was ask me how she could help when I reported an upsetting incident with a patron. She didn’t ask in a way that indicated frustration or futility
(“Well, I don’t know what you want me to do!”), but in a way that expressed concern for my well being. So ask your staff what would be helpful for them both in the moment, and moving forward. Can you talk to the patron in your capacity as a manager? Can you cover for your staff member at the desk so that they don’t have to interact with the patron again? Can you have the patron removed for the day? Can you bring the issue to the attention of a higher-up? Can you make regular time in your staff meetings to talk about
these types of issues?
It’s also important to note that not all staff members will want the same type of support in every situation, so make sure to check in with them frequently. (And don’t be like the safety officer who forced a patron to
shake my hand and apologize to me after he shoved his phone in
my face to take a picture of me while I was working. She assumed this would magically fix the situation, when in reality, I didn’t want to interact with that guy again for a long time, and I was not happy about having to accept a public apology that I hadn’t asked for.)
Document incidents, no matter how minor, and make sure all staff are trained on how to report incidents
As I’ve indicated earlier, I’m a big supporter of the “document
everything” philosophy. However, I’ve heard a lot of staff say that they haven’t been trained on their library’s reporting procedure. A big part of this is because a lot of libraries don’t have a formalized procedure in the first place, so if that’s the case with your library, that needs to change. It can take a while to set up a robust procedure like this, especially if you’re part
of a large library district, so make sure to establish a basic procedure for staff to use in the short term, and start talking to administration, safety teams, and/or other managers about implementing a library-wide policy for all departments. But regardless, all staff members need to know what the documentation procedure is, how to find the required forms, and what the expected next steps are once an incident has been documented.
And if you’re going to tell staff to document everything, you have
to mean it. I remember a time when our HR manager told staff specifically to document small patron incidents, even if all we could say was that the patron had made us feel uncomfortable. Not long after, I ended up writing an incident report about a patron who always made excuses to hang around the service desk while I was working, and generally made me uneasy, even though he hadn’t ever made any off-color remarks. I dropped off the report with the HR manager, they read it while I stood there, and they chastised me for writing up such a trivial incident, saying “Well, maybe he just wanted to date you! Is that so wrong?”
If you tell staff to document everything, you cannot reprimand them when they do, in fact, document everything.
Before making any changes to safety procedures or protocol, get inputfrom the staff that will be affected
If I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve heard front-line
employees say that they are rarely, if ever, consulted about safety procedures that will directly affect them, I’d have retired already. If you’re a manager or an administrator, your front-line staff have a more accurate perspective of their work environments than you do. That’s not anyone’s fault—that’s just the reality of typical organizational structures. So, if you’re going to make policy changes that affect their safety, you need to get their input.
Unfortunately, based on the stories I’ve heard, it seem that a lot of managers don’t want to go through the trouble of talking with staff beforehand because it’s inconvenient, or because they don’t think their staff can provide insightful contributions. But when it comes to staff safety, you can’t cut corners just because you don’t have to directly deal with the repercussions. This is, in fact, the primary reason why I left my last job: the administration was making significant and detrimental changes to our existing safety policies (such as reinstating previously banned patrons) without consulting or even notifying the rest of the staff.
And while it may be impossible to get the input of every staff member before making a change to your library’s safety policy, you need to create multiple avenues for staff to participate in the discussion. Make time for it in department or all-staff meetings. Host a special discussion forum to
talk specifically about the safety changes. Create anonymous online surveys or comment boxes for staff to leave their thoughts. (And make sure they are, actually, anonymous.) While you likely won’t be able to take everyone’s concerns into account when making policy changes, you have a responsibility as a manager to collect feedback from your staff and consider it in good faith.
A FEW WORDS FOR FRONT-LINE STAFF
Although I’ve directed most of this article towards library managers
and administrators, I have to take this last bit of space and address the front-line library staff who are dealing with the weight and the stress of these interactions with patrons. I see you, and I understand exactly how damaging it can be to feel like you don’t have any recourse when dealing with harassment.
Whether you’re struggling to get your managers or administrators to take your complaints seriously, or you’re simply trying towork up the courage to say “Knock it off!” to a person who’s making you uncomfortable, I hope this article helps. I also want to leave you with a few additional strategies I’ve learned over the years that have not only given me the confidence to speak
up when a patron is harassing me, but have also helped me reframe how I was mentally approaching these types of interactions in the first place.
Your safety is the primary concern
If you were an employee in my department and you came to me
about a patron who was harassing you, I would tell you to forget
about customer service, because in these situations, staff safety comes before customer service. Always. If there’s one takeaway I want every library employee to internalize, it’s that you matter, and your safety is important. Even if you don’t feel like your administrators are supporting
you, it’s essential for you to prioritize your wellbeing and remember that you deserve to be treated with respect at work.
You are not responsible for a patron’s emotions or behavior
This is one of the most liberating truths I’ve ever encountered. If I tell someone that their behavior was inappropriate, they’re going to have whatever reaction they’re going to have. All I can control is myself. If a patron gets upset and tries to double down, I’ll tell them, “I understand you think that, but your comment was still inappropriate.” If they get embarrassed and leave the library, that’s their choice. You can’t manage someone else’s emotions, and as long as you handle yourself professionally
(i.e., no screaming or berating the patron), you have nothing to apologize for.
You are not “getting a patron in trouble” by reporting their behavior
This is very much related to the above point, in that everybody is
responsible for their behavior and for the consequences of that behavior. The consequences for a patron making staff uncomfortable may vary from
library to library, but the bottom line is that you didn’t get a patron
in trouble. They got themselves in trouble with their behavior.
You don’t need to have a watertight argument in order to tell a patron
to knock it off
Many times, if someone is upset at being called out for bad behavior,
they’ll double down and try to make the other person explain exactly why the behavior was uncalled for. This gives the first person lots of opportunities to find a loophole or a weakness in the other person’s argument. But the great thing about this is that this isn’t about having a perfect argument, and you don’t actually have to argue your point with the
Patron didn’t mean anything by it? “That’s fine, but it was still inappropriate.” Patron is upset because people are too sensitive
nowadays? “I’m sorry you feel that way, but you can’t talk to our staff like that.” They’ve said stuff like that to other people and no one else has had a problem? “Well, that’s fine for them, but it made me uncomfortable.”
You’re not trying to prove anything to anyone. You’re just trying to get the behavior to stop.
Speaking up will feel scary at first, and that’s okay
The first time I told a patron that they were making me uncomfortable,
I was terrified. I stumbled over my words, and I’m sure that my entire face and torso turned bright red and splotchy. But I said it anyway, and the empowerment that I felt afterwards was exhilarating. And it gave me even more confidence that I’d be able to say something the next time a patron made me uneasy.
You don’t have to have a perfect mic drop response in order to say something. And even if you find yourself in future situations that leave you tongue-tied, that’s okay too. It still happens to me, and I’ve talked about sexual harassment with hundreds of people by this point. It happens to everyone.
If you’re still concerned about what to say in the moment, gather a few short, simple, multipurpose phrases that you can use, and practice! Practice with coworkers, practice in the mirror, practice in the shower. Repeat these phrases often enough that they start to feel more comfortable and less foreign. Examples:
“I’m not answering that.”
“Don’t make comments about my appearance.”
“I’m not discussing my personal life.”
“I’m done helping you.”
There is strength in numbers
One of the hardest things about dealing with harassment is how
isolated it can make you feel. But one of the best things to happen when I started talking about harassment in my library was that staff from nearly every department came together and started talking about their own experiences, and we were able to learn from each other and support
Not only did we get better at addressing situations in-themoment, but we also made sure to watch out for each other if one of us was dealing with a creepy patron. This included covering desk shifts so that one person could escape to the staff room for a break, keeping an eye on someone if they had to assist a potentially problematic patron out of sight from the desk, and sharing information with each other if a patron issue came up so that
we’d all be prepared and on the same page.
If you’re afraid of talking to your manager or director about the issues you’re having, see if you can get other staff to join you. Not only does it ease the pressure on an individual person, but it also becomes a lot harder for management to potentially dismiss the issues if they’re coming from multiple people.
Library workers deserve respect
At this point, I could talk about the productivity benefits of having staff who feel safe and comfortable in the workplace, but really, the issue of patron harassment needs to be addressed not because we need better productivity, but because library workers deserve to feel safe and to be treated with respect.
I gave my first presentation on patron sexual harassment more than four years ago, and based on the emails I continue to receive from library managers across the country, I believe that there are a lot of people who want to do right by their employees. There isn’t a magic solution to this
problem, but if managers and directors can make space for their staff to share concerns, and then take those concerns seriously, it can make all the difference in the world. But we must be willing to put in the work.
Jensen, Kelly. 2017. “The State of Sexual Harassment
in the Library.” Book Riot. October 24.
Jensen, Kelly. 2019. “Sexual
Harassment in Libraries,
Post-#MeToo: What Has and
Hasn’t Changed?” Book Riot.
MacBride, Katie. 2018.
“#TimesUp on Harassing
Your Public Librarian.”
Shondaland. January 31.
- Kathy Rosa and Kelsey Henke, 2017 ALA Demographic Study (Chicago: ALA Office for Research and Statistics, 2017).
- National Women’s Law Center, “Black Women Disproportionately Experience Workplace Sexual Harassment, New NWLC Report Reveals,” press release, August 2, 2018.
- Time’s Up Foundation, “Black Survivors
and Sexual Trauma,” May 20, 2020,
- Joseph Wilkinson, “‘I Can’t Be Left
Alone With a Black Woman’: Reporter
Harassed While on the Job in Rochester,
Shares Video,” New York Daily News,
July 24, 2021.
- “Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community,”
Human Rights Campaign,
accessed July 26, 2021.
- Julie Moreau, “Most LGBTQ Americans
Experience Harassment, Discrimination,
Harvard Study Finds,” NBC News,
November 26, 2017.
- Frances Perraudin, “Survey Finds 70%
of LGBT People Sexually Harassed at
Work,” Guardian, May 16, 2019.
- Perraudin, “Survey Finds 70% of LGBT
People Sexually Harassed at Work.”