Sexual Harassment at Work
Let’s talk about sexual harassment at work. Namely, let’s talk about the fact that it happens, well, a lot. And not just just in Hollywood with media moguls like Harvey Weinstein.
In February, ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a now-viral blog post about being harassed at work, sparking widespread criticism of the ridesharing company’s policies, practices, and general workplace culture. A month later, engineer AJ Vandermeyden accused Tesla of failing to properly investigate her complaints of “pervasive harassment” and misogyny within the company.
In April, Bill O’Reilly left Fox News after the New York Times revealed that five women sued O’Reilly for sexual harassment “or other inappropriate behavior.” This came less than a year after a separate sexual harassment scandal ousted the late Roger Ailes as Fox News chairman.
These high-profile cases were catalysts that pushed sexual harassment, a pervasive problem stretching across industries and rungs on the ladder, into the public eye.
Not that, truth be told, we need expansive media coverage to know sexual harassment exists. Ask any woman you’ve ever met if she or someone she knows was ever harassed at work, and it’s far more likely than not her answer will be a hard yes (or “Me Too”).
Sexual harassment is particularly prevalent in certain industries (but is a serious problem everywhere). According to a study surveying more than 200 women working for major tech firms, 87 percent claim male colleagues made or regularly make demeaning comments toward them, with 60 percent having received unwanted sexual advances. One in three women in the survey report feeling unsafe at work or a work event.
Take a moment for that to sink in — nearly nine out of every 10 women in the tech industry survey said they have received harassing comments from a coworker.
Of course, men also experience sexual harassment at work, though stats show women are harassed far more frequently. In 2016, women filed 83.4 percent of work-related sexual harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), compared to the 16.6 percent filed by male employees. That means four out of every five claims are made by women.
Reporting harassment can be a scary and fraught experience, especially if you believe doing so could impact you professionally.
If you believe someone at work may be harassing you, here’s what you should do:
Identify the Behavior as Harassment
“Many women put up with sexual harassment because they don't recognize that it is sexual harassment," attorney Patricia Barnes told Bustle about why so few harassment cases are reported.
Be clear about what harassment is (and is not) so you can identify it if it happens to you. The EEOC defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature that creates a hostile work environment. The EEOC emphasizes that sexual harassment does not have to sexual in nature — discriminatory comments related to a person’s sex also apply.
“Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted),” the EEOC explains.
It also notes that both victims and harassers can be male or female. It’s possible for the victim and harasser to be members of the same sex.
Know Your Rights
No one should ever have to endure harassment at work, and luckily the law agrees.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives workers the legal right to be protected from workplace sex discrimination. State laws and individual employee policies might offer additional protections, depending on where you live and work.
If you need help better understanding your rights, organizations like The National Women’s Law Center, Legal Momentum, and 9to5, National Association of Working Women all offer resources to decipher employee protections and how state and federal laws can back up your company’s own human resources procedures.
Assess Your Personal Situation
Every workplace is different, and there is no singular proven method to effectively deal with harassment (this article would be a lot shorter if there was). Sussing out the correct course of action for your unique situation is pivotal.
In certain situations, talking to your harasser directly is a simpler and more effective method than reporting harassment to higher-ups, but you should be certain you feel safe to do so.
If you feel you can speak to the person directly:
Politely but firmly tell them to stop, being specific about what behaviors make you uncomfortable. You can send them a letter if you don’t feel comfortable talking in person. Legal Momentum provides a sample letter you can download for free if you’re not sure what to say.
If you don’t feel you can speak to the person directly:
You’ll need to report the harassment to your superior, your harasser’s superior, or your Human Resources department. How you should go about this will depend on your company’s individual policies.
Research Your Companies Policies
Unless you’re working for the tiniest of startups, you should have received a detailed write-up on sexual harassment policies from your HR representative when you began working for your company.
Dust off the employee handbook (or track one down if you’ve lost yours) to read how your company handles harassment and if they have any outlined steps for victims to report it.
According to The Hill, good policies include detailed definitions of harassing behaviors and explain the courses of disciplinary actions they can take with accused harassers. They should also offer you a choice between a formal and informal complaint process and the ways they protect victims and prevent retaliation.
Document Harassment As It Happens
Keeping careful notes of harassment as it occurs can help strengthen your claims should you choose to report it.
A simple list of the dates, times, and specifics of the situations can help you stay calm and organized when reporting the occurrences.
If any harassment happened digitally, take screenshots or copies of each conversation or comment.
Call a Meeting
If you choose to report harassment to your HR rep or superior, set up a meeting with them to discuss your concerns. Come prepared: Bring your written list of the instances you want to report and calmly tell them what actions you feel violated the company’s sexual harassment policies. Be sure to specify that the behavior is unwelcome and you want it to stop so you can work in the safe work environment you’re legally entitled to.
Advocate for Yourself
Your meeting with your HR rep or superior is a time for you to make sure appropriate measures will be taken on your behalf. Ask specific questions about what steps will be taken next: Will their investigation be highly confidential to protect you from retaliation? Who will they talk to? How long will the process take? Write your questions down to bring with you if you’re worried you might forget.
If anyone you meet with says anything that you find problematic, take notes to document what they said and when. Remember you’re well within your rights to demand support, protection, and confidentiality from your company during this process.
“If the first thing they do is to try to support the offender/accused or to make excuses for that person, you should politely tell them that you strongly disagree,” Steve Cadigan, founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures and former VP of Talent at LinkedIn told FastCompany. “...and that if they do not conduct a proper investigation, you will be given no choice but to seek justice through an attorney who can represent you properly.”
Follow Up In Writing
If, at any time, you feel as though your company is not handling your case promptly or appropriately, send a follow-up e-mail in writing. Forbes recommends using the following template:
‘This will confirm our conversation on Oct 19, 2017 in which I reported sexual harassment by my supervisor John Doe. I reported the following instances of sexual harassment to you: [list them]. Please take prompt action to investigate this matter and address this situation.’
Know Retaliation Can Occur –– And Report It If It Does
Your employer should take actionable steps to make sure you’re protected from retaliation, but that doesn’t remove the possibility of it happening. Data backs this up: The EEOC says charges of retaliation linked to harassment and discrimination claims have doubled from 1997 to 2015.
Depending on your state, you have 180 or 300 days from the date of the most-recent act of discrimination to file your claim. The EEOC has detailed info on how to file on their website.
After filing your claim, you can decide whether you’d like to enlist the help of a lawyer to represent you in a case against your company.
Talk About It
Deafening silence about workplace sexual harassment further feeds an ecosystem in which it can thrive.
Catherine Tinsley, PhD, told Fast Company she encourages victims to talk openly about times they have been sexually harassed.
“If you talk about it,” she suggests, “you realize it is not about you, it’s about the other person. Just as the aggressor is not categorically evil, you didn’t do something wrong to invite [the sexual harassment].”
Tinsley adds that talking to coworkers you trust about being harassed can further strengthen your case, should it come to light that others have had similar experiences at work.
Don’t Be Complicit
If you witness harassment happening to someone else, don’t be complicit.
By ignoring it just because it isn’t happening to you, you perpetuate a culture in which harassment is viewed as harmless, or worse, “a compliment.”
Because you’re removed from the situation, you might be in a better position to call out or report the harassment than the victim is. Ask them how you can support them and if they’d like you to report the behavior on their behalf.