If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed, What’s Next?

How do you move forward after you’ve been sexually harassed?

Posted Dec 11, 2017

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

—The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Kazuend/Unsplash
Source: Kazuend/Unsplash

If you think you’ve been sexually harassed, usually because a boss or a coworker’s behavior feels sexual in nature and icky to you, you need to ask yourself what, if anything, you want to do about it. And yes, doing nothing is an option. In fact, many women choose that route—usually because they need their job and fear they will lose it if they speak out. If that is your situation (so far), you needn’t stay forever silent. You have rights, and there are laws (and usually company policies) that specifically protect you from retaliation or punishment if you complain about sexual harassment.

If you feel sexually harassed within the workplace, the EEOC recommends the following steps:

  • If you feel comfortable doing so, tell the person who is harassing you to stop.
  • If you do not feel comfortable confronting the harasser directly, or if the behavior does not stop, follow the steps below:
    • Check to see if your employer has an anti-harassment policy. This may be on the employer’s website. If it’s not, check your employee handbook. Finally, you can ask any supervisor (it does not have to be your supervisor) or someone in Human Resources (if your employer has an HR department) whether there is an anti-harassment policy and, if so, to give you a copy.
    • If there is a policy, follow the steps in the policy. The policy should give you various options for reporting the harassment, including the option to file a complaint.
    • If there is no policy, talk with a supervisor. You can talk with your own supervisor, the supervisor of the person who is harassing you, or any supervisor in the organization. Explain what has happened and ask for that person’s help in getting the behavior to stop.
    • The law protects you from retaliation (punishment) for complaining about harassment. You have a right to report harassment, participate in a harassment investigation or lawsuit, or oppose harassment, without being retaliated against for doing so.
    • You always have an option of filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC to complain about the harassment. There are specific time limits for filing a charge (180 to 300 days, depending on where you work), so contact EEOC promptly.
  • Check to see if your employer has an anti-harassment policy. This may be on the employer’s website. If it’s not, check your employee handbook. Finally, you can ask any supervisor (it does not have to be your supervisor) or someone in Human Resources (if your employer has an HR department) whether there is an anti-harassment policy and, if so, to give you a copy.
  • If there is a policy, follow the steps in the policy. The policy should give you various options for reporting the harassment, including the option to file a complaint.
  • If there is no policy, talk with a supervisor. You can talk with your own supervisor, the supervisor of the person who is harassing you, or any supervisor in the organization. Explain what has happened and ask for that person’s help in getting the behavior to stop.
  • The law protects you from retaliation (punishment) for complaining about harassment. You have a right to report harassment, participate in a harassment investigation or lawsuit, or oppose harassment, without being retaliated against for doing so.
  • You always have an option of filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC to complain about the harassment. There are specific time limits for filing a charge (180 to 300 days, depending on where you work), so contact EEOC promptly.

In addition to the EEOC recommendations listed above, I suggest the following:

  • Find other victims and/or witnesses to corroborate your claims of harassment. Get them to put their stories in writing to bolster your claim. All too often, victims of sexual harassment are ignored or dismissed, usually because their harasser is in a position of power and people aren’t willing to rock the boat, so to speak. With corroboration, you can lessen the odds of this.
  • Consult a legal professional. In addition to filing a complaint with the EEOC, you should protect yourself by hiring a lawyer. Your lawyer can keep you employed, help you get the promotion you deserve but were denied because you wouldn’t “play ball” sexually, and help you receive monetary damages for harms (physical, financial, and emotional) you have experienced because of the sexual harassment. Don’t worry about the cost, attorneys will often consult for free, only getting paid if they take and win your case.

No matter what, you need to speak out. Yes, as stated above, silence is an option, but it’s an option that preserves the status quo. With silence, nothing changes, and you remain stuck in a sexually abusive work environment. Talking about the abuse forces change. Tell your harasser to stop. Tell your supervisor, or another supervisor, or your HR department what happened. If you feel especially brave, tell your story to the media or join the #MeToo movement. Just don’t suffer in silence.

Sadly, workplace sexual harassment is common. It happens everywhere, at all levels of our culture, all the time. And being sexually harassed is never fun or enjoyable for the victim, even if the harasser deludes himself into thinking it is. It’s not unusual for victims of workplace sexual harassment to end up dreading their jobs due to the harassment, even if they love the actual work they do. The good news is that you don’t have to put up with sexual harassment. You can fight back. And you are legally protected as you do so. You really can stand up for yourself and take control of a bad situation.