How to Report Sexual Harassment
In the deluge of sexual-harassment allegations over the last few months, one question keeps coming up: Why didn't the victims report at the time? Well, for a bunch of reasons: they didn't think anyone would believe them, or they didn't think it was "bad enough" to warrant an HR complaint, or they believed that speaking out would torpedo their career. But of all the people who've ever been harassed in the world, there are certainly a good number of people who simply didn't know
to report-what steps to take, how to document, and to whom they should direct their grievances.
We recently wrote about
how to know sexual harassment when you see it
. Not every instance of
So what are you supposed to do the first time a colleague or boss makes a lewd joke, or texts you in the middle of the night with inappropriate questions, or even full-on grabs you or makes a pass at holiday party? We spoke to two
Assess Available Options in Your Workplace
Eric Bachman, an employment lawyer at Zuckerman Law who handles sexual harassment and glass-ceiling discrimination cases, tells me that the options essentially range from a mild "knock it off" all the way up to a lawsuit. "On one end of the spectrum is talking with the harasser and making it clear you do not appreciate their comments/actions and telling them to stop. Sometimes that will be enough and the harassment will end," he said via email. This is the ideal outcome to a crummy situation, of course, provided that the harasser doesn't then retaliate (either openly or more subtly). But if the harassment continues, says Bachman, "that's where it's important to escalate the complaints internally and in writing."
If your company has an established protocol on how to report (check your employee handbook), you should of course follow those guidelines. "If your company lacks a policy then you can, for example, speak with a higher-level manager, human resources, and/or the board of directors," says Bachman. "Again, it is usually best to make these escalated complaints in writing so there is no miscommunication (either when you complain or at a later point). Be sure to explain what is happening in detail, how it is affecting you and your
Keep Notes on Your Own Computer
Keep your own written record, with dates, on what has happened and any attempts you've made to stop the harassment. "For example, if you are subjected to sexist comments or jokes and you want to complain about it, you can keep your own set of dated notes that explain what happened (the who , what , why , when , and where )," says Bachman. "Keep track of whether other employees witnessed the harassment as well and include their name(s). If you receive harassing texts, emails, or pictures, it is vital that you keep them and not delete or alter them in any way." Keep these notes on your home computer, not on a work machine.
Something to keep in mind here: if you do keep a written record of the incidents, your notes are probably "discoverable"-meaning the other side can see them-in a lawsuit, cautions Kathleen Peratis, an employment lawyer and partner at Outten and Golden in New York City. But if they are written in "contemplation of litigation," meaning you are specifically keeping notes in preparation for filing a lawsuit, they aren't. So Peratis instructs to write those exact words-"in contemplation of litigation"-on your notes to keep them from getting into the hands of the other side.
And should you be tempted to secretly record your harasser, Bachman has a word of warning: The laws on surreptitious recording vary by state-some states require only one party in the conversation to consent to be recorded, but others require all parties to consent. You can Google to find out the specific laws of your state, but frankly this is not a question you should leave up to the internet-if you're at the point you're thinking about secretly recording your harasser, you should talk to a lawyer.
Get an Attorney
If you're still not able to get any peace, or you experience retaliation for your complaint, then it's time to explore getting an employment lawyer. "While you don't need to complain or call a lawyer for each trivial slight or comment, you also should not be forced to work in a work environment where you are sexually harassed or treated differently because [of your gender]," says Bachman. "If you feel the harassment is impacting your ability to do your job or your emotional well-being, then it makes sense to contact a lawyer." You can find employment lawyers at NELA.org .
Come Forward in a Group if You Can
One woman filing a complaint opens herself up to a smear campaign on her motives, her ambition, her intelligence, and her appearance. (Even when groups of women come forward, they're still vulnerable.) But you're much more likely to believed, and to get your company to take action, if you can get other women to report, too. This is where you can harness the power of the whisper network.
Claire Cain Miller, writing for the New York Times, reports on a novel strategy on college campuses for reporting harassment, known as 'information escrows.' In the article, she explains, "Victims submit a time-stamped complaint against an abuser, and can request that it is reported only if another employee files a complaint against the same person." Theoretically, this builds a file against a harasser without necessarily opening up a single accuser to retaliation. However, note that this digital warehousing of complaints has been tested only on college campuses, with a broader pilot program scheduled for 2018. So this isn't currently a viable option for workplaces, but may be down the line.
What to Do if You Witness Harassment in Your Workplace
What if you're not a victim but an observer? "The point of view of the observer is one we haven't given sufficient attention to," says Peratis. "How can you be a support to someone who is being targeted?" People who are victims of sexual harassment feel isolated and alone. "They don't know if they're imagining it, and there's often some level of guilt," she says. "Weighing in as friend or coworker can be an important part of having this whole catastrophe move in a better direction. The tagline 'if you see something, say something' should apply to abuse in the workplace." If you're hearing crude jokes or witnessing ugly behavior, a brief "I'm uncomfortable with that kind of talk," can go a long way towards stigmatizing harassing behavior.
"Men will explain that they're just kidding around-they're not meaning to intimidate. But of course, it's humiliating and insulting," says Peratis. Bystanders-particularly men-can short-circuit a hostile environment by speaking out, for example when they hear this kind of demeaning humor. And Peratis points out that if you're not coming forward on your own behalf, you might be a little safer from retaliation. "You're not trying to get anything, you're not trying to deflect criticism," so, fairly or not, your account might taken more seriously than that of a victim.
If immediate confrontation isn't possible, you can send an email or speak to the person who was being harassed and ask them if they're okay or need support in any way. Even if they deflect-the victim might not want your help, Peratis points out-they know they have an ally if they decide to report later. You can still document the incident by sending an email to yourself (again, do this from home and not on your work computer).
Miller, in the Times story linked above, reports that the traditional sexual-harassment trainings in office settings aren't particularly useful-they're essentially just an ass-covering maneuver by corporate honchos-but notes that training bystanders to intervene does actually help. This may be due to the fact that this empowers everyone to maintain a civil workplace, but it also removes the labels of "victim" and "harasser"-labels that some people don't wish to adopt. Even if you think you're not vulnerable to sexual harassment yourself, review your company's how-to-report policies in case you witness an incident.
How to File a Complaint With the EEOC
"One of the most common, and important, external complaint mechanisms that a lawyer will tell you about is filing a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission," says Bachman. A Charge of Discrimination is a formal statement that your employer (or union) discriminated against you.
"Assuming you work for a private company, then you will have either 180 or 300 days (depending on what state you live in) from when the harassing conduct occurred to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC," says Bachman. "In certain circumstances this deadline can be extended to cover earlier discriminatory conduct if you can show it was part of a continuing pattern of harassment." If you end up filing a lawsuit (which would fall under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), then you must first have filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC.
These actions are easier (at least, relatively) to take in a typical corporate environment with a functioning HR. It gets tougher to navigate harassment when you're freelance or in a field like television and film: In a
Nonetheless, there are options: Bachman points out that you can still complain to the company where the harasser works-and "any company worth its salt would investigate the complaint." Now I'm not sure that has been true in the past, but the tide is certainly turning-companies are now likely more alert to potential liability or the publicity fallout of ignoring a harassment complaint.
Whether a victim of sexual harassment goes public, however, in large part depends on their tolerance for the inevitable fallout. It's not surprising that relatively well-off women in Hollywood kicked off the recent spate of allegations; we haven't heard a lot about the ongoing harassment and assault that are a fact of life for poor and working-class people. For them-hotel housekeepers, service industry workers, sex workers, among others-"how to report" isn't the problem. The price of coming forward is just too high.