What To Do If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed At Work, According To Experts

Even before you report anything.

by Elizabeth Strassner and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A tired woman in front of a laptop. Steps to take if you're sexually harassed at work.
Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Moment/Getty Images

Harassment in the workplace is a problem for many American women whose jobs, well-being, or even physical safety are put at risk by inappropriate co-workers. A 2015 Cosmopolitan survey found that one in three women reported experiencing sexual harassment at work; of these, only 29% felt comfortable enough to report it. A 2019 report by the ILR School at Cornell University found that a similar number of women in New York had experienced some kind of workplace sexual harassment, including “quid pro quo” harassment where people demanded sexual favors or attention in return for job security. The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research reports that only one in 10 people who experience harassment at work ever report it, whether because of embarrassment, fear of retaliation, or a lack of accessible complaints processes.

Revelations about famous men who’ve allegedly harassed people in their employment may reignite a national conversation about sexual harassment, Human Resources Management specialist Caren Goldberg tells Bustle. Media coverage of sexual harassment, Goldberg says, "often tends to encourage people to voice concerns, because they see that, 'OK, well, it's not just me, this is real. It's not just my imagination.'"

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at your office, know that you have options, including filing a complaint with your employer or going to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Below are some of the steps you can take if you are being sexually harassed at work.


Figure Out If What You’re Experiencing Is Harassment

"I think many women put up with sexual harassment because they don't recognize that it is sexual harassment," attorney Patricia Barnes tells Bustle. Sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) (the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination law) as harassment experienced because of your sex. According to the EEOC, although sexual harassment can include "unwelcome sexual advances [or] requests for sexual favors," it "does not have to be of a sexual nature," and "can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex." If your coworker repeatedly says misogynistic things, for example, or inappropriate draws attention to another coworker’s pregnancy, that might constitute sexual harassment. Furthermore, both harassers and victims can be male or female.

K.C. Wagner, director of workplace issues at Cornell University's ILR Metro District Office and a member of the advisory board for the Legal Toolkit for Women’s Economic Equality by Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, says that sexual harassment is a form of sexist discrimination, and includes any harassment on the basis of your self-identified sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or transgender status. Any “unwanted physical or verbal conduct that creates a hostile work environment” around these themes, Legal Momentum’s toolkit says, constitutes sexual harassment. Everybody at your workplace, including clients, is covered by that guideline.

You have the legal right to be protected from sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlines protections that Americans have in the workplace. Other laws or employer policies may also protect you from sexual harassment.


Record Instances Of Harassment

Whether or not you ultimately decide to file a complaint, it will be useful to keep track of the times you have felt harassed and the types of harassment you have experienced. "An HR person may hear sexual harassment as a 'he said/she said' situation," Barnes says. "It is more persuasive if the victim has carefully recorded several instances of harassment, along with the dates, time of day, witnesses, and how the incidents made them feel." Write down instances of harassment, including the names of anyone else who was in the room at the time. Keep these files separate from your work computer in case you lose access for any reason. Wagner adds that “you may have to show that conduct was frequent or severe, so try to document everything that happens in detail.”


Assess Your Company’s Climate

When asked about filing a sexual harassment complaint with your company, Goldberg advises victims to approach the situation carefully: "There's no cookie-cutter approach, because it really depends [on] the climate of the organization, how seriously they're likely going to take it."

Ask yourself: Is this kind of behavior common in your workplace? Do you feel that your supervisors or human resources staff would be upset by what has happened? Do you believe that any investigation into your complaint would be thorough? Depending on your answers to those questions, you might feel comfortable moving ahead with making a report — or, you might be better off finding a way to exit that workplace as soon as possible.


Address The Issue 1-1, If That Feels Safe

Depending on your personal situation, you may feel comfortable simply addressing the issue with the harasser. "It might be wise to first tell the harasser to knock it off," Barnes says. "Use a firm, no-nonsense voice that leaves little room for interpretation. This can be personally empowering and might nip the problem in the bud." Record the fact that you told the person to stop, either in a follow-up email to them or as a note on your phone; if they don’t stop their harassment, there’ll be a record of you addressing the situation already.


Weigh Your Options For Reporting The Harassment

If you feel comfortable reporting your complaint to your company, look into your options for doing so. "Many organizations do have some desirable features" for reporting sexual harassment, Goldberg says, such as anonymous tip lines or multiple avenues for reporting. In New York State, your employer has a “duty to investigate complaints” around sexual harassment, and other states have similar laws; look up the laws where you are.

"Victims of sexual harassment should become familiar with their employer's sexual harassment policy," Barnes says. "If they experience harassment, they should consider filing a complaint in accordance with the policy. If the supervisor to whom they are supposed to complain is the one who is doing the harassing, they should go up the line."

Depending on your workplace, you may feel more comfortable reporting harassment anonymously, or reporting to someone who isn’t your direct supervisor, such as Human Resources. Not sure about whether to report or not? It pays to do your research, find your allies (including through your union, if you have one), and make sure you’re as supported as possible.


Make Your Report

"It is worthwhile for the victim to think about how to make a compelling complaint," Barnes advises. "Include any evidence of what occurred — documents, witnesses, emails, social media, statements from other workers who have experienced similar problems with the harasser." Take the time to put together a careful report, and be sure to document your communications with human resources or the supervisor to whom you have directed your concerns.

Be aware that you may need to push for updates on investigations into your complaint. "If I go out on a limb and make an accusation, even if the organization deems my accusation to not have merit, I want to know that they've done a full investigation, they've reached a conclusion," Goldberg says. If you’re a supervisor who receives a complaint about sexual harassment, Wagner says you should do your due diligence. “Find out what steps you must take and report the conduct so that appropriate actions can be taken by your employer,” she says.


Recording Instances of Harassment

Whether or not you ultimately decide to file a complaint, it can be useful to keep track of the times you have felt harassed and the types of harassment you have experienced. "An HR person may hear sexual harassment as a 'he said/she said' situation," Barnes says. "It is more persuasive if the victim has carefully recorded several instances of harassment, along with the dates, time of day, witnesses, and how the incidents made them feel."


File An EEOC Complaint

If your workplace, including your HR representatives or supervisors, do not support you appropriately through the process of reporting sexual harassment, you might need to go beyond them to see justice served.

If you elect to file a complaint with the EEOC, you will need to do so within 180 days of the most recent incident of harassment, though the limit is higher in certain states with broader laws. However, when investigating harassment charges, the EEOC will look at earlier incidents as part of your whole claim.

It is also important to approach your EEOC charge with realistic expectations. "The law is complicated," Barnes says, "and it is difficult to hold an employer liable for sexual harassment. If the harassing employee is the victim's co-worker, the employer is liable only if it was negligent in controlling working conditions." For example, your employer might be found liable if you can demonstrate that you filed internal complaints against your harasser, and they responded negligently. However, if you are being harassed by a supervisor, Barnes says things may be different. "In cases in which the harasser has the power to hire or fire the victim," she explains, "different rules apply."


Consider Meeting With A Therapist

According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2019, workplace sexual harassment can cause depression, sleep disturbances, and an increased risk of workplace-related accidents — and the effects increase with the severity of the harassment. It can also cause challenges with your ability to perform your job. If you are experiencing these side effects, it is important not to blame yourself. A licensed counselor can help you make sense of what you're coping with, and help you find next steps to resolve the issue or to help you remove yourself from the situation.


Patricia Barnes

Caren Goldberg

K.C. Wagner for Legal Momentum

Studies cited:

Gale, S., Mordukhovich, I., Newlan, S., & McNeely, E. (2019). The Impact of Workplace Harassment on Health in a Working Cohort. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1181.

Pinto, S., Wagner, K.C., & West, Z. (2019). Stopping Sexual Harassment in the Empire State: Past, Present, and a Possible Future. ILR Worker Institute.

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