Experiencing workplace sexual harassment is unfortunately an all-too-common reality for many women in the workforce. In turn, figuring out what to do if you’re sexually harassed at work isn’t always as easy as contacting HR. This is in part because conduct policies can vary from company to company. It can also be attributed to the way cultural conversations about harassment often look to excuse and even protect the perpetrator while ignoring or blaming the person being harassed. While workplace sexual harassment may be commonplace, it is certainly not okay, and we should all be working to make sure is does not continue to be a cultural norm.
Combating sexual harassment in the workplace requires acknowledging when it happens. However, the statistics on reporting workplace sexual harassment reveal how few people actually report their harassment and the even fewer number of cases in which there are consequences for the perpetrator. A 2016 study from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates 87 to 94 percent of people don’t report their harassment. Those statistics are even higher than the estimated 66 percent of sexual assault cases overall that go unreported.
Another study, done in 2003, found that 75 percent of victims experienced retaliation when they reported their sexual harassment at work. This undoubtedly is one of the reasons only 6 to 13 percent of people report their harassment. While, in theory, HR should be your go-to when it comes to concerns about workplace sexual harassment, statistics show that support may not be happening across the board.
If you’ve gone through the necessary protocol at work (e.g. spoken with HR, tried to address the situation personally - if you feel safe and comfortable enough to do so) and still are not supported, there are other steps you can take to address sexual harassment at work.
1. Document What’s Happening
Erica B. McCurdy, life coach and career expert, tells Bustle that documenting your harassment when it happens can help build a case if you choose to reach out to HR again or seek outside help. “When one suspects they are experiencing sexual harassment, the first thing to do is document what is happening,” McCurdy said over email. “While one should trust their intuition, it's also necessary to support the claim with facts. Being able to present a clear and well-organized complaint is the best way to help HR understand the gravity of the situation.”
Additionally, document your conversations with HR. Forbes contributor Kerry Hannon suggests writing an email when you file a complaint. In her piece on how to report workplace harassment, Hannon writes, “Write something like, ‘This will confirm our conversation on June 15, 2016 in which I reported sexual harassment by my supervisor Jeff Roe. I reported the following instances of sexual harassment to you: [list them]. Please take prompt action to investigate this matter and address this situation.’”
Having written accounts of the harassment and how your employer responded can be helpful should you need to take further legal action.
2. Understand Your Rights And The Relevant Laws
Understanding your workplace’s policies regarding sexual harassment can help you use the right language when reporting an incident. Having direct wording in a company handbook can be helpful to point to, should you choose to contact HR again or to understand whether HR isn’t doing their job to enforce company policies. As writer Julia Horowitz writes for CNN Money, “the problem isn't generally the lack of a harassment policy, but rather the lack of follow through.” If your employer isn’t following through, read up on federal laws regarding workplace harassment.
In accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workplace sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination. As the American Association of University Women (AAUW) states, sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
3. Speak Out And Seek Help Outside Your Employer
Laura MacLeod, an HR expert with From The Inside Out Project, recommends revisiting your claim with HR with all the relevant information. “If HR has determined your claim has no merit, they will put this in writing and it should have specific reasons listed,” MacLeod told Bustle via email. “At this point, you could go back to HR to dispute (address their points specifically and be ready to produce cold hard evidence). If the dispute is not successful, consider outside legal action and tell HR your plan to pursue this,” MacLeod said. “That might be enough to get HR back on track, but maybe not. If you pursue legal action, get all the facts from a competent lawyer.”
Filing a complaint with the EEOC is also an option. The AAUW had a comprehensive list on what to expect when filing a discrimination complaint.
4. If You Need To, GTFO Of That Job
Not everyone has the ability or economic freedom to quit their job if it’s becoming a hostile work environment. In an ideal and just world, a person who has been harassed should not be the one met with career consequences in that situation. However, there is no shame in leaving an employer who is not supportive of your safety and well-being and seeking work elsewhere.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.