Let me preface this detailed discussion on enduring and reporting sexual harassment in the workplace by stressing how complex and frustrating the entire process is. Sexual harassment and sexual assault is never a welcomed issue in a woman's life, but it gets exceedingly complicated when it happens in the workplace. The unfortunate truth is that the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace is often the person that suffers the most consequences in their career when it comes to reporting the incident. Due to this utterly depressing fact, I will at one point during this piece recommend that you not always report an incident of sexual harassment. Although I am not proud of that statement, I think it is important that women understand the realities of the world we live in. Keeping in mind that the corporate landscape is a place full of grey-areas with a distaste for powerful females, here is everything you need to know about reporting sexual harassment and assault in the place that cuts your paychecks.
What constitutes sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature," which basically means it can encompass anything under the sun when it comes to unwanted behavior of a sexual nature. Even if you weren't physically touched, you can still be a victim of sexual harassment, which means it is happening around you in the workplace far more than you may notice.
What is the first thing you should do?
Since the term sexual harassment casts such a wide net, there are many forms of harassment that can occur in the workplace with varying levels of trauma. It could be as little as a provocative text or as traumatic as being physically assaulted. Regardless of the severity, the number one thing to remember is to get out of the situation as soon as possible. Do not try and take matters into your own hands or try and confront the culprit yourself. The sad truth is harassment and assaults that happen in the workplace, have financial and political ripple effects farther than you can imagine. So just remember: do NOT engage and get out of the situation as soon as possible, it is not your job to try and be a hero.
What do you need to be careful of?
After you have been the victim of sexual harassment, the number one thing you need to remember is that every step the company takes when they are notified of the incident is SOLELY to minimize the odds you take legal action against the company or parties involved. Almost all companies have in your contract an "at-will" employee cause, which means they have the right to fire you for any circumstances (they do not have to be legitimate reasons or be fully explained to you) as long as they do not violate your civil rights. So they cannot fire you just because you are a woman or gay, but they CAN fire you if they think you may be about to sue them. So keep your cards close to your chest and do not tell other coworkers about the incident. Telling your coworkers just adds more witnesses with more confusing accounts as to what happened, all of which will not help you if legal action needs to be taken.
How does the reporting process work?
This is one of the most ironic parts of being the victim of sexual harassment, it is not fair nor does it fully make sense, but legally it is how the process works. The SECOND you tell your superior that harassment or an assault has taken place they HAVE to immediately notify your human resources representative and get the company's legal team involved. And when I say the second you tell them, I mean your superior will literally be dialing your HR representative before you even finish telling them what happened. This is not out of grave concern for what you went through, but to protect themselves from getting caught up in the legal mess that could potentially ensue. If they do not immediately report the incident, they can be accused of trying to talk you out of reporting the incident, encouraging you to change your story, etc. So the number one thing you need to realize is that as soon as you tell your supervisor what happened, the process goes completely out of your hands.
What is the incentive not to report an incident of sexual harassment?
Now, this leads to the aforementioned part I hate. Once the ball starts rolling on the reporting process it will not, under any circumstances, stop. In my experience with reporting my sexual harassment, and the consequences I faced as a young businesswoman, I can honestly say I do not recommend that you report every incident of sexual harassment you may face. If you are in a business that is male-dominated and tends to involve client interaction, especially with alcohol, it is going to happen A LOT. Not only are you labeled the girl who cries sexual harassment, you could see yourself losing opportunities at work, getting left out of networking events or interacting with certain clients. Is it wrong to feel uncomfortable at work? Absolutely, but the truth is we do not live in a world where sexual innuendo and advances are NOT be part of the work atmosphere, nor do we live in a world where women can afford to hold themselves back at work. If, however, you ever feel truly unsafe, violated or were the victim of a physical assault then you should without a doubt report it to your superior. A career is important, but your safety is more important.
What happens next?
Now that the reporting process has begun, there are many things that go into motion. The first is that you will meet with an HR representative from your company, although it will not be your usual HR rep, they will pick somebody from a different division to avoid any bias. You will meet with them and a third party lawyer almost immediately. All companies have lawyers on retainer to deal with HR related legal issues. Although they are not "technically" lawyers from your company, and thus give the illusion that they do not have ulterior motives, they are in fact kept on retainer by funds from the company. So if you were the victim of a sexual assault, were physically harmed or are asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, I HIGHLY recommend you hire outside counsel before meeting with your HR rep and the "third-party" lawyer. Once this process begins, it is going to be very difficult to determine who is on your "side" and who has your best interests at heart. So at the risk of sounding like an old mobster out of a Scorsese movie: trust nobody unless you are the one signing their checks.
What will the lawyer ask you?
If you've never had to give a statement to police or met with a lawyer before, then the meeting to report the incident may be fairly overwhelming. You will be asked to tell the story of what happened to you in GREAT detail. What exactly did he say? Where exactly did he put his hand and for how long? Did anybody else see this happen and what are their names? Even if you weren't physically hurt in the incident, it can be extremely uncomfortable, embarrassing and a humiliating conversation to have with somebody you didn't know 10 minutes ago. After they have gotten your statement they will interview other people involved in the incident: witnesses, the accused and they will ALWAYS interview your superior. Keep in mind that you will most likely get some resentment from the people you name in the meeting. Those that were "witnesses" may feel as though you are accusing them of not doing anything or trying to get them into trouble. Just remember, that's not what you are trying to do, you are merely complying with the reporting process and the lawyer's demands. So don't be afraid to remind your coworkers of that. If they want to blame you for something you were the victim of, that's their problem, not yours.
What happens after the meeting?
In a terrible twist of irony, once you have given your statement, the situation is 100% out of your hands. Although you can indicate what you would like the lawyer and HR team to do with the information you gave them i.e. punish the accused, sweep the incident under the rug, etc. the legal team makes the ultimate decision. It can feel like you are being victimized all over again because you have no control over the course the open investigation takes. Remind yourself that you did the right thing by reporting the incident and taking the correct steps to make sure it was documented accurately. Typically, those people that harass and assault women in the workplace are not one time offenders, which means there are other women who have also been victims, but may have not had your courage to come forward. Although you may not be happy with the decision the company and legal team makes, that is not something that needs to weigh on your shoulders.
How do you manage the repercussions at work?
The good news in all of this is that most companies have a clause in their contract that ban managers from "retaliating" against employees who report incidents to HR. Meaning that your boss cannot punish you for coming forward. The bad news is this only protects literal retaliation like a direct demotion. There are many other ways you can suffer consequences from reporting harassment. After my incident, I was taken off one of our biggest accounts due to the parties involved, I was given the cold shoulder by coworkers who were present when the harassment occurred, and worst of all, I was looked at as a victim. Being a young female in a male-dominated business means you are constantly trying to remind them that you are an asset because of your intelligence and drive, you are not arm candy nor a liability because of your looks. Reporting an incident can be a step backwards in this regard, but remember that it was the right thing to do.
How about personal repercussions?
With all of the office politics and legal meetings involved in reporting sexual harassment, it is easy to forget that you need to process what happened personally. Even if you were not the victim of a physical attack, it does not mean you harassment couldn't have lingering effects, which were only worsened by the stress of your workplace's involvement. So see a therapist if you need help getting through everything and make sure you take steps to take care of yourself. Since it can take a significant amount of time before the legal and HR teams reveal what they plan to do about the incident, it is best that you do not talk in detail about what happened to coworkers or even friends. Talk to your therapist, outside legal counsel or spouse as those conversations are protected under law. If the company's legal counsel makes a decision about the incident that you are not happy with, remember that you will get through it. It is their job to minimize the legal and financial repercussions for the company, it is your job to minimize the repercussions to your health and your career.
Why is it taken so seriously?
My final warning when it comes to sexual harassment is to keep in mind that is taken VERY seriously, which is why the reporting process is so swift and official. Companies have lost millions in civil suits to sexual harassment cases and careers have been ruined by sexual harassment allegations. This should not deter you from reporting an incident, but remind you why there are so many consequences and parties involved when an official report is made. Men and women in the workplace today have been reminded again and again how seriously these allegations are treated, and how easily seemingly harmless flirtations can be interpreted as unwanted attention. They know better, so don't let that deter you from protecting yourself.
Have you had to overcome sexual harassment in the workplace? Tweet at us @wewomenUSA
This article was written by Dagney Pruner. Follow her on Twitter @dagneyp