The Top 10 Things Victims of Workplace Sexual Harassment and Violence Can Do
1. Know that it’s not your fault and you are not alone. The resurgence of #MeToo has revealed so many experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. You have the right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment and violence. And while it can be an isolating and traumatic experience, there are ways for you to seek help and receive support, so keep reading!
2. Reach out to a sexual assault counselor or the national hotline. Consider reaching out to an advocate who specializes in helping those who have experienced sexual violence. Each state has a sexual assault coalition with contacts to services in your area. Check out the list of coalitions here. You can be connected to local organizations that offer free counseling by calling RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673). They will connect you to a local service provider who can offer support or survivor advocacy (which includes discussing legal options). These conversations are confidential and generally cannot be disclosed without a judicial order — which provides you with a level of control and confidentiality when discussing options and sharing your experience.
3. Consider talking to someone at work whom you trust. If you feel comfortable, tell someone you trust at work about what you are experiencing. Seeking and receiving support from others, and just having someone to talk to can validate what you are going through. Talking to a trusted coworker can also help you work through some ideas to address the harassment. This person can even become an active ally in confronting the harasser with you or on your behalf, or demanding management take action to make the harassment stop. Please note that talking to a supervisor at work could start a formal complaint process — it is important to understand the limits of confidentiality at work. In general, conversations with co-workers are not legally protected. Conversations with a supervisor or any management of the company could trigger reporting processes and protocols for response to sexual harassment and violence in the workplace that may take the situation out of your hands.
4. Review your workplace’s internal policies and protocols. Consult your employer’s sexual harassment policy to see what the procedures are for reporting misconduct. If your employer doesn’t have a policy in place, talk to management or Human Resources about creating one. Here is a model workplace violence policy that addresses sexual harassment. In general, a workplace policy should have steps for reporting harassment, details about the investigation processes, and protections for retaliation against those who report harassment.
5. Familiarize yourself with federal, state, and local laws. You don’t need to be an expert, but equip yourself with enough knowledge about your rights. For example, it is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who report sexual assault or harassment in the workplace. If you report discriminatory and harassing behavior, you are protected from acts of retaliation which include termination, demotion, unfair schedule changes, and other adverse actions affecting the conditions of employment. In addition, most states have Fair Employment Practice (FEP) statutes, which often mirror the protections available under federal law. Another resource is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is the federal agency charged with enforcing federal employment anti-discrimination laws. The website contains information about your rights and options if you decide to file a formal complaint.
6. Document everything. Keep a detailed written record of comments or actions directed to you and to others. Include the details of what happened, the date, time, place, and any witnesses present. If you confided in anyone about what happened, include as much detail as you can of those conversations. Collect and save any evidence of the harassment. For example, if the harasser is sending you inappropriate texts, emails, or sending you unwanted gifts; take photos, screenshots, or copies of the unwanted contact. Save a backup copy in case your device crashes or you lose it, and keep this evidence somewhere safe outside of your workplace in case your work computer is confiscated or your work area is searched. Documenting the harassment is important because it can be used as evidence if you decide to file a complaint with your employer or a state or federal fair employment practices agency. This documentation also helps to set the timeline of events and keep a record for how the harassment occurred, which can be hard to remember when you are dealing with the trauma of harassment and violence.
7. If it’s safe for you to do so, consider reporting the harassment. If your workplace has a sexual harassment policy, it’s important that you follow the steps provided in the policy to make a complaint to your employer. If you do not follow the policy, there may be limitations on what you can pursue legally going forward. If the policy requires you to speak to someone in Human Resources, follow up any meetings with written confirmation detailing with whom you spoke, what was discussed, and the date and time of the meeting. Keep a written record of your employer’s actions (or inactions) after you report the harassment. If your employer doesn’t take any action or takes inadequate action, consider reaching out to an employment lawyer, contacting your state or local fair employment practices agency, or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Even if you don’t pursue a complaint, you can speak to an EEOC counselor for more resources. Please note that if you do pursue a complaint with a state or local agency or the EEOC, there are time limitations from the date of harassment or discrimination to when you can file your claim.
8. Organize. Sexual harassment and assault occurring in the workplace is more about abusive power and discriminatory practices than about sex. Sexual violence in the workplace is included in the federal workplace anti-discrimination statute, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because it causes not only the physical and emotional harm of sexual violence, but also harm to the victim’s opportunities and conditions of employment. One potential way to change the power dynamic within a workplace is to talk to other workers about the culture and conditions of the workplace and the behavior and conduct of bad actors, and work together to approach management and demand change. Many communities have worker rights’ organizations that will be able to discuss strategies for organizing to improve the working conditions for all at the workplace. Unions are also powerful advocates for worker rights and conditions within certain workplaces.
9. If it’s safe for you to do so, consider approaching the harasser. Believe it or not, some people may think they are being “playful” or “flirting” when engaged in harmful and offensive talk. If possible and safe to do so, directly confronting the harasser may be an option. Name the behavior out loud and be specific — “Your jokes and comments about my body and how my clothes fit make me extremely uncomfortable, and are inappropriate and unprofessional.” If you have a co-worker ally, see if he or she will accompany you to witness the confrontation. Be sure to ask for the changes that you want to see from the harasser. Remember that you are not to blame for the harassment and that you have a right to a sexual harassment-free work environment.
10. Listen to yourself and be kind to yourself. Experiencing sexual harassment or assault is traumatic, but the effects of trauma can be managed, and even minimized. Find ways to take care of yourself — such as favorite activities and de-stressing hobbies. Some survivors find that engaging in a new physical activity, like kickboxing or yoga, helps work out anger, frustration, and pain, or allows a survivor to get outside their “head” for a while. Other survivors have used the traumatic event as a catalyst for becoming an advocate, and some others find relief in expressing feelings through art or writing. Remember to breathe and be patient with yourself. Recovery is a process. Take one day at a time and know that there are various strategies and supports available for grounding, centering and processing trauma and trauma reactions.
The information provided herein is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice from Futures Without Violence, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or any individual authors, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this article without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.