• Introduction
  • Decision Tree for Victims
  • Decision Tree for Coworkers
Sexual Harassment & Violence

Decision Trees for Victims & Coworkers

There are no easy answers for those experiencing sexual harassment and violence, or for their coworkers who may witness or perceive inappropriate conduct. However, if you are unsure about immediately reporting a harasser to your employer, there remain many available options that prioritize your safety and agency.

Victims

If you feel like you have been sexually harassed at work, it is important to remember that you are not alone. Recent surveys have revealed that a majority of working women in the U.S. have experienced some form of sexual harassment during the course of their working lives.  Moreover, in many instances, multiple women are harassed by the same perpetrator in the workplace.

You may be unsure whether a coworker’s conduct is sexual harassment. Perhaps you’re not ready to report a coworker or file a complaint. To help you wade through these decisions, the Decision Tree for Victims offers a few initial items to consider, links you to resources to help you know your rights, and presents various options and risks.

Coworkers

If you witness or suspect that a coworker is experiencing harassment, the most important thing that you can do to help is to speak directly with the victim and let them know that:

  • You saw it;
  • You think it is wrong; and,
  • You would like to know how you can help.

The Decision Tree for Coworkers provides tips to support a coworker who asks for help and guidance on providing support to victims.

The information provided herein is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice from Futures Without Violence, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No one should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this site 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.

Initial Items to Consider

What do you want to happen or change?
  • Do you feel comfortable and safe approaching the harasser?
  • Do you want to report the harasser?
  • Do you want anyone at work to know?
  • Do you want to not have to work with the harasser anymore?
  • Do you want the harasser to be held accountable in some way, such as being fired, suspended, or required to attend training?
  • Do you want the employer to change how they handle sexual harassment complaints? Do you want the employer to train all employees on respect and gender equity?
  • Do you want to be a part of an employee-driven structure to change the culture in your workplace so sexual harassment is prevented, and – when it happens – it is appropriately addressed?

There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but the answers will help determine which options you may want to choose. Each of these questions and steps that you may take as a result will also involve a calculation of risks. Back

Know Your Rights

Make sure that you have access to and review any formal policy and/or training on sexual harassment offered by your employer. This may include an employee handbook or online manual, a poster over the copier in the break room, language in a collective bargaining agreement if you are in a union, and/or visiting the website for the state and federal agencies that enforce the laws that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. To learn more about legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, visit the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). Back

  • NWLC Fact Sheet on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
  • NWLC FAQs About Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
You’re not ready to take action
You want the sexual harassment to stop, but you’re not ready to file a complaint or tell anyone at work

You’re not ready to take action
Consider writing down what happened, just in case you change your mind, and – at some time in the future – you do want to take steps to address it. Take care to note:
  • Date, time, and place of the misconduct, and anything said;
  • Any witnesses;
  • How it made you feel; and,
  • If you told anyone (e.g., friend or family member) about the misconduct soon after it happened.

There are many potential reasons why you may not want anything to happen right now, such as:

  • This may be a first and only time occurrence with someone you do not interact with very often;
  • You may be a new employee or in an entry-level position, and you want to figure out what protections are in place before saying anything.

Keeping the status quo is always an option. But keep in mind that the behavior may occur again, to you or someone else, and each time it does, it presents you with another opportunity to consider your options. No matter how much time has passed since the first occurrence and the number of times it has occurred, you still retain the option of taking steps to address it.

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You want the sexual harassment to stop, but you’re not ready to file a complaint or tell anyone at work
  • Address the Harasser (by yourself or with a coworker)
  • Speak with coworkers who have experienced harassment
  • Report the harasser to your employer
  • File a charge with a state or federal agency
  • Approach your workplace’s leadership
If you believe that the harassment will continue unless you speak up, you have several options. Some of these options do not require you to file a formal report or complaint with your employer, or speak to a lawyer.
Address the Harasser (by yourself or with a coworker)

Do you feel safe and comfortable directly addressing the harasser? What may result from approaching the harasser and telling him that the behavior is unwanted and makes you feel uncomfortable?

Because of power dynamics in the workplace, this may not be an option, but in some instances it may be. For example, is the sexual harasser a coworker with whom you have worked for some time and you believe that they truly may not know or understand that what they have done is offensive and has made you uncomfortable? Only you know if speaking directly to the individual will be effective or safe.

Should you decide to bring someone as a witness and to ensure your safety, the harasser may be less likely to talk with you. Furthermore, if you feel you need someone with you to talk with the harasser to ensure your safety, then it may not be safe to do so.

When you speak to the harasser, be specific and direct. Remind the harasser of the incident(s), explain that the behavior is inappropriate and unwanted, how it made you feel, and that you don’t want it to happen again. Depending upon the response, you may feel that this has addressed your concerns, but you may need to wait and see if the behavior ceases.

Some harassers may act as if they are being responsive to your concerns, but then retaliate against you. Examples of retaliation may include:

  • Starting false rumors about you, your sex life, or work performance, so that coworkers or management think less of you professionally.
  • If the sexual harasser is your boss or supervisor, they may stop giving you work, may give you a negative performance review, or exclude you from meetings or other opportunities. 

The best way to be prepared for possible retaliation is to anticipate that it might happen, and to document everything as it is occurring. If possible, keep a diary with dates, locations, what was said and done, by whom, etc. By keeping a record as the conduct is happening, you have information that may help you if you need to report retaliation in the future.

If you do experience retaliation from the sexual harasser or others after speaking with the harasser directly about the misconduct, you may want to consider reporting the retaliatory behavior. If so:

  • Report the harassment and retaliation to the person identified for reporting sexual harassment in your employer’s policy, manual, or employee handbook.
  • Make sure to provide a detailed written description of the behavior that you believe constitutes sexual harassment.
  • If you kept notes as the harassment was occurring, incorporate these notes into what you report.
  • If your workplace is too small to have a human resources department, or it has not provided information about reporting sexual harassment, you can contact your state’s Fair Employment Practices Agency, or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

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Speak with coworkers who have experienced harassment

If you believe that you are not the only person who has been sexually harassed by the harasser, you may want to try to speak to one or more of your coworkers who may have been sexually harassed as well. It is common for harassers to prey on multiple victims in the workplace.

Be careful about how you approach your coworkers. If you do not know them very well, do so in a private place where no one else can hear you. Begin by sharing your experiences with sexual harassment, and then ask them if they have experienced anything similar. This may result in them sharing their own experiences, or they may not. Even if they have not experienced anything similar, they may express a desire to help you.

Speaking with your coworkers about what you are experiencing can provide space and an opportunity for others to feel safe to share. Together, you can explore ways to collectively approach your employer to propose solutions. Only you can determine if this is the correct approach in your workplace.

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Report the harasser to your employer

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking directly to the harasser, but you don’t want to work with the harasser anymore, and/or you want the harasser to be held accountable for their actions, you have several options to alert your employer about the behavior.

Even if you think that your employer should already know about the harassment because you have seen the person who sexually harassed you engage in the same misconduct against others, do not assume that they do.

If your employer’s policy, manual, or employee handbook has identified someone for you to report to, and a method for reporting to them  (e.g., sending an email, filling out a form, etc.), make sure that you follow those instructions. Before making any oral or written report, try to ask for an opportunity to meet in person with the person designated in the policy to receive reports.

If you are in a union, you can bring a union representative with you to the meeting. If your union representative is not available, reschedule the meeting until your union representative is available. If you are not in a union, but would feel more comfortable to have someone with you when you meet with human resources, ask if you can bring someone with you (e.g., a coworker).

When you submit anything in writing, make sure to write at the top and the bottom of whatever you submit that you want it kept confidential and that it may not be shared with anyone else without your permission. Your employer’s policy should address whether reports can be kept confidential, so be sure to check the policy before submitting any report in writing. Also, keep a copy for your own records.

When you meet with human resources or another designee, before you share anything with them, make sure that you ask them about confidentiality, what will happen once you tell them about the harassment, and with whom they will need to share any report.

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File a charge with a state or federal agency

You may have a right to file a charge with a state and/or federal agency that enforces laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace if:

  • You have reported the sexual harassment to your employer, and you do not believe that they are taking action; or
  • Your employer is retaliating against you. Examples include suspending you, unfairly assessing your work performance, making you continue to work with your harasser, or firing you.

For more information, the National Women’s Law Center provides helpful legal information and a listing of attorneys in their Legal Network for Gender Equity who specialize in sexual harassment and discrimination cases.

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Approach your workplace’s leadership

State that you would like to be involved in the development of sexual harassment policies and procedures that change the culture in your workplace so that the behavior you experienced does not happen again, and – if it does – the victim is encouraged to come forward.

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Your coworker asks for your support

Engage your coworker in a conversation about their needs. Offer to listen and support the victim in any way she or he needs. Assure them that you will keep your conversations confidential,  and that you will not tell anyone at work unless your coworker says it is okay.

Perhaps offer to help find any workplace policies or procedures in order to explore options for reporting the harassment to the employer, or offer to explore ways to address the harassment other than reporting. 

Reinforce that you believe your coworker, that she or he deserves to be respected, and that everyone deserves a workplace free from sexual harassment, violence, and discrimination.

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Your coworker says everything is fine, and asks you not to do anything

Your coworker may have very good reasons for either denying what you saw, or not wanting to take action. She may not feel safe in the workplace, or may feel that she may be fired if management finds out. Only the victim knows what is the best path, and even if you think you do, it is important to honor her wishes.

You may want to consider taking this opportunity to approach the leadership in your workplace, and state that you would like to be involved in the development or revision of sexual harassment policies, procedures, and education efforts. Indicate that you would like to help change the culture in your workplace to prevent inappropriate behavior, and create an environment where everyone feels safe, supported, and respected.

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