How to Deal With Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

6 Steps to Take When You Are Experiencing Sexual Harassment at Work

You need to report sexual harassment so that you are left alone and the perpetator is stopped.
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Sexual harassment isn’t uncommon—sadly. The victims aren’t all female, and the perpetrators aren’t just male. Your boss, a coworker, or a customer, regardless of gender, are all potentially guilty of sexual harassment under certain circumstances.

If sexual harassment happens to you, your reaction can range from mild annoyance to utter devastation. The consequences to your career can also run the gamut. In a situation in which you experience sexual harassment that threatens your job or career, it is potentially critical.

Apparent sexual harassment can also leave you wondering what should you do next? Here’s what to do if you are experiencing sexual harassment at work.

1. Decide Whether the Conduct Is Sexual Harassment

Before taking action to complain to Human Resources about sexual harassment, determine whether the actions meet the criteria to qualify as sexual harassment.

“Hey Jane, I like your dress.” Sexual harassment or not?

“Hey Jane, I didn’t see you standing there,” as your coworker shuts down the porn on their computer screen. Sexual harassment or not?

“Hey Jane, if you don’t sleep with me, we'll fire you.” Sexual harassment or not?

In order for actions to meet the conditions required for sexual harassment, they need to meet the following criteria.

  • The victim has to be offended. So, even in the last example, if Jane thinks it’s funny and isn’t at all offended, it’s not sexual harassment. However, in the first example, Jane isn't necessarily the only victim. If Stephanie overhears the remark and is offended, she can also be considered a victim. When assessing whether a situation or remark is sexual harassment, the key question is to ask whether the sexual remark or action is “unwelcome.”
  • The remark or action has to be offensive to a reasonable person. In the first situation, a compliment, the remark needs to meet the reasonable person standard. Lots of questions would come up in this situation. What was their relationship like normally? How was the compliment given? Would a person observing from the outside think the compliment was creepy or normal human interaction? The decision about sexual harassment is not always cut and dried.
  • The behavior needs to be pervasive or serious. “Jane, if you don’t sleep with me, we’ll fire you” is serious enough that one comment is sufficient for sexual harassment. Observing pornography accidentally for a few seconds one time probably isn’t enough to establish a hostile work environment.

As you can see, situations are not always easy to assess and people can differ in their opinion about what sexual harassment is and what it is not. The unwelcome term means that a boss can carry on a sexual relationship with an employee and not be guilty of sexual harassment as long as the employee wants the relationship and it does not affect other employees. (Whether the relationship is prohibited by company policies is another question.)

However, if you find yourself asking if another person's remark was sexual harassment or if their behavior was inappropriate, then the behavior has already met the unwanted, unwelcome standard.

2. Take the Next Steps—Now—If You Decide You've Been Sexually Harassed

It’s easy for an employee outside of the sexual harassment situation to say, “You should have just spoken up right then.” Sometimes you can do that, “Gross! Why would you have that porn on your work computer?” and the problem is solved.

But other times, it’s not so easy. You can feel intimidated or become concerned that your job will be in jeopardy if you say something to a person who is senior to you.

Whenever possible, you do want to ask the person who is sexually harassing you to stop. This action will leave the individual with no doubt that their actions or comments are offensive to you and unwelcome. This will play a role in the subsequent sexual harassment investigation.

You need to get past these feelings and concerns and trust that your organization will respond appropriately when you charge another employee with sexual harassment.

The good news? Complaining about sexual harassment became easier and more accepted with the rise of the #MeToo movement. In a study by Next Concept Human Resource Association (NCHRA) and Waggl, 89% of respondents agreed with the following statement: “I anticipate that preventing sexual harassment will become a greater concern of company leadership in 2018, given the recent wave of high-profile cases in the news.”

"The responses were aligned across various demographics including age, gender, and job function. For respondents 61+ years of age and for people from large for-profit corporations with 20,000 employees or more, a full 94% agreed that sexual harassment will become a greater priority in the coming year."

3. Follow Your Company's Official Sexual Harassment Complaint Procedures

The first step to take is to follow your company’s procedures for reporting sexual harassment. You should find these outlined in your employee handbook and available on your company’s internal website.

Usually, these guidelines will say to report such behavior to your manager (assuming that your manager isn’t the perpetrator) or to human resources. They may also give the name of another person to contact, especially in companies that don’t have established human resources departments. (Companies have to have 15 or more employees before sexual harassment law applies.)

If your company has sexual harassment guidelines, it is best to follow these steps. Report directly to the person or department listed and do so in writing (see below). If you don't feel comfortable reporting to the person listed, for whatever reason, you can report the sexual harassment to any manager in the company.

Whatever you do, don’t wait too long to complain about sexual harassment. The law only allows 180 days from the incident, or 300 days if it’s also covered by state law. If you wait longer than that, your company may still act, but they aren’t required to take action.

4. Write a Formal Complaint Letter About the Sexual Harassment

It’s alright to report sexual harassment in person, but you should always follow up with a formal email or letter. The letter should contain the following information:

  • Use the subject line, “Formal complaint of sexual harassment.” This puts the company on notice that you are not just complaining about a rude comment or an annoying coworker. This is a serious complaint that requires action.
  • A timeline, with as many names, dates, and actions documented as possible. Any witnesses you can list are helpful when the investigation is conducted.
  • Details of who said what, when, and what the consequences were.
  • Whether the behavior is ongoing. You may wish to report that you saw porn on your coworker’s computer, but if it was a one-time offense and you’ve never seen it again. This is a very different complaint from the complaint that sexual harassment is severe and pervasive.
  • Add any concerns that you have about your situation. Are you concerned that because you turned down a date request, your manager will overlook you for a pay raise or the best project? Include that information.

5. Decide Whether You Need to Hire Your Own Attorney

If your company acts promptly and as they should, you probably don’t need to hire an employment law attorney. In the unusual case that they don’t, however, you can hire your own attorney (it will cost you) or you can file a complaint with the EEOC. Generally, though, you don’t need an attorney or to file an outside complaint if your company acts promptly on your complaint.

6. If You Experience Inaction From Your Company or Retaliation From Your Perpetrator, Hire an Attorney

If you are concerned about your organization's handling of your sexual harassment complaint or disagree with their findings or their conduct of the investigation, you may wish to contact an attorney.

If you experience what you consider retaliation because you filed a formal complaint, contact an attorney. Retaliation against you for filing a complaint is also illegal and if you suffer any adverse consequences for complaining about sexual harassment, you may wish to take the legal route with representation from your own legal counsel.

The Bottom Line

Don’t be embarrassed or afraid to speak up if sexual harassment happens to you. You’re not alone, and the law is on your side.