A few months ago, a girlfriend of mine started a new job. Her boss was friendly, if a bit neurotic, but she felt challenged in her new role and was learning something new every day. After several weeks, she began to notice some peculiar behavior from her boss, some of which made her very uncomfortable.
He would often pat her on the head after giving her feedback on an assignment and would noticeably “adjust” himself during meetings. After speaking with other co-workers, she found out that he made others uncomfortable, too. He regularly made casual conversation about sex and would often comment on the outfits worn by his female co-workers. Although these women felt offended by his behavior, nobody knew what to do about it. After all, he was a senior leader, and everybody felt nervous to cross him.
The experience of my friend and her co-workers is one that occurs with a frightening degree of frequency. A 2016 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that as many as 1 in 4 women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Even worse, 75% of the women who spoke up about the harassment faced some form of retaliation. For this reason, much of the harassment that occurs at work goes unreported.
Of course, filing a lawsuit is one way to deal with harassment. But, for most people, this is a last resort. If you do not have the resources, time, or desire to file a formal lawsuit, below are five steps you can take if you are being sexually harassed at work.
1. Clearly communicate your boundaries. A coworker’s behavior might be causing you distress, but it is completely possible that he or she has no idea they are being offensive. Let the person know that their conduct is inappropriate and that it makes you uncomfortable. Be firm in your tone and demeanor so that the offender knows you are serious. Putting the person on notice in writing is also a good idea. In some cases, this may be enough to make the behavior stop.
2. Know your rights. Even if you do not intend to file a formal lawsuit, you should have a clear understanding of your legal rights and remedies. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII also prohibits retaliation against you for reporting the harassment or for participating in any investigation or proceeding related to the harassment.
Most companies also have a formal anti-harassment policy. A strong policy will forbid sexual harassment and also provide detailed action steps employees can take if they experience harassment while at work. If your company does not have one, it might be up to you to advocate for one.
3. Document everything. It is important that you keep a detailed record of every incident of harassment that you experience. Be sure to write down dates, names, locations, witnesses, and a detailed description of the offensive conduct. This will be a record that you can refer to later during any internal investigations conducted by your HR department, or if you decide to pursue legal recourse in the future.
4. Seek Support. Experiencing sexual harassment at work can be incredibly stressful to the mind, body, and spirit. You should not feel that you need to handle it alone. Speak to a friend, a therapist, or anyone with whom you feel comfortable sharing. Talking about your experiences will help you sort through your feelings and can help you feel empowered at a time when you are likely feeling vulnerable.
5. Quit. If you feel you have taken every step you can to stop the harassment and nothing seems to be working, then it may be time to quit. Do keep in mind that if you quit, it may hamper your ability to seek legal recourse in the future. That said, if you feel unsafe or can no longer emotionally tolerate your environment, you should feel comfortable walking away. Remember that no job is worth risking your emotional or mental health and safety.
Natalia Marulanda is a former practicing attorney who currently works on women's initiatives at a law firm New York City. She also runs The Girl Power Code, a blog dedicated to empowering women in the workplace and in their daily lives.
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