Fowler, an accomplished computer scientist who worked for one year in the engineering department at Uber, writes that on her first day of work (post-training), her new manager sent her blatantly inappropriate messages on the company’s chat platform: “It was clear that he was trying to get me to have sex with him, and it was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR.”
She felt confident that Uber -- a well-established, good-sized company -- would address the situation appropriately so that she could feel as comfortable as possible at work in spite of this episode. Instead, she says, “I was told by both HR and upper management that even though this was clearly sexual harassment and he was propositioning me, it was this man's first offense, and that they wouldn't feel comfortable giving him anything other than a warning and a stern talking-to.
“Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer,'" Fowler adds. "I was then told that I had to make a choice: (i) I could either go and find another team and then never have to interact with this man again, or (ii) I could stay on the team, but I would have to understand that he would most likely give me a poor performance review when review time came around, and there was nothing they could do about that.”
We are astonished that in an engineering department in Silicon Valley -- where gender diversity tends to be a priority and a badge of pride -- it seems that mid-level management and human resources aligned to silence and punish a woman who had the courage to raise sensitive issues, rather than supporting her and addressing the predator.
So what should you do if you’re being sexually harassed and your claims are not addressed?
1) Document, document, document.
If you have any documentation that proves you have been harassed, hold on to it. If statements were made over a company chat system, like in Fowler’s case, take a screenshot, as she did. If you have evidence of inappropriate remarks made over email or text, be sure to save everything so that you can back up your story when you approach management and HR.
Hopefully, documentation will be enough to prompt your company to act -- but if it’s not, you can take your documentation to a lawyer. In fact, Sezgin Khousadian LLP, a Plaintiff's Employment & Labor law firm that specializes in representing employees who have had their rights violated by their employers, says that if you believe you’ve been sexually harassed at work, you should “immediately consult with an attorney since time may be of the essence. Simply stated, state laws set certain deadlines for you to take action.”
2) Go up a level. And up a level again. Until you get to the CEO.
When Fowler’s blog post went live yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick responded by saying that it was the first time he had been made aware of the situation, and that he had instructed his company’s new Chief Human Resources Officer “to conduct an urgent investigation into these allegations.”
The lesson here? Don’t be afraid to bring your claims to the highest level of leadership, especially if your more immediate managers or HR have ignored them. If you’re worried about compromising your position, rest assured that your employer has no right to penalize you for speaking up.
As the team at Sezgin Khousadian LLP explains, “employers cannot subject an employee to an adverse employment action due to an unlawful reason or a legally protected activity.”
3) Engage others who have had the same experience.
When Fowler first reported her manager’s behavior, she was told that it was his “first offense” -- yet when she got to know other women engineers at Uber, she learned that many of them had had similar experiences, and some women had even endured harassment from the same man she’d reported.
She said that “It became obvious that both HR and management had been lying about this being ‘his first offense,’ and it certainly wasn't his last. Within a few months, he was reported once again for inappropriate behavior, and those who reported him were told it was still his ‘first offense.’
Of course, some incidents of sexual harassment are isolated. But if you suspect that others you work with might have dealt with something similarly inappropriate - whether instigated by the same person who targeted you or by someone else - your instincts are probably correct. Don’t be afraid to open up to the colleagues you trust and to encourage them to share their stories with you.
Facilitating an open dialogue and finding support among your colleagues might encourage you to speak up for yourself - especially if you find that harassment in your workplace is widespread, or if you catch management in lies (like Fowler did).
4) Post anonymously on Fairygodboss and other review sites.
Fowler’s decision to share her story with the public was incredibly courageous. She made herself vulnerable to scrutiny and all that goes with it (read: internet trolling).
One of the main reasons that Fairygodboss was founded was to provide women with an anonymous space where they can share their personal experiences at work -- both positive and negative. While many employees may understandably be hesitant to publicize a terrible experience, new outlets, including Fairygodboss, give those employees a voice.
Although we’re outraged to hear about what Fowler endured at Uber, we’re so glad she decided to share her story. We hope it inspires other victims of harassment to similarly come forward, even if anonymously on sites like Fairygodboss; ultimately, it is increased transparency that will prompt employers to more appropriately deal with instances of injustice.
Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace and lives of women.
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