When and How to Report Sexual Harassment at Work

When you start a new job, you will likely be asked to contact Human Resources (HR) if you ever experience any kind of harassment at work, but this path has not always been the most rewarding for employees. In fact, one in five employees do not trust their HR departments, according to a new Zenefits survey , and more than one-third of respondents say they avoid contacting HR altogether because of a problem, at least in part because they are afraid retribution. This problem is especially acute when it comes to people who are sexually harassed at work. If they feel they cannot trust HR with their complaints, what else can they do?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new, but for a long time, many people simply considered it an inevitable part of the job. This began to change in the 1960s and 1970s when the second wave feminist movement made the issue public and eventually went to court. In 1980, this led to the fact that the Commission on Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) said that sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Section VII. This was later confirmed in the historic 1986 Supreme Court case . The 1990s brought public announcements that gave examples of what sexual harassment looked like in the workplace and said that we“don’t have to accept it.”

But as the Zenefits study shows, the company that tells you something is against its policies, and the company that actually enforces those policies is not the same thing. To be clear: no one should have to deal with any kind of harassment or feel like they should remain silent about it. But is reporting incidents to HR the best way to deal with this, or are there better options? And in any case, if you are writing a report, what evidence do you need to collect and provide? We spoke with HR professionals as well as people who have reported sexual harassment to better understand what might be most helpful. Please note that some names have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the interviewee.

Should you report sexual harassment to HR?

Like everything else, not all HR departments are created equal, so they cannot be grouped under one category, especially when it comes to reporting sexual harassment. Deanna Baumgardner was on both sides of this issue: about 15 years ago, she told HR that she had been sexually harassed at work and had no positive experience. Since then, Baumgardner has founded Employers Advantage , a HR services company that provides outsourcing services to small businesses.

“After reporting the issue, I was mistreated and then kicked out and fired because the work environment was too abusive to me,” she tells Lifehacker. This incident was an important moment in her career. “I was so disappointed in my chosen profession that since then I have set myself the task of changing HR,” explains Baumgardner.

In his experience, Baumgardner says that when someone reports sexual harassment to HR and it doesn’t go well, it usually happens for one of two reasons. First, the HR representative may not know how to handle the situation and “completely loses the ball.” Second, and far more likely, the HR representative does not have the authority to make a decision they know is correct, even if they have made a recommendation to their superiors.

“HR is the link between employees and decision makers, and decision makers may not accept HR recommendations for a variety of reasons, which creates a bad reputation for HR,” explains Baumgardner. “The other side of this is that HR cannot tell the employee the details of what is going on behind the scenes with the decision makers, which makes it seem like HR is the problem.”

Who does HR actually represent?

One of the common traits about HR is that they “protect the company, not the employees,” but in theory it shouldn’t. “This question hurts me as a HR professional , ” Karen Young, owner of HR Resolutions , told Lifehacker. “The duty of HR is to protect the interests of the employer and the employee. Sometimes it is very difficult to follow this line, but it can be handled correctly. Without the protection of the company, there would be no need for employees; however, without employee protection, there would be no company and no need for HR. ”

Opinions differ on this. According to Susan Krumiller – founder and owner of Crumiller the PC , feminist forensic firm specializing in discrimination based on sex and pregnancy in the workplace – employees of the department staff really “needed only to protect the company,” but “protect the company” can mean different. things depending on the values ​​of the organization. “Ultimately, the decision on how to proceed is highly political,” Krumiller told Lifehacker. “We never advise people what steps to take without first gaining a clear understanding of the company’s culture, who the players are, who makes decisions, what allies a person can have and what goals they have.” For example, if you love your job in a different way, you can take a different approach than if you hated it and wanted to leave.

What to expect in an “ideal” reporting situation

Before we get into potential reporting issues, here’s what Young believes should happen when you file a sexual harassment complaint with HR:

  • You will be interviewed by HR. They may ask you for a written statement or they may provide you with a summary of your interview.
  • The alleged persecutor will be interviewed by HR. Anyone interviewed should familiarize themselves with the company’s policy and the “no retaliation” policy.
  • Witnesses will be interviewed. This may take some time – these processes are not necessarily fast.
  • Privacy is important, but often difficult to maintain, especially in small spaces.
  • Someone needs to contact you when the investigation is complete. They won’t be able to give you all the details of the solution, and they shouldn’t. Just like you would not want other people to know, if you are disciplined you should not ask, you know all the details about someone else’s discipline. (Naturally, if the alleged stalker has been eliminated, everyone will know the outcome.)
  • If the person has not been fired, you should be given instructions on what to do / how to carry out the “move forward” plan.

HR reporting shouldn’t jeopardize your work (but sometimes it can)

Heather *, 52, says her career was ruined after she reported sexual harassment to human resources at two different companies. In the first case, she was fired after she reported the incident on behalf of one of her university staff, which was required of her under Section IX. The second time, Heather was sexually harassed by her boss. She reported it again and ended up losing her job. That was 13 years ago, and her pursuer is still in her position today. “You just don’t know where the landmines are,” she tells Lifehacker, “you don’t know what loyalty is.”

In an ideal workplace, contacting Human Resources about sexual harassment should not jeopardize your job. But according to Nikki Larchar, co-founder of simpleHR and Define the Line , we don’t live in a perfect world. She also notes that retaliation for reporting sexual harassment to HR does not necessarily mean you will lose your job. “Retaliation can look like giving up a promotion, a demotion, a lower performance score than you should have received, [and] being fired from your job,” she tells Lifehacker. Larchar points out that if you’ve faced any kind of retaliation from your employer, you do have federal protection under the EEOC – more on that in a minute.

Estelle * says she endured six years of sexual harassment while working on a male team at a popular tech company. After being fired, she filed a lawsuit against her employer. She won a six-figure payout and most of those responsible were fired. While this sounds like the best possible outcome, Estelle says the damage was done by then. “To this day, I still suffer from feelings of inferiority at work because I was told that I was only hired to be a ‘pretty face,’” she tells Lifehacker. “It was incredibly destructive and I still find it hard to believe that my work is valuable, not my face.”

Estelle did not report harassment to HR when she worked for the company for fear of losing her job or facing other forms of “punishment” (such as forfeiting accounts or receiving lower commission checks). The company even used this as the main part of its legal defense. “But it’s easy to see why I didn’t, given their power over my job, my salary and ultimately my happiness,” she says. “I wish I had a better ending on reporting issues in HR, but it’s still a huge challenge, especially for women.”

Crumiller says the biggest thing most people don’t know about is that if you get retaliated against for filing a lawsuit, you also now have a separate statement of claim about the stalking itself. “So in almost all scenarios it’s better to communicate, make a paper trail and protect yourself from retaliation,” she says.

How to report sexual harassment

If you do decide to report sexual harassment, here are some tips and strategies to consider, courtesy of HR professionals and people who have done it before.

Find your company’s anti-harassment policy

In the event of harassment, Diane Stegmeier, founder of WHEN (Harassment in the Workplace Ends), recommends that you review your employer’s anti-harassment policy, which can usually be found on your company’s intranet site. “Review the policy to become familiar with not only the verbosity of the document, but all of the commitments your employer has made to protect victims from retaliation,” she tells Lifehacker.

Consider dealing with your stalker

Given that every harassment situation – and the power dynamics involved – is different, this may not always be an option, but Laura Hendrick , HR Specialist at Choosing Therapy with over 20 years of HR experience, suggests that in some cases, you You may want to deal with the problem with an exhausted coworker first. “It would be a mistake to go straight to HR with any employee issue – even a perceived harassment issue,” she tells Lifehacker. “It’s because if you don’t have proof, this is the scenario he said. It is best to stop the pursuers. “

If you ask the abuser to stop – if possible – and he refuses, then she will advise you to contact HR or your manager. “When employees can no longer protect themselves, HR should be consulted,” says Hendrik. This does not mean that you are shifting the blame or responsibility onto your feet if you do not feel comfortable discussing the abuse with the abuser. If this is not your situation, that’s okay. This is not your fault.

Or you can go straight to HR

While it might be tempting to report sexual harassment to a trusted manager or supervisor, Julie Jensen, owner of Moxie HR Strategies and a 20-year HR veteran, thinks it’s best to go to HR yourself. “If an employee instead turns to a manager or supervisor whom he trusts, know that the supervisor is obliged to report this to HR on their behalf, so it is better to go directly to HR [yourself] so that your words are accurately represented,” she says. Lifehacker.

Self-reporting will at least let you know what was actually reported and how the company will react. Katherine Palmer, CEO and Co-Founder of Authentic Public Relations , shares the following personal story, showing how trusting someone else’s word has left her in the dark. After a man in her department said she was “going to rape” and “asked for it,” Palmer notified her former boss of the abuse. He decided to report the incident to HR on her behalf. “He said they would ‘take care of it,’” she tells Lifehacker. “I can’t tell you if they made it clear who they were protecting, but given [what happened next], I would say that protecting me was not the main concern.” Half of Palmer’s department avoided her for a full year after that.

Treat it like a lawsuit

Based on her experience, Heather provides several guidelines on what to do before contacting HR. The first thing to do, if possible, is to make audio recordings of your stalker, but only if you are working in a state that allows you to do so without their consent. “All lawyers care about is evidence,” she says. “So if you’re being stalked, my best advice is to write it down somehow before going to HR so you have irrefutable evidence.”

The second thing she offers is to get your own idea, if you can afford it. “I think you need to see a lawyer before you go to HR,” says Heather. “Most HR departments are headed by lawyers. These lawyers work for their boss, who is at the top of the food chain. ” She also explains that in her experience, when you report sexual harassment to HR, you are essentially providing the company with information that will help them build a case against you. “You are the plaintiff and you are testifying to the defendant,” Heather says. “They gather information and set up a case against you as soon as you start talking about the persecution. And usually you do all of this without a legal representative. This is the largest scam in the American workforce. “

Come prepared

If you do decide to report sexual harassment to HR, it is important to prepare. First, Jensen said to fully consider the incident. It is a good idea to be able to answer the following questions in detail:

  • What happened?
  • When did this happen (date / time)?
  • Where did the situation arise?
  • Who was involved?
  • Who could have witnessed or overheard this exchange?

Second, you need to gather evidence and bring it to the meeting. This could include “anything that indicates the persecution,” Larchar said, including emails, text messages, social media comments, videos, photographs, and a list of people who may have witnessed such behavior. While Jensen says HR shouldn’t require proof in order for you to just file a complaint, it can be helpful to let them know you have material to support your harassment claim.

For example, when Estelle filed a lawsuit against her former employee, she came in armed with text messages from colleagues, a manager and a vice president trying to attract sexual attention to her, as well as articles of a sexual nature that her colleagues cut from magazines and posted. her. “Every time there was an incident — for example, when a colleague put his hand on my knee under a table at a team meeting or made sexually suggestive movements while I was eating a banana — I sent myself an email from my personal account to document this over time. and a date stamp, ”Estelle explains. “My suggestion: Anytime something happens that feels wrong, document it.”

Do you have no hard evidence? Larher says that shouldn’t stop you from reporting sexual harassment. “Often times when an investigation is underway, although you may not have evidence to support your claim, there may be other employees in your organization who have experienced similar behaviors and situations,” she explains. “Your feedback is very powerful and the best way for your organization to understand the situation and take corrective action.”

Keep in mind that your report may help someone else.

This isn’t really advice, but it’s something you can still take into account when deciding whether to report sexual harassment to HR. Before starting her marketing career, Christy Lawler, founder and owner of CJL Consulting , a niche marketing agency serving restaurants, hotels and entertainment chains throughout the United States, was sexually assaulted in several jobs where she worked as a bartender and waiter. “When I worked in these roles, I always considered sexual harassment as part of the business, so I never stood up for myself,” she tells Lifehacker. “My advice to others is not to follow this path. Silence allows the violence to continue. “

While reporting sexual harassment to HR may not end the way you want it to, Lawler says she always recommends doing it (if you have supporting documentation) – not just for yourself, but also to improve the working conditions of your colleagues. … “Everyone deserves an environment in which they feel safe and valued,” she says. “Chances are, if your employer isn’t protecting you, you’re not alone. This kind of systematic ill-treatment will not stop until it becomes known. ”

What to do if HR doesn’t help

Ideally, your company’s human resources department will properly address your sexual harassment complaint, but this is not always the case. “Basically, I like to believe that you always have to report to HR and eventually justice will prevail in your case,” says Pete Sosnowski, vice president, co-founder and HR specialist at Zety . “But it also depends on the specific case. Some actions are punishable by law, [that is] HR is not the last resort if something goes wrong. “

One option that several HR experts have mentioned is to report the incident to the EEOC. “If the situation escalates and no action is taken to protect you, you can file a claim with the EEOC,” says Larchar. “One of the first questions they’re going to ask you is have you communicated this to anyone in your organization,” so be ready to answer. If you are unsure how to do this, there is a page on the EEOC website that will guide you through the reporting process.

Is something changing?

The “good news” is that the #MeToo movement has raised the voices of those who have been sexually harassed, and Jensen says organizations are now well aware of the importance of confronting them directly. “A moral and ethical company will take harassment complaints seriously and will do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of people in the workplace,” she explains.

Not only that, but there are organizations like The Shift Work Shop that offer sexual harassment prevention by prior consent. According to Amanda Ryu, the program’s founder, while traditional methods of preventing and teaching sexual harassment emphasize actions and behaviors to be avoided, they often ignore the formation and training of behaviors that actively prevent harassment, such as understanding power. dynamics, workplace relationships and harmony.

“Consent training promotes personal free will and communication skills so that all employees have the opportunity to speak up when they feel uncomfortable in the work environment,” says Ryu Lifehacker. “This is an attempt to create and foster a culture of respect where harassment is unacceptable and all employees are encouraged to speak out in the best interests of the company and create a safe, fair and equitable space for all.”

But Heather says that is not the case everywhere. “You really see where the situation has changed and HR departments are becoming more and more advocates for their employees, but where I live in the hinterland, this is not happening [here].” When it comes down to it, this unfortunately can mean that the person being persecuted has to put in the time and energy to state their position (as if they need another source of stress). Here are some resources that can be helpful if you find yourself in this position:

  • The WHEN digital guide on How to Report Harassment in the Workplace is a useful starting point both for understanding the process of filing a harassment report with the government and for contacting local / state / federal government organizations that have jurisdiction. depending on where the incident occurred.
  • Empower Work is a non-profit organization that connects users with trained peer consultants who provide immediate, confidential support. They educate users about the harassment situation and help them understand what to do next. To contact an advisor, dial 510-674-1414 or talk to someone on their website .
  • BetterBrave provides people with the resources and tools they need to navigate and solve toxic workplace problems.

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources who wish to remain anonymous.


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