As you read this article, your news feeds are no doubt filling up with high-profile stories about sexual harassment. Recently, hashtag campaigns and subsequent magazine covers have brought harassment into the spotlight. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any easier for the average professional to speak up, when they find themselves the target of harassment at work.
If you feel like you may have been (or are being) sexually harassed at work, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself, to stop the harassment and even to take legal action.
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What Exactly Is Sexual Harassment?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. It also applies to employment agencies and to labor organizations, as well as to the federal government.”
The EEOC offers guidelines on what constitutes such harassment, just in case you weren’t sure, but it’s not a definitive list. Sexual harassment includes “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
The EEOC also notes that the harasser does not have to be someone’s boss or supervisor (it can even be a client or customer), and the victim can be male or female (as can the harasser). They also note that while the “law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”
When to Involve Your Manager, HR, the EEOC or a Lawyer
As a first step, the EEOC advises telling the harasser to stop — provided that you feel comfortable doing so.
If you don’t feel comfortable addressing the person directly, you can also take steps like talking to a supervisor in your organization about the behavior.
Your company or organization also might have specific policies in place against sexual harassment, so you should consult any materials from HR on the matter. They might require written statements, timelines, and proof of the harassment (say, if it was done via email or text), so you should collect and document any and all harassment in detail. The law firm of Allred, Maroko and Goldberg (yes, that Allred) has an extensive post on what to include in harassment documentation that may give you a good place to start.
You can also file a complaint with the EEOC, though there are specific time limits and processes for making those complaints. Read more at their website, and see how the process is different for federal employees.
When should you talk to a lawyer? It might be time to bring in legal help if you feel that you cannot resolve the harassment issue through channels in place at your work, after you file a complaint with the EEOC, or if you feel you were illegally retaliated against for bringing the issue to light.
You can of course also talk to a lawyer to explore your options for sexual harassment cases. The group Equal Rights Advocates offer a toll-free, multilingual phone line for their advice, as well as other resources. You can also talk to your local chapter of the ACLU or read this basic piece by the American Bar Association on how to find a lawyer.
Some special helplines and resources have also been launched or seen increased use in recent months, including:
- In the wake of the allegations in Hollywood, the group Women in Film have launched a special helpline and legal aid service to those who experienced sexual harassment in the film industry.
- The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) launched a helpline and app for those in its community who would like to report sexual harassment claims.
- RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, has reported a spike in reports and calls to its helpline this fall.
- The DOD Safe Helpline serves members of the military and helps them to act to protect themselves and serve others who need assistance.
What to Try Before You Take Legal Action
Did the harassment take place years ago, at a past job? Suzy Strutner offers a lengthy and very informative piece at Huffington Post about dealing with a past cases of harassment and what your options are for legal and other courses of action.
“If you were harassed more than 10 months ago, you likely can’t take legal action against your harasser under federal law,” she writes.
But, it isn’t always about legal action, she adds. Sometimes it’s about making sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else, especially if that person is still in a position of power over others.
“The question is, what’s the purpose of coming forward? If the reason is to alert other individuals to this problem, then it doesn’t matter how long has gone by,” Sunu Chandy, legal director at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Strutner.
What to Look for in the Future Workplace
In 2017, it may seem simple to determine sexual harassment from something less serious. But women have been struggling to free themselves from sexual harassment in the workplace for far longer than just the 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
In 2016, Time magazine published a breakdown of the (brief) history of sexual harassment at work going back to the 18th century. Writer Sascha Cohen notes that as discussions and public acknowledgment of the prevalence of sexual harassment became more widespread, so too did calls to action to end it.
“Perhaps unsurprisingly, with greater awareness came greater pushback,” Cohen writes.
As we’re discussing harassment more and more every day, we’ll hopefully see justice for victims and an end to the practice as well.
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