Exactly What To Do If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed At Work

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In less than a year, two very high-profile cases of sexual harassment have come to light in the U.S. Last year, Fox and Friends host Gretchen Carlson sued Fox chairman Roger Ailes, alleging she was fired because she wouldn’t have sex with him. This month, veteran Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a Medium post describing her own experience of sexual harassment and her subsequent decision to leave the company. And now, A.J. Vandermeyden, a female engineer at Tesla, is suing her employer for sexual harassment, alleging that not only has she been repeatedly harassed and paid less than her male counterparts, but when she reported her concerns, she was also further mistreated.

Once the first two women came forward, others at their companies followed. Additional reports of harassment and a toxic company culture surfaced from those within Uber. It’s not surprising, considering that a survey of more than 200 women who work at Silicon Valley’s best-known companies found that 60% have been sexually harassed on the job. A broader study by Cosmopolitan in 2015 found as many as 1 in 3 women reporting being sexually harassed at work.

In the U.S., even though the law has been in place for over 50 years, harassment persists, says Catherine Tinsley, PhD, because “men have more social status.” Tinsley, a professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, says that such sexual advances are a power play and a way to put a woman who is being particularly “uppity” in her place. “That’s not the way it should be,” she underscores. “It’s the way it is.” Which is why it is important to report any instance of harassment. Of course, sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to women, but it does happen to women more often. In 2013, for example, over 10,000 charges involving sexual harassment were brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), 82% of them by women.

Tinsley notes, “You can never be fired for raising the issue, but know that when you escalate, [the company’s leadership] is compelled to investigate, and they can’t necessarily do it anonymously.” She understands that escalating a sexual harassment claim can make some people feel uncomfortable. That can be due to having to recount the incident(s) to others, or whether the employee trusts the company’s culture and processes or not.

Cadigan says an officer of the company (such as a vice president or C-suite executive) is required to report any claim of sexual harassment brought to their attention. “I have had many women, and some men, come to me over the years and say, ‘I want to tell you something, but I don’t want anyone to know,’ or they say, ‘I want to tell you something in confidence, but I don’t want you to do anything about it.’” When he’s gotten such a request, Cadigan says he’s explained that he’s required to report and act on two things: “A claim or witnessing of sexual harassment, and a law potentially being broken in the company.”

That said, Cadigan offers a series of practical steps a worker should take if they’ve been sexually harassed.

1. Read your company policy and the law on sexual harassment (if any) in your state or jurisdiction very carefully and print them out. The policy will usually include your rights, protections against retaliation, and an outline of what happens if a claim is reported.

2. Find out if your company has a policy that protects whistleblowers from retaliation. If they have one, read it and print it out.

3. Determine who in your chain of command is the most mature, reasonable, and capable of being objective in handling something as sensitive as your harassment claim.

4. Write down what you plan to say to report the harassment. Have as many specifics as possible. Make sure you clarify how the harassment has affected your ability to do your job. Practice with someone you trust outside the company who will keep this confidential. This will help you to be calm when you make your claim.

5. If you have any witnesses that you trust, ask them for confirmation and support. This is a delicate and risky step that you may not want to take unless you trust that this person will keep the issue confidential until and if they are interviewed as part of a formal investigation.

6. Ask for a meeting with the person you choose in your chain of command and invite the appropriate executive from HR.

7. Explain the situation, give examples, give the names of witnesses, and tell them the impact this has had on you. Let them know that you did your homework: You were subject to what you believe violates the company’s sexual harassment policy and/or the law, and show them your printed evidence. Tell them that you want the behavior to stop in order to work in a safe and supportive environment.

8. Once you have laid out your complaint, ask: “Do you think this behavior is acceptable at this company?” If you get them to admit it’s wrong, make sure you write it down in your notes.

9. Listen to what they say and write everything down. Let them see you are documenting, and ask them to slow down if necessary.

10. Thank them and ask what the next steps are, who will conduct the investigation, who they will talk to, how long will it take to complete it, etc.

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