There is no great mystery to sexual misconduct in the workplace. We know it is wrong and socially abhorrent. We know it causes tremendous damage to its victims on many levels and can rob them of their self-confidence, self-respect, health, jobs and livelihoods.
We know it can be expensive to the organizations involved if they don’t do what is right to prevent it and respond in a fair, but robust, fashion when it occurs. We know that organizations know what is expected of them and how to minimize risk.
Yet it occurs every day. It happens in giant corporations and small businesses. It happens in political parties, in Congress, on Parliament Hill, in newsrooms and on college campuses. And when it happens, it can be the cause of untold harm to victims, as well as to the reputations of harassers and their organizations. Not only does it occur, it is pervasive. Some have called it an epidemic.
You need to know what you can do to prevent yourself — and others in the workplace — from becoming a victim. Or, at least, minimizing the harm that occurs if you come into contact with it.
Below you will find our best thinking based on the experiences of survivors and experts. We call them our 3 Must Knows for Survivor Survival™. Further down, you will see a selection of tools and resources to help you make informed decisions. Of course, these will be your decisions. The ZeroNow Campaign™ does not provide legal advice. But we do share what we have learned. There’s a lot of information packed into this section. Knowing it could spare you a lot of grief later. That was the feeling of the survivors who helped with it, with most of them lamenting if only they had this information when they could have used it. Experienced mentors are also available to help you navigate the road ahead based on the learning gained through their own unique personal journeys.
1 Know your rights
- Find out what the laws in your province or state say constitutes sexual harassment. A quick Google search will turn up the information you need.
- Check out our links to helpful resources, below.
- Read ZeroNow’s™ series, “Before You Speak Up.”
2 Know your organization
Your company’s or organization’s culture shapes your workplace and determines how well you are protected.
- Do its core values respect the dignity of women in the workplace?
- Does top leadership set a zero tolerance tone?
- Has your organization explicitly stated that women will be believed and supported when they report an incident?
- Does it make its anti-harassment policy available on its website and provide for anonymous reporting by whistleblowers?
- Do you know how other women have been treated by the organization after making a complaint? Have they been protected from reprisals?
Another big question to consider:
- Where does your harasser fit into the picture? If, for instance, he’s in a senior management or executive position, be aware that things may not go as advertised. The reality in many workplaces is that there is often one set of rules for the top and another for everybody else, regardless of what the policy might say.
The bottom line:
- Every organization should have a policy for protecting you and dealing with any potential violation of your rights in the workplace. That policy should be widely published and easily accessible even on an anonymous basis (you shouldn’t have to risk drawing attention to yourself by having to ask for a copy.) It should explain your rights, inform you of the process that will be followed if you report an incident, set out the steps in any investigation that is conducted, and tell you what you can expect the product of that investigation to be (a written report? binding recommendations? etc.). Transparency is essential to the integrity of any internal investigation. You should also insist on knowing who will be doing the investigation, the background, training and experience of that person as it pertains to the unique field of workplace sexual misconduct, and what personal information about you and your background the investigation will be gathering. A number of survivors tell us that they learned in their case that one of the first things the investigator investigated was the complainant’s postings on Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media. Photos of complainants seemed to be a particular obsession during such searches. Serious anti-harassment policies provide bold-lettered assurances that there will be no retaliation (like a demotion or reduced work hours) against you for making a complaint, and that you will not have to interact with your harasser after you report the incident. There should also be provisions for support and counseling after the incident and through the entire process of the investigation, if there is one. Ask to see your personnel file just before and after you file your complaint. Makes copies or take pictures with your smart phone. See it again after any final resolution, and make copies. If you sense any change in attitudes, type of work assignments or performance ratings over the ensuing months after your complaint or resolution, visit your file again.
3 Know the outcome you want
Many women have spoken up and reported sexual harassment in hope, and ended the process years later in agony.
It’s important to know what to expect before you take those first steps and what might happen along the way. Here are some things to consider to help you decide the outcome you’re looking for and, just as important, how to get there.
To complain or not to complain…
- If you are experiencing sexual harassment, you have the right to speak up and object to it. You can start by letting the harasser know that his comments and/or conduct are not appropriate, and telling him to stop. This may be enough to deal with the problem. Do this only if you feel comfortable and your safety is not at risk. In many situations — particularly where there is an asymmetrical power relationship — women just don’t feel confident asserting their rights for a whole host of well-recognized reasons. That’s understandable. But if there are threats accompanying the incident, or if violence or assault are involved, you must strongly object, immediately seek safety elsewhere and then — and only when you are safe — find out to whom in your organization you can report the incident. This should trigger the process set out in its anti-harassment policy.
Do you need a lawyer?
- You won’t be required to have a lawyer advise or represent you if you use the process set out in your employer’s anti-harassment policy. But your organization will likely have one — or more— in the background, if not out front. And they won’t be of the bargain-basement type. Their purpose is to protect the organization they are working for and who is paying their rather large bills. That is not the same as looking out for your best interests.
- On the question of whether or not you should engage your own lawyer, The ZeroNow Campaign™ has mixed feelings. Not everyone can afford a lawyer, and it can be very difficult to find a good one who will act on a contingency basis. This is especially true if you don’t have a big salary and a rock-solid case. And, to be honest, many survivors have told us that having a lawyer made their situation worse. They may promise the moon and the stars at the outset, but in the end you could be left in the dark with only your own flashlight to help you figure out what to do next. The prospect of a cash settlement can be tempting. But if your lawyer is getting a big chunk of it, and you can’t get another job because of a vexatious cloud that follows you from your old company, the money won’t last long. Every case is different, and you should assess your legal needs based on all the information available to you. If you feel better consulting with a lawyer who knows this area of the law just to get a sense of things at first, by all means do so. At present, and based on all our survivor interactions and research, we just don’t have a sufficient comfort level to be able to recommend any specific law firms. Any recommendations we make, or partnering or association with any organization we enter into, must first be based on thorough due diligence as to their policies, practices and performance (i.e., the degree of compassion, sensitivity and respect they accord victim clients) when it comes to handling sexual misconduct matters. We’re not there yet on the legal front.
Follow your instincts.
- Whatever type of decision you need to make when navigating your sexual misconduct complaint, your instincts are an irreplaceable guide. Many survivors tell us that, in addition to having the kind of information we are making available about how to deal with sexual misconduct in the workplace, they wish they had followed their instincts about the choices confronting them. Your inner voice is an important counsel, too. Listen for it.
What about government tribunals?
- In Canada, every province has a human rights commission or tribunal that receives and investigates complaints about workplace sexual harassment. In the United States, sexual harassment laws are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and its counterparts at the state level. You should know, however, that government tribunals are the slow clattering trains of workplace protection. It can take years before anything happens — if indeed anything ever does. That can be a long time to wait if you’re still being harassed, if you are coping in a toxic workplace because of backward thinking, if you’re experiencing retaliation because you complained, or if you hope for anything approaching justice. Important to note, too, is that most human rights or anti-discrimination tribunals have strict time limits for filing a complaint. Learn what these are. It’s not uncommon for organizations that know the rules to try to run out the clock with their internal investigations, with the intent of leaving you without any recourse when you finally do get a resolution decision.
Be aware of retaliation
- Reprisals are a common accompaniment to sexual misconduct complaints. A study cited by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that in three out of four reported cases, retaliation played a prominent role. That was the experience of The ZeroNow Campaign’s™ founder, as well as hundreds of women who have shared their stories with Kathleen over the years. While reprisals are unlawful, they are also the most difficult area of employment discrimination to prove. Miscreant bosses and their enabling organizations don’t usually send an email announcing that they’re going to make it impossible for you to find a new job because of the complaint you made. This might not happen in an enlightened organization, of course. But you may find a chill in your relationship with co-workers. This is part of what is known as the bystander effect, and it can be very emotionally distressing.
A final thought…
Deciding whether to fight sexual harassment, and what remedies to use, are among the most difficult choices any woman can face. The decisions you make can have profound consequences for your health, your financial well-being and your career.
It’s really hard to do it all alone, as any survivor will quickly tell you. It is vitally important for you, and your emotional health, to be able to share your feelings with trusted sources of support and to use them as a sounding board. If they are knowledgeable about these issues or have been there before, all the better.
If you’d like to talk about your situation in confidence and have the benefit of the experiences of survivors who have been in your shoes, you can contact us in confidence here. You can also visit our resources page for helpful suggestions, informative checklists and to learn about the experiences of other victims.