When and How to Report Sexual Harassment at Work

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When you start a new job, you’ll probably be instructed to go to Human Resources (HR) if you ever experience any sort of harassment at work — but this path hasn’t always been the most useful for employees. In fact, according to a new survey from Zenefits, one out of five workers do not trust their HR departments, and more than one-third of respondents say that they avoid going to HR for any problems at all, at least partially because they fear retaliation. This problem is especially fraught when it comes to people who are experiencing sexual harassment at work. If they feel they can’t 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 just accepted it as an inevitable part of having a job. That began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, when the second-wave feminist movement took the problem public and eventually into the courts. In 1980, this resulted in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stating that sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII. This was later affirmed by a 1986 landmark Supreme Court case. The 1990s brought public service announcements providing examples of what sexual harassment looks like in the workplace, and letting us know that we “don’t have to take it.”

But as the Zenefits survey shows us, a company telling you something is against its policies and a company actually enforcing those policies aren’t the same thing at all. To be clear: No one should have to deal with any type of harassment or feel as though they must remain silent about it. But is reporting the incidents to HR the best way to handle it, or are there better options? And either way, if you’re making a report, what kind of evidence do you need to gather and provide?

We spoke with HR professionals as well as people who’ve reported sexual harassment to get a better idea of what’s most helpful. Note that some names have been changed to protect the interviewee’s privacy.

Should you report sexual harassment to HR?

Like everything else, not all HR departments are created equal, so it’s impossible to lump them into one category, particularly when it comes to reporting sexual harassment. Deanna Baumgardner has been on both sides of the issue: Around 15 years ago, she reported being sexually harassed at work to HR, and did not have a positive experience. Since then, Baumgardner has founded Employers Advantage, an HR services firm that provides outsourced HR to small businesses.

“I was treated horribly after reporting the issue, and then was ultimately pushed out and terminated because the work environment was so abusive towards me,” she tells Lifehacker. That incident became an integral moment in her career. “I was so completely disappointed in my chosen profession, so I’ve been on a mission to change HR ever since,” Baumgardner explains.

In her experience, Baumgardner says when someone reports sexual harassment to HR and it doesn’t go well, it’s typically for one of two reasons. First, the HR rep may not know how to handle the situation and “completely drops the ball.” Second — and far more likely — the HR rep doesn’t have the power to make the decision that they know is right, even if they have made the appropriate recommendation to their superiors.

“HR is the liaison between employees and the decision-makers, and the decisions-makers may not take the recommendation of HR for a variety of reasons, giving HR a bad reputation,” Baumgardner explains. “The other side of that is that HR can’t tell the employee the details of what happens behind the scenes with the decision-makers, making it seem like HR is the problem.”

Who does HR actually represent?

One of the common lines thrown around about HR is that they’re “there to protect the company, not the employee,” but in theory, that shouldn’t be the case. “This question hurts my heart as an HR professional,” Karen Young, owner of HR Resolutions tells Lifehacker. “HR’s duty is to serve as an advocate for both the employer and the employee. It is a very difficult line to walk sometimes, but it can be properly managed. Without protecting the company, there would be no need for employees; however, without protecting the employees, there would be no company, nor would there be a need for HR.”

Opinions differ on this point. According to Susan Crumiller — the founder and owner of Crumiller P.C., a feminist litigation firm that focuses on gender and pregnancy discrimination in the workplace — HR reps are indeed “only there to protect the company,” but “protecting the company” can mean different things depending on the organisation’s values.

“Ultimately, the decision on how to proceed is a highly political one,” Crumiller tells Lifehacker. “We never advise people what steps to take without getting a strong sense first of the company culture, who the players are, who the decision-makers are, what allies the person might have and what goals the person has.” For example, if you love your job otherwise, you may take a different approach than if you hate the job and want out.

What to expect in an ‘ideal’ reporting situation

Before we get into potential challenges with reporting, here’s what Young says should take place when you bring a sexual harassment complaint to HR:

  • You will be interviewed by HR. They may ask you for a written statement, or they may provide you with a recap of your interview.
  • The alleged harasser will be interviewed by HR. Anyone interviewed should receive a review of the company policy and the “no retaliation” policy.
  • Witnesses will be interviewed. This may take some time — these processes do not necessarily move quickly.
  • Confidentiality is important, but often hard to maintain, particularly in small environments.
  • Someone should follow up with you when the investigation is complete. They will not be able to give you all the details of the decision, nor should they. Just as you would not want other people to know if you were disciplined, you should not ask know all the details of someone else’s discipline. (Naturally, if the alleged harasser was terminated, everyone will know the outcome.)
  • If the individual was not terminated, you should be provided with instructions about what to do/how to handle a “move forward plan.”

Reporting to HR should not jeopardise your job (but sometimes it can)

Heather*, 52, says her career was destroyed after she reported sexual harassment to HR at two different companies. In the first instance, she was fired after reporting an incident on behalf of one of her employees at a university, which she was required to do under Title IX. The second time, Heather was the one being sexually harassed — by her boss. Again, she reported it, and ended up losing her job. That was 13 years ago, and her harasser still holds his position with the company. “You just don’t know where the landmines are,” she tells Lifehacker, “you don’t know where the loyalties lie.”

In the ideal workplace, going to HR about sexual harassment should absolutely not jeopardize your job. But according to Nikki Larchar, co-founder of simplyHR and Define the Line, we don’t live in an ideal world. She also points out that retaliation for reporting sexual harassment to HR doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll lose your job. “Retaliation can look like being passed up for a promotion, being demoted, having a lower performance score than what you should have received, [as well as] termination from employment,” she tells Lifehacker. If you have experienced any type of retaliation from your employer, Larchar notes you do have federal protections under the EEOC — more on that in a minute.

Estelle* says she endured six years of sexual harassment while working on an all-male team at a popular tech company. Upon her resignation, she filed suit against her employer. She won a six-figure settlement and most of the offending parties were fired. While this sounds like the best possible outcome, Estelle says that by that point, the damage had been done. “To this day, I still suffer feelings of inadequacy at work, as I was told I was only hired to be a ‘pretty face,’” she tells Lifehacker. “This was incredibly damaging, and I still struggle believing that my work is valuable — not my face.”

Estelle didn’t report the harassment to HR while she was working for the company out of fear of losing her job or facing other forms of “punishment” (like having accounts taken away from her or receiving lower commission checks). The company even used this as a major part of their defence in court. “But it’s easy to see why I did not, given the power they held over my job, my paycheck and ultimately my happiness,” she says. “I wish I had a better ending about reporting issues to HR, but this is still a huge issue, especially for women.”

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

How to report sexual harassment

If you’ve decided to report sexual harassment, here are some tips and strategies to consider, courtesy of HR experts and people who’ve done it before.

Find your company’s anti-harassment policy

If an incident of harassment happens, Diane Stegmeier, founder of Project WHEN (Workplace Harassment Ends Now) recommends accessing your employer’s anti-harassment policy, which typically can be found on a company’s intranet site. “Review the policy to become familiar with not only the verbiage of the document but with any commitments your employer has made to protect victims from retaliation,” she tells Lifehacker.

Consider sorting it out with your harasser

Given that each harassment situation — and the power dynamics involved — are different, this may not always be an option, but Laura Handrick, a contributing HR professional at Choosing Therapy with more than 20 years of HR experience, suggests there are some cases where you may want to consider addressing the problem with your harassing coworker first. “It’s a mistake to run straight to HR with any employee issue — even a perceived issue of harassment,” she tells Lifehacker. “That’s because unless you have proof, it’s a he-said-she-said scenario. The better approach is to stop the harasser in their tracks.”

If you ask the harasser to stop — if it’s possible for you to do so — and they refuse, that’s when she advises you go to HR or your manager. “It’s when employees can no longer protect themselves that HR should be consulted,” Handrick says.

This isn’t to place blame or responsibility at your feet if you don’t feel comfortable discussing abuse with an abuser. If that isn’t your situation, that’s ok. It’s not your fault.

Or, you may want to go straight to HR

While it may be tempting to report sexual harassment to a manager or supervisor you trust, Julie Jensen, owner of Moxie HR Strategies and a 20-year HR veteran, says it’s best to go to HR yourself. “If an employee goes to a manager or supervisor they trust instead, know that the leader has an obligation to report it to HR on their behalf, so it’s best to go directly to HR [yourself] so that your words are accurately represented,” she tells Lifehacker.

Self-reporting will at least allow you to know what was actually reported and learn directly how the company will respond. Kathryn Palmer, principal and co-founder Authentic Public Relations, shares the following personal story, revealing how relying on the word of another left her in the dark. After a man in her department that she was “going to get raped” and “was asking for it,” Palmer notified her former supervisor of the abuse. He chose to report the incident to HR on her behalf. “He said they would ‘take care of it,’” she tells Lifehacker. “I couldn’t tell you if they made it clear either way who they were protecting, but given [what happened next], I would say protecting me wasn’t top of mind.” Half of Palmer’s department shunned her for a full year afterward.

Treat it like a court case

Based on her experience, Heather has some recommendations on what to do before going to HR. The first thing to do, if possible, is to make audio recordings of your harasser in action — though only if you work in a state that allows you to do so without their consent. “All lawyers care about is proof,” she says. “So if you are being harassed, my best advice is to get it recorded somehow, before you go to HR, so you have irrefutable proof.”

The second thing she suggests is to get your own representation, if you can afford to do so. “I think you have to lawyer up before you go to HR,” Heather says. “Most HR departments are run by attorneys. Those lawyers are working for their boss, who is at the top of that food chain.” In addition, she explains that in her experience, when you report sexual harassment to HR, you’re essentially providing the company with information to help them build their case against you. “You are the plaintiff, and you are giving your testimony to the defendant,” Heather says. “They are gathering intelligence and creating a case file against you the second that you start talking about the harassment. And you’re usually doing all this without legal representation. This is the biggest fraud in the American workforce.”

Come prepared

If you decide to report sexual harassment to HR, it’s important that you come prepared. First, Jensen says to think through the incident completely. It’s a good idea to be able to thoroughly answer the following questions:

  • What happened?
  • When did it happen (dates/times)?
  • Where did the situation occur?
  • Who was involved?
  • Who may have been around to witness or overhear the exchange?

Second, you need to gather and bring evidence to your meeting. According to Larcher, this can include “anything and everything that shows that the harassment occurred,” including emails, text messages, social media comments, videos, photographs and a list of people that may have witnessed the behaviour. Though Jensen says that HR shouldn’t require evidence in order for you to simply file a complaint, it can be helpful to let them know that you have materials to support your claim of harassment.

For example, when Estelle filed suit against her former employee, she came armed with text messages from her coworkers, manager and VP trying to solicit sexual attention from her, as well as articles of a sexual nature that her coworkers had clipped from magazines and sent to her. “Every time an incident would occur — like a coworker putting his hand on my knee under the table at a team meeting or making sexually suggestive motions while I ate a banana — I would email myself from my personal account to document it with a time and date stamp,” Estelle explains. “My suggestion is anytime something that does not seem right happens, document it.”

Don’t have any hard proof? Larher says that it shouldn’t stop you from reporting sexual harassment. “Often when an investigation is conducted, while you may not have evidence to support your claim, there may be other employees within your organisation that have experienced similar behaviours and situations,” she explains. “Your testimonial is powerful, and the best way for your organisation to look into the situation and take action to correct it.”

Keep in mind that your report could help someone else

This isn’t really a tip, but it’s something you may still want to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to report sexual harassment to HR. Prior to starting her career in marketing, Christie Lawler, the founder and owner of CJL Consulting — a niche marketing agency that serves restaurants, hotels and entertainment chains across the U.S. — was sexually assaulted at several jobs where she worked as a bartender and server. “I had always chalked up the sexual harassment to just part of the business when I was working in those roles, so I never stood up for myself,” she tells Lifehacker. “My advice to others is to not take that route. Silence allows the abuse to continue.”

And while reporting sexual harassment to HR may not end the way you want it to, Lawler says that she always recommends you do it (with with supporting documentation if you can) — not only for yourself, but also to improve working conditions for your colleagues. “Every person deserves an environment where they feel safe and valued,” she says. “Chances are, if your employer doesn’t protect you, you are not alone. This kind of systemic mistreatment won’t stop until it comes to light.”

What to do if HR doesn’t help

Ideally, your company’s HR department will properly deal with your sexual harassment complaint, but that’s not always the case. “As a matter of principle, I like to believe you should always report to HR and that eventually justice will be done in your case,” says Pete Sosnowski, vice president, co-founder and HR specialist at Zety. “But it also depends on the matter. Some acts are punishable by law, [meaning] HR isn’t your last resort if things don’t work out.”

One option that several of the HR experts mentioned is reporting the incident to the EEOC. “If things escalate and action is not taken to protect you, you can file a claim with the EEOC,” Larchar says. “One of the first questions they are going to ask you is if you reported it to anyone within your organisation,” so be prepared with an answer. If you’re not sure how to do this, the EEOC website has a page that walks you through the reporting process.

Are things changing?

The “good news” is that the #MeToo movement has elevated the voices of those who have experienced sexual harassment, and Jensen says that organisations are now keenly aware of how critical it is to address them head on. “A moral and ethical company will take harassment complaints seriously and do what is necessary to keep people safe in the workplace,” she explains.

Not only that, but there are organisations like The Shift Work Shop that offer consent-forward sexual harassment prevention. According to Amanda Rue, the founder o f the program, while traditional sexual harassment prevention and training highlights activities and behaviours that should be avoided, it often ignores establishing and teaching the types of behaviour that pro-actively prevent harassment, like having an understanding of power dynamics, relationships in the workplace and consent.

“Consent-forward training promotes personal agency, and the development of communication skills so that all employees are empowered to speak up when they feel uncomfortable in a work environment,” Rue tells Lifehacker. “This is an effort to establish and foster a culture of respect where harassment is understood to be unacceptable, and all employees are encouraged to speak up in service of the company, and creating a safe, fair and equitable space for all.”

But Heather says that this isn’t the case everywhere. “You do see where a tide has turned and HR departments are becoming more and more [like] advocates for employees, but where I live in the heartland, that is not happening [here].”

When it comes down to it, this unfortunately can mean it’s up to the person who is being harassed to put in the time and energy to make their case (as if they need another source of stress). Here are some resources that may be useful if you find yourself in that position:

  • Project WHEN’s digital guide “How to Report Workplace Harassment Incidents” is a useful starting point in both understanding the process of filing a harassment claim with the government, as well as contact info for the local/state/federal government organisations that have jurisdiction based on where the incident occurred.
  • BetterBrave provides people with the resources and tools necessary to navigate and address toxic workplaces.

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

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