How Employees Can Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Updated October 26, 2022
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Stories of harassment are circulating everywhere right now. In the wake of sexual harassment allegations from over 50 women against producer and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, a slew of similar stories surfaced alleging others of acting inappropriately, too. Public figures such as Bill O'Reilly, Roman Polanski, and James Toback, amongst others, have recently been accused of using their authoritative positions to assault and harass others.

These stories are reverberating throughout media outlets and in news feeds because sexual harassment is more than just a celebrity or Hollywood problem, it's a workplace problem. As stated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision (EEOC), harassment in the workplace is defined as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex."

While the EEOC strongly encourages employers to provide sexual harassment training, most states don't require it. This lack of transparent protocol is likely to have many employees feeling unsure of how to proceed when they experience or witness sexual harassment. According to a survey conducted by Swyft Filings, women who witness harassment in the workplace are much more likely to report than those who experience it. Out of those surveyed, only 15% of women who've experienced harassment in the workplace filed reports, whereas twice as many women who witnessed harassment at work reported what they had seen. Also worth noting, men are 40% more likely to report experiencing harassment at work than women.

Factors such as race, gender, and position within a company all come to play in terms of who is more vulnerable to workplace harassment. And the ways in which those who are harassed approach addressing it depend on other factors, like who the harasser is and the size of the company. Addressing sexual harassment in the workplace has no one-size-fits-all solution.

Based on varying factors influencing how employees report harassment in the workplace, here's a breakdown of tactics for addressing it in common, yet not always commonly discussed, situations.

When you work for a small company.

Whereas larger companies often have specific protocol for reporting sexual harassment, addressing harassment in smaller companies presents different complications. Working for a family business, for instance, can make it difficult to know who to approach.

If you're able to directly tell a coworker that their behavior makes you uncomfortable, that's a good place to start. In an ideal situation, they will have been unaware that their behavior made you uncomfortable, and will discontinue those actions accordingly. If the situation is escalated, or you simply don't feel comfortable directly addressing your harasser, try speaking with a supervisor or HR manager about your concerns, even if it might be awkward given close internal relationships.

If no action follows your initial report, consider filing a charge with the EEOC, which investigates workplace harassment incidents.

When the harasser is a client.

When working with clients, it's often an employee's job to build a great rapport. So what is the appropriate way to handle inappropriateness, like unwanted advances and comments, from a client? Before deciding whether to file a report, there are a few steps you can take to mitigate opportunities for clients to engage in unacceptable behavior.

As a first step, avoid one-on-one interactions to ensure you're never put in an awkward position where you're meeting the client by yourself. When necessary, create boundaries by making it clear that you're all business. Decline any advances and turn the conversation back to the task at hand. If you're not there to talk business, then you shouldn't be there at all.

If you're considering filing a report, keep a record of all your interactions, and take notes on when comments or behavior made you uncomfortable. When filing a report, try to make it about the facts rather than your emotions.

When the harasser is your boss.

When people talk about sexual harassment in the workplace, they're typically thinking of "quid pro quo sexual harassment," meaning that the harasser is offering a job, promotion, or special treatment (or alternately a demotion or negative reviews) in exchange for submission to the harasser.

When experiencing harassment from a supervisor or manager, it's imperative to document comments, emails, any abnormal/different treatment you've received, always including the date, time, and place. Even when there aren't any witnesses, still document the behavior. If you're experiencing it, it's likely someone else has, as well. Keep notes in a safe place where your boss won't find them (i.e. not on your work computer). Once you've gathered evidence, officially file a report with an HR representative or another supervisor.

Be prepared to walk away.

If you are experiencing harassment in the workplace and your employer is unresponsive to complaints, be prepared to walk away. While you shouldn't be bullied out of a job, you also shouldn't be forced to stay in a toxic situation. If you do choose to sue, keep in mind that law requires you report harassment at work first.

It's an employer's job to maintain a healthy and safe work environment. By standing up for yourself, you're standing for others who are also experiencing harassment in the workplace. While it's still intimidating and/or uncomfortable for most employees to report harassment, more and more individuals are continuing to open up about the harassment they've experienced. You aren't alone.

Originally published on October 26, 2022, and last edited on October 26, 2022.

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