What to Do If You’re Being Sexually Harassed At Work

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Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and most recently, senior NPR editor Michael Oreskes, are all men who abused their power to sexually harass their female colleagues.

Famous faces went to social media to raise their hands and say #MeToo. Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Lupita Nyongo all spoke out against their harassers, but sexual harassment doesn't just happen to women in Hollywood. Unwelcome sexualizing attention and objectifying behavior can happen in any line of work.

It happened to Samantha, a Siena College grad, at a summer job. It happened to Chelsea Jackson at Iowa State as a freelance photographer, and unfortunately it could happen to you too, but just because your story may not make headlines doesn't mean it should not be heard.

Here are ways you can take action and protect yourself if you are sexually harassed at work. 

Speak up

She would go out of her way to avoid him. Spending time in the break room, planning her shifts around his. He was know for making women feel uncomfortable, and had a reputation among female staff. Samantha had just graduated high-school and started working at Wal-Mart to save money for college. One seasonal job turned into another, and she climbed the ranks to become a manager. Even with her new leadership role, the harassment didn’t stop.

“He made me uncomfortable. Getting too close to me, follow me,” Samantha says. “One day, he went out of his way to sneak up behind me and grab me, and when I told him not to touch me he still didn't take his hand off.” Samantha says she told her supervisors about the harassment, but nothing changed.

“You have to swallow it back and pretend it’s not happening, because if I refuse to help [the harasser] I’m insubordinate.”

Samantha did the right thing by telling her superiors, but according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, three-quarters of people who experienced harassment “never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct.”

Related: How to File an EEOC Claim

Take legal action

Jack Tuckner, women's rights & discrimination attorney, says the most important thing for victims of sexual harassment is to document it and complain formally. Tuckner suggests keeping logs of every incident, and recording them if you can.

“Typically the victim cannot sue the perpetrator or file a police report unless an assault has occurred. When it comes to harassment, it’s the company’s responsibility to remedy the situation.” said Tuckner.

Tuckner cofounded Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser, a New York based law firm that specializes in women’s rights in the workplace. His team has helped thousands of women defend their rights to fair and equal treatment in the workplace. But if you’re like Samantha and your complaints haven’t be taken seriously, then what? Tuckner says to seek legal help.

"If they [human resources] are sweeping it under the carpet and just not doing anything, send a follow up notifying them that you are consulting a lawyer. We, [a legal team], can negotiate a divorce, pay a severance.”

If you are in school, many universities offer free legal aid to students, though you don’t need a lawyer to file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Filing an EEOC complaint is free and can be done online, but must be reported within 180 days from when the harassment occurred. Each state has different guidelines so be sure to check the deadlines.

Don’t quit

Chelsea Jackson worked as a freelance photographer for local bars in her college town. What seemed like a fun and social job, quickly became demeaning and nerve-wrecking.

“Customers got out of hand. They would follow me around the bar while I was working, grope me and ask me inappropriate questions about my relationship,” she says. “Often they would make threats that they’d “turn me straight” and would proceed to try hold my hand or touch my crotch.”

Chelsea said management refused to reprimand the customers who assaulted her for fear of losing business.

“They didn't want to kick out ‘paying customers,’ ” she explains. “Management never did anything and often told me, “If you don’t like customers calling you names and touching you sometimes, then you should just quit.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

“...despite the money being stellar...I couldn't mentally withstand this behavior. “

Chelsea chose to leave a job that she actually enjoyed, harassment aside, and unfortunately, that’s the norm. For many victims, quitting seems like the easier option compared to going up against a company you feel may not support you, but Tuckner says quitting before you report harassment is the worst thing you can do.

“Don't quit.” Tuckner advises “If you wait to get out then call a lawyer, a company can turn around a say you’re just disgruntled, however...if you complain of sexual harassment and they fire you, that's a case. Retaliatory termination is illegal and compensable.”

Related: Me Too: An Important Social Media Movement in Effecting Change 

Don’t be afraid

Even though Chelsea did not pursue legal action, she did notify her university about her dangerous working conditions.

“I [reported] the bars to the Better Business Bureau and to my university's career service center. The only reason I know about the job posting was because it was advertised on Iowa State's CyHire website, which is the university's online job board Because I spoke out these individuals are permanently banned from submitting a job opening on [the campus site].

While the thought of a lawsuit can be intimidating, know that there are many steps before a sexual harassment case can go to court, and most complaints are settled between the victim and their employer.

Joseph Olivares of the EEOC says the most important thing you can do is not stay silent.

“Talk to a family member, co-worker, anyone,” he says “It's ok to be nervous about reporting sexual harassment, but if you do not report it, the behavior could continue. You can always contact the EEOC if you have any questions or would like to file a charge. Sexual harassment is wrong, but most importantly, it's illegal. Do not hesitate to speak out.”

Related: Harvey Weinstein Under Fire as Women Continue to Step Forward With Sexual Assault Allegations

Many victims of harassment may feel shame and guilt about what they've experienced, even though it was no fault of their own. Everyone handles trauma differently, and there are many reasons why victims may choose to quit or not come forward, but everyone should know there are ways to fight back and support systems put in place to protect you. I hope that victims continue to find the strength to speak out, and that we as a society continue to amplify their voices and hold each other accountable. 

About The Author

Ebony Joseph is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. She began her career as a student at the University of Florida, learning the foundations of journalism through public radio. During her time at UF, Ebony interned at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C. and worked with public radio stations across Florida as both an intern and freelance reporter. She has also produced and anchored newscasts for WUFT-TV, North Central Florida’s PBS member station.
Ebony’s work has been featured on The Huffington Post, BBC America and The Miami Herald. She has also contributed to Health News Florida and The Independent Florida Alligator, the largest student-run newspaper in the country. She has been awarded a Professional Associated Press award and recognized by the National Broadcasting Society. When she's not stressing over whether or not she is "adulting" properly, you can find her in an improv class or catching up on the latest Real Housewives drama.