Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue. Thanks to the #MeToo movement, more victims are stepping forward to report misconduct.
In the United States, your employer is legally obligated to investigate reports of sexual harassment. But when sexual harassment happens at work, most people don’t know what steps they should take.
Here’s what you should know and who you should talk to.
Before you report
What to know
First, it’s important to understand what constitutes sexual harassment. If your boss says you have to sleep with him to get promoted, that is definitely sexual harassment, but so are things like making sexual jokes, graphic verbal commentary about your or someone else’s body, and having porn on your computer where people can see it.
Sexual harassment includes any kind of unwanted sexual advance as well as “visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” said Toni Jaramilla, an attorney and the former chair of the California Employment Lawyers Assn. Even something like physically blocking someone from moving, if done with sexual undertones, constitutes harassment.
Check your company’s handbook and see how it defines sexual harassment. If what happened violates the policy — even if it was something “minor” — and it made you uncomfortable, you should report it, experts said.
Sexual harassment can happen to men and to women, and both are protected under the law.
The Department of Labor has more detailed information on what actions are considered harassment.
Who to talk to
Reporting sexual harassment isn’t like filing a lawsuit; you don’t need a lawyer to fill out specific paperwork for it to qualify — though you may want to consult or hire a lawsuit later if you decide to pursue legal action.
If you’ve experienced sexual harassment at work, you should have someone you can talk to about it.
“Sexual harassment really negatively impacts your psyche, your well-being, and so I think looking for some therapy or assistance in that regard is important,” Jaramilla said. Also, if your case does go to trial, a therapist can testify that you told them about the harassment, and serve as proof that it had a significant mental impact on you, she said.
What to do
In many cases, sexual harassment is a pattern. Lawyers advise people to keep a detailed written record of incidents. Include everything you can: the date, the time, the location, the perpetrator, and anyone who may have witnessed it.
“Memories can fade,” said Helen Kim, an L.A.-based attorney whose firm focuses on plaintiffs’ employment law. “Make sure you have as much of the events documented as possible.”
Jaramilla says a physical paper record is better than a digital one, particularly if that digital record is accessible from your work computer. If there are emails or text messages that support your claim, print them out and have backup copies.
(One note about collecting evidence: Don’t make a recording of anyone without checking your state’s laws first. In California, you cannot record another person without their consent. Evidence obtained illegally generally can’t be used in court.)
When you report
What to know
When you report sexual harassment, you are legally protected from retaliation. That means your work can’t fire you, demote you or take away job responsibilities.
It’s best to report sexual harassment as soon as possible after it happens. You don’t have to go running to the human resources office immediately, but it should be reported within a reasonable period of time.
Legally, you have one year from the last act of harassment or misconduct to file a state claim with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and 300 days from the last act to file with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Different states have different deadlines, and they may vary if it’s a claim against a public or federal employee.
But what if something happened months or years ago? Is it worth reporting? Yes, says Jaramilla: “It’s always good to come forward, because you never know whether you helped prevent it from happening to someone else.”
Regardless of how long ago the incident occurred, your company still has a legal obligation to investigate. Even if you don’t work at a company any more, you can send them a letter notifying them of a potentially problematic employee.
It’s always good to come forward, because you never know whether you helped prevent it from happening to someone else.
Who to talk to
The best person to report sexual harassment to is your human resources representative. But you can report it to your manager, or anyone in management at your company. You can go straight to the CEO if you want. They all have the same legal obligation to trigger an investigation into your claim.
Under California’s Fair Employment and Housing statute, all employees have a legal right to not be sexually harassed at work, no matter how small the company is. If your manager or HR person is the one harassing you, or if it’s your boss and you’re a two-person company, you can report it to the California Department of Fair Employment (or your state’s equivalent) or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
What to do
Reporting sexual harassment can be done verbally or in writing. Doing it in writing is your best bet: It creates a paper trail and can serve as proof that you filed a complaint if you end up in court.
There is no specific language you have to use to make it legally qualify as a complaint. Here is a sample version provided by Jaramilla:
Date: (Today’s Date)
To: Kelly Hunter, Director of Human Resources (Best to have a specific name of the person in HR or management)
From: Janet Roe, Account Clerk
Re: Report of Sexual Harassment
My name is Janet Roe and I am an Account Clerk in the Marketing Department.
I would like to report (name) who is currently my supervisor. Mr. (name) has conducted himself in a manner that has made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe and which I believe violates the company’s sexual harassment policy. Just a few examples of his conduct include (actions). I have attached a list of additional incidents and dates and will cooperate with your investigation to answer any questions you may have.
I am aware of my legal rights in the workplace, including that I shall not be retaliated against for submitting this report and that you will conduct a fair and prompt investigation and protect me from further harm.
After you report
What to know
During the investigation, expect someone to interview the witnesses you’ve named and the perpetrator. The investigation has to include a thorough examination of any evidence you provided. You’ll be asked who, what and when, and asked if you told anyone else about it at that the time that the company can speak to, Kim said.
You can request that you, the complainant, be kept confidential, particularly if the harassment was not specifically directed at you — for instance, a coworker having porn on his computer. Some workplaces have anonymous hotlines.
What to do
Your office is legally obligated to immediately begin an investigation into your claims. Kim said that as part of that process, expect to be interviewed and have your evidence reviewed. Be prepared to provide contact information for any people who may have witnessed the harassment.
Jaramilla said you should receive an acknowledgment of your complaint the day you send it, and should expect an investigation to begin within the week. There’s no legal statute of exactly how long a workplace can take to start investigating an assault, but it should be prompt.
If your workplace fails to investigate a sexual harassment claim, you have a new claim against them. Put a follow-up to your complaint in writing, stating that you made your first complaint on what date, and you’ve heard nothing back and now you’re following up. Document every follow-up.
Who to talk to
If it seems like your office is not thoroughly investigating your claim, experts advise consulting a lawyer about your next steps. Bring your initial complaint and your follow-ups to them or to a state or federal agency — the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — so that they can investigate.