What to Do if You’ve Experienced Sexual Harassment at Work

You’re not alone, and there’s a *lot* you can do.

By: Chelsey Burnside
Illustration: Hannah Becker

Needless to say, it’s been another not-so-great week for men in Hollywood. And politics. And sports. And publishing. And kitchens. Pretty much everything.

Brett Ratner and Russell Simmons’ horrific behavior is finally being brought to light, in addition to the dozens of women, including Olivia Munn and Natasha Henstridge, who have already come forward about Ratner. Olympic doctor Larry Nassar has been accused by 130 women of sexual abuse. More than 200 women, including Rachel McAdams and Selma Blair, have accused director James Toback of sexual harassment. Kevin Spacey is being effectively erased from his latest film following a slew of accusations of harassment and abuse. Louis C.K.’s film premiere was canceled after his victims spoke out. Condé Nast has blacklisted long-whispered-about photographer Terry Richardson. Celebrity chef John Besh stepped down from his company after allegations of harassment from 25 employees. Not to mention Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore being accused of sexual misconduct against multiple minors, and Minnesota Senator Al Franken admitting to accusations of unwanted groping.

I would go on, but I don’t have the word count.

But as #MeToo and #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse start to fade from our timelines, how do we turn this Watergate—bombshell exposés, systemic cover-ups, high-profile resignations—into a watershed? In a post-Weinstein world, how can we respond to sexual harassment at work and stop it from happening again?*

These aren’t the kind of assaults we can arm ourselves for with purse-sized pepper spray or keys wedged between our fingers—reacting to workplace abuse is about careful scripting and choreographed body language. It’s about deep breaths, diligent note-taking, and recognizing when it’s not public shaming, but an education that will make the difference in the long term.

We spoke to Los Angeles-based labor and employment attorney Michelle Lee Flores of the law firm Cozen O’Connor about how to respond in different sexual harassment situations, the right way to report, and when it’s time to lawyer up.

*Don’t get me wrong, the onus is 100 percent on the harassers, not their victims. But let’s be real: [Some] violators gonna violate until they’re either caught, called out, or castrated schooled.

 

 STEP ONE: TAKE DETAILED NOTES EVERY TIME IT HAPPENS

“Documentation is the key,” says Flores. “Keep a record of each time it happens and if there are any witnesses to it. Note the date and time and all information you can recall.”

This includes emails, texts, voicemails and photos: Save copies or screen grabs in a safe place (somewhere other than a work phone or computer).

 

 STEP TWO: TALK TO THE PERSON HARASSING YOU

There’s no one-size-fits-all script that will work in every instance, but here are a few suggestions as to how to respond if:

A coworker makes sexual comments around or directed at you:

Take them aside, tell them their comments are inappropriate and making you uncomfortable, and ask them to stop. Record the date and time you talked to them and their response. Be assertive about it—acting too nice or following up with an emoji-laden “we cool?” text only hinders your case if things progress.

Your boss gets handsy when he or she drinks (i.e., at a work party):

“Consider telling him or her that you want to maintain a professional distance and that includes touching,” says Flores. “Diplomatically let him or her know that it made you uncomfortable, and ask that you two do not cross that line in the future. Perhaps talking about one’s personal space and that you are not a ‘hugger’ or a ‘toucher’ may be [an] easier [way] to broach the topic.”

If a “superior” has offered mentorship, promotions, or bonuses in exchange for sexual favors:

Use strong body language, look the person in the eyes, and keep your voice as measured and clear as possible. Repeat what they have proposed and then clearly say “no.” Record as many details about the incident as you can, then report him or her immediately.

 

 STEP THREE: TELL SOMEONE YOU TRUST

In The New Yorker’s October 10 Harvey Weinstein exposé, an anonymous director was able to confirm French actress Emma de Caunes’ account of her encounter with Weinstein because she told him about it right after it happened. Even if you’re not ready to report yet, arming yourself with potential witnesses could help your case in the future (even decades later, if the past month has taught us anything).

 

STEP FOUR: REPORT IT USING THE POLICY YOUR COMPANY HAS IN PLACE

If your company has an employee handbook, look up what it says you’re supposed to do under these circumstances, and seriously consider following the reporting procedure.

“If you don’t follow the reporting process that is in place, it [may] be used against you,” says Flores. “The sooner you speak with HR, the sooner it will (hopefully) stop, or at least the sooner it will begin to be investigated. Delaying reporting or addressing it [in the less severe examples above] will often be used against the person, and it often allows the behavior to continue.”

When you make your report to HR, do so orally, and follow up with a written statement as well.

“Provide HR with as much detail as you can and copies of any documents revealing any inappropriate comments or admissions by the person about whom you are reporting.” 

Usually an initial meeting with HR will be followed up with a second interview to get all of the details, witnesses will be identified and interviewed, as well as the person reported as having harassed you, in an effort to get all sides of the story. Other employees may be interviewed as well, to see if they have witnessed or have knowledge of the alleged actions.

“Hopefully you will [then] be asked what you would like to happen to the person,” says Flores.

“In my experience, this answer is often that the person wants it to stop and everyone move forward as if it did not happen. This assumes that it is not severe—if it is severe, then various responses are options from counseling to termination.” 

And remember, if you are sexually assaulted or raped by someone you work with, go to the police.

 

 STEP FOUR AND A HALF: BRING MORAL SUPPORT 

“If reporting is particularly challenging, consider having a co-worker present as moral support for you,” says Flores. “[Mention] that you both want to speak with HR, and when you get in the meeting, you can take the lead speaking.”

 

 STEP FIVE: LAWYER UP

If the problem is persisting, it’s affecting your work or mental health, or you’re considering leaving your job because of it, it could be time to enlist help outside the office.

“Unfortunately there is no bright-line time as to when to get a lawyer. It is a case-by-case determination depending on the specific facts and circumstances,” says Flores. “However, know that you can consult with a lawyer, and the lawyer can stay on the sidelines and provide you with help without revealing you have engaged [them].”

Keep in mind that telling the company you’ve spoken to or hired a lawyer isn’t always the right move.

“Unfortunately once you reveal you have a lawyer, it’s often seen as the first shot across the bow,” says Flores, “so there will most likely be a change in the dynamic.”

 

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