How Do I Prove Sexual Harassment?
An AOL Jobs reader asks:
I was just wondering if I will get in trouble for bringing light to my situation at work, I'm being sexually harassed by my supervisor. It started back in July and I've made multiple complaints, nothing has been done except the incidents have been "documentedIt's very uncomfortable to work with him because he retaliates by making me work late so I have to stay there with him. I even called corporate and they told me I need to continue to work with him and let them know how it goes. It's not fair and I thought harassment would be taken more seriously. I work for a big company so I'm scared. I'm tired of everyone else not speaking up though so I don't care anymore. The management and human resources are corrupted, they don't follow their own policies. I've already contacted news stations trying to get them to publish my story because no one's on my side. A lawyer said it would be too hard to prove this in court. Something must be done. Tomorrow I will be contacting the EEOC. Could you please give some advice on this situation?
No doubt, proving sexual harassment can be difficult, because it is usually your word against the harasser's. Still, you shouldn't just continue to be sexually harassed without taking action. Here are eight steps you can take if you're the victim of sexual harassment at work:
1. Document any quid pro quo: One type of harassment is called quid pro quo sexual harassment. That's where you are offered a job, promotion or favors if you submit to the harasser, or are threatened that you'll be demoted, fired or disciplined if you don't submit. If any offers or threats are being made, write down the date, time, place and any witnesses. Don't worry if there are no witnesses. Harassers are usually too smart to do it in front of others.
2. Document any comments and different treatment: The other type of sexual harassment is called hostile environment. That's where you're being harassed due to your gender. This could be comments about your gender being inferior, sexual comments, or treating people of your gender differently than the opposite sex. If the harasser is making comments or treating you differently, they may also be targeting others of your sex. Watch carefully and take good notes. Again, include date, time, place and any witnesses. If it's just you, then still document it.
3. Keep your notes in a safe place: Don't put your notes on your work computer, in a desk drawer or somewhere where the employer can take them. Keep them in your jacket pocket, purse or briefcase, or write them on your home computer. If you're fired, they'll prevent you from taking your notes and they may be conveniently "lost."
4. Gather evidence: If the harasser is texting, emailing or sending cards or notes, keep copies. Don't delete them. Make sure you take a screen shot of any texts and print them so you don't lose them if your device crashes or you buy a new one. Print emails and keep them in a safe place.
5. Report it: It sounds like you've already reported the sexual harassment. Make sure you've followed the company sexual harassment policy and reported it to the correct person. They should have alternate people to report it to in case one of them is your harasser. I suggest reporting it in writing. If you've only reported it verbally, follow up in writing. Something like, "This will confirm our conversation on April 15, 2014 in which I reported sexual harassment by my supervisor John Doe. I reported the following instances of sexual harassment to you: [list them]. Please take prompt action to investigate this matter and address this situation." Remember, they don't have to fire the harasser or tell you what they did. They only have to make it stop. It's possible he's already been disciplined and they aren't telling you. If he does it again or retaliates, report it.
6. File with EEOC: If you've already reported it and they won't take action, then filing with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the next step. Filing with them is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit for sexual harassment. Depending on your state, you have 180 or 300 days from the date of discrimination to file. You are protected from retaliation if you file a charge of discrimination with EEOC. That isn't so say they won't still retaliate, but if they do you can report the retaliation to EEOC and possibly sue.
7. Contact a lawyer: It sure sounds like you got some bad advice. I'd suggest contacting another employment lawyer in your state to see if you can get someone who understands sexual harassment and that it is frequently your word against the harasser's.
8. Get the heck out: In the meantime, if the company won't do anything and you don't feel safe, start looking for another job. Don't let the harasser bully you out of a job before you're ready, but don't feel trapped either. Sometimes a sexual harasser will work on your head and make you feel like nobody else would want you. Don't believe them.
Remember, sexual harassers are like rapists. It isn't about sex – it's about power. If nobody stops the sexual harasser, their behavior accelerates. If you don't report sexual harassment, there will be other victims, and the behavior will get worse. Stand up for your right to a safe workplace. Your employer has a duty to keep your workplace free of sexual harassment. It's the law.
If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.
Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.