SOCIOLOGIST Marianne Cooper advises that even in the wake of #MeToo, there’s no clear-cut right way to respond to sexual harassment.
Here’s how to make an informed decision about what to do.
As a sociologist who focuses on gender and work, I’m all too familiar with the reality of sexual harassment. Surveys show that it affects nearly 40 percent of women, less than a quarter report it formally and that those who do are likely to experience victimisation from their employer.
What is not always clear, even to experts on the issue, is precisely what to advise those who experience it. Often, when deciding what to do, women must weigh their ability to pay the bills – or advance in their careers – against being treated with dignity and respect. No one should have to make this kind of calculation, but the reality is that millions have and millions more will, said Elizabeth Kristen, an employment lawyer.
What you should know to help you decide:
Two types of sexual harassment are illegal under law, though some behaviour may still violate your company’s sexual harassment policy, if it has one, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition. These two types of harassment are quid pro quo harassment, when some aspect of your employment is contingent upon fulfilling a sexual request (“If you go on a date with me, I’ll give you more hours”), and hostile work environment harassment, unwanted behaviour that is severe or pervasive and disrupts or interferes with your work (unwanted touching, suggestive texts or emails or sharing sexually explicit images or videos). Regardless of the type of harassment you are experiencing, it is important to document everything. Write down details such as:
- The date, time and location of the harassment, what happened, what was said and who witnessed the behaviour;
- Keep copies or take screenshots of any relevant emails, texts, photos or social posts;
- Tell a trusted friend, family member or co-worker what happened and write down the details of those conversations. Not only can they provide support, but they may also be able to provide corroborating statements should you need them;
- Keep records related to your productivity and job performance and, if possible, review your performance report or personnel file. This is so you have evidence should your performance ever be disputed;
- Store all documentation outside your office or your work computer and make sure it is backed up in a safe place;
- Keep in mind that secretly recording harassment can provide valuable evidence, but check the law before you do so. It may be illegal to record a conversation without both parties’ consent. Some company policies also prohibit recording;
When figuring out what to do in response to sexual harassment, ask yourself the following questions:
- What result do you want? While some may want their harasser fired, others may just want the harassment to stop and to move to a new role or group. Knowing the result you want will influence what you choose to do.
- How seriously does your company take sexual harassment? Do company leaders regularly state that sexual harassment is not allowed? If so, then this may indicate that your complaint will be taken seriously. However, if you work in a place where bad behaviour is common, you may be reluctant to come forward – and for good reason.
- What does your company policy say? Read everything you can about your company’s sexual harassment policy. Make sure you understand what the policy is, what employees are expected to do if they experience or witness harassment, and how to go about reporting it internally.
- Do you have an non-disclosure agreement? It is important to understand whether your job contract contains a non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreement, which means you can face legal consequences if you publicly disparage your company.
- What are your sources of support? Do you have family and friends who can support you? Do you have enough resources to get by if you must leave your job? Also think about the support you have at your job. Do you have a good working relationship with someone who is in a senior role? Do you have coworkers who would back up your account of what happened or might come forward with you?
- Remember, you are the resident expert of your own situation, so trust your intuition.
Some options you can follow:
- Stay the course. Many women don’t feel like they can report harassment, or don’t want to, because of legitimate concerns about pushback or victimisation. Even if you choose not to bring it up, keep documenting everything so you have a record of events;
- Tell the harasser to stop. Do this either as it happens or in a later conversation. Be clear and specific about the behaviour that is making you uncomfortable. It is useful from a legal perspective to be able to state that you made it clear to the harasser that you wanted the behaviour to stop;
- Build solidarity. Connect with others who you think might have been mistreated or harassed at work. When several people attest to a pattern of behaviour by the harasser, it is harder to dismiss;
- Talk to a lawyer. Even if you don’t want to file a lawsuit, it may be useful to talk to a lawyer who specialises in employment law to help you better understand your options.
This article was first published in The New York Times.