Take notes and remember HR isn’t always your friend
An explosive report of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged decades-long sexual misconduct against actresses and ex-employees helped oust him from the Weinstein Company over the weekend. Days later, Ronan Farrow’s months-in-the-making New Yorker probe gave voice to 13 women alleging sexual harassment or assault — with three alleging Weinstein had raped them. Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow followed suit with accusations of their own.
Nearly one in three women has been sexually harassed at work, according to a YouGov survey from this year — and the grisly details from Weinstein’s story have inspired many women to share their own tales of unwanted workplace advances.
Take Megan, a 31-year-old Cleveland HR worker who faced near-daily sexual harassment from a number of colleagues during her five years at a large, predominantly male construction company. One boss would comment regularly on Megan’s looks and once suggested she dress up like a cat for Halloween because she was “the office pussy.” A regional manager pushed her up against a wall at an office holiday party and kissed her — texting the next day “that he did not regret what he did and was glad he had finally planted a kiss on me.”
And in one particularly egregious display, yet another boss pestered her to meet up at a nearby bar with their regional manager. “Hey, do you know of any hotels around here?” she recalled the manager asking. Believing him drunk and trying to be helpful, she suggested the La Quinta down the road. “OK, good — well, you and I should go back there and f–k,” he allegedly replied.
Here’s what to do if you’ve been sexually harassed at work https://t.co/ctCqQ8Wt7O
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) October 10, 2017
When Megan confronted her boss about the incident, he offered her a bonus — eventually making it clear he wanted her to keep quiet about the regional manager, who had a wife and kids. And though she called in a complaint to HR, her unwillingness to name herself or the harasser led to a bureaucratic dead end. “In my situation, it continued for five years and it was a living hell,” Megan said. “I wish I would have spoken up, because it didn’t end.”
Dating and life coach Francesca Hogi, 42, got her first taste of workplace sexual harassment in the mid-’90s as a production assistant on an indie feature film. “It was summertime and I was wearing summer clothes,” she recalled to Moneyish, when a creepy producer chimed in: “He was like, ‘Oh, your skin looks so smooth. Is it that smooth all over your body?’” Hogi didn’t answer. Then, as she walked by him on the last day of shooting, “he just grabbed me and he said, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ He shoved his hand down the back of my pants to feel my bare butt — and he’s like, ‘Oh, I knew it. I knew it was going to be just as smooth.’” The groping happened in full view of others, who said nothing. She never saw him again.
“It didn’t feel like there was any place I could go where anyone would have done anything about it,” she said. “I did what a lot of women do, which is just suck it up and chalk it up to one of those things that happens.”
Here’s what to do if you find yourself fending off unwanted sexual attention — physical or verbal — from a coworker or boss:
Think ahead to how you might handle it. “It’s very common that you just freeze” when you get sexually harassed, explains employment lawyer Paula Brantner, a senior advisor to the Workplace Fairness nonprofit. “The best way to keep that from happening is to kind of walk through in advance what you would do if this happened.” Sending a “loud and clear” message in the moment can both help establish that the overture was unwanted from a legal perspective, and potentially nip the problem in the bud, Brantner said.
Write down what was said, when it was said and who else might’ve heard “as quickly as you can after the fact,” Brantner said, “because it often becomes a he-said, she-said situation.” “Memories fade,” she added. Document requests for sexual favors, retaliation that resulted from your not giving in, lost opportunities and any other offenses, and save emails that might help make a case, said employment lawyer Davida Perry, a partner at Schwartz, Perry & Heller. Don’t record anything using work property, she urged — keep a notebook of your own that’s easily accessible. And keep a confidante or spouse in the loop as the incidents occur.
Talk to supportive and trustworthy coworkers. “If it’s happened to you, it may have happened to other people,” said Brantner. “So you may wish to find out what you can about this person’s history and whether there have been any other situations.”
Report the behavior. “From my perspective, you need to talk about it; you need to report it. You need to speak to somebody who has the power and authority to take some action,” said Perry. Learn about your company’s policies and procedures for filing a sexual harassment complaint, Brantner added.
Remember: HR isn’t necessarily your friend. “Their role is to protect the company and their role is to conduct what they believe to be an impartial investigation,” Brantner said. “If you decide to go that route, you should be aware that even under policies where companies are supposed to do an investigation, they may not talk to everyone that you recommend, they may not be very thorough and they may not be very impartial.”
Document your conversation with HR. Either enter your meeting with HR armed with a written account of the harassment or write a summary of the meeting right after it’s over, Perry said. That way, “HR can’t come back and say, ‘We never talked about sexual harassment or discrimination.’ … It happens often.”
Talk to an employment lawyer. “It’s always OK to check in with an attorney on any of this, even if it’s a one-time situation that never happens again,” Brantner said. Even if the attorney says, “This is gross, it shouldn’t have happened, but it’s not a lawsuit,” she added, “at least you’ll know what to look for in the future if something happens again.”
Sexual harassment, defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” is a form of sex discrimination. It’s illegal “when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision,” the EEOC says. Aside from pursuing a federal EEOC claim, look within your state and city laws for possible additional protections, Perry said.
Know that you’re not alone — and it’s not your fault. “This has happened to countless numbers of women,” Brantner said. “It’s not something you asked for … the urge is to kind of reconsider everything you did or said that might’ve led somebody on, but it’s about power and exerting that power in the workplace.”
“We’ve got to speak out about it — there’s too much at stake,” said Perry. “(From) the strong and the financially sound to the single mom who’s making $10 an hour, it just breaks you. And you’ve gotta fight back with whatever you have.”
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