How to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Harassers often go to great lengths to separate their victims from co-workers. This doesn't always mean isolation, as seen in the case of the women at the Chicago Ford plants. At the plants, the harassers abused women in the open with the full support of other workers but other cases do involve isolation of the victim. Whether the abuse takes place in the open or in private, it can make the possibility of stopping it feel impossible.

However, there are steps a victim can take to begin the process of stopping the abuse but the steps depend on how severe the harassment is and whether or not the victim feels safe with direct confrontation. In Back Off! How To Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers, Martha Langelan, past president of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center, recommends taking steps to confront the harasser and hold them accountable beginning with naming the behavior. Whatever the harasser has done, say it, and be specific. Sometimes, simply telling someone that you feel uncomfortable is enough to stop the behavior but in other cases, you might need to define explicitly what it is that's making you feel uncomfortable. For example, "I don't like it when you tell sexual jokes. It's a form of harassment and it's illegal in this workplace." Often, the harasser counts on the victim remaining silent and continues the behavior until someone tells them to stop.

Hold the harasser accountable for their actions. Don't make excuses for them. Don't pretend it didn't really happen. Report the harasser, using direct, truthful statements, to the human resources department and file a formal complaint with them. Keep in mind that privacy protects harassers though visibility can undermine their power. There's also a chance that visibility can cause them to up their harassment and in this case, if the company isn't doing enough to stop the behavior, you might consider consulting an attorney.

Demand that the harassment stop making it clear that all employees have the right to be free from sexual harassment, and stick to your own agenda rather than responding to the harasser's diversionary tactics or trying to counter their excuses for their behavior. For example, if your harasser protests your complaint because they claim you're too sensitive or that you can't take a joke, don't get drawn in. Instead, remind them that whatever the intention, the result is a form of harassment and that harassment in the workplace is illegal.

You have the right to demand that the harasser stop the behavior and you also have the right to demand that your employer do something to intervene. Often people who are being harassed feel intimidated and/or unsure about whether they've done something to invite the harassment. The answer is a resounding NO! If you are being harassed, it's because the harasser is someone who takes pleasure in making others feel uncomfortable and/or intimidated. It has nothing to do with you "asking for it." So, when you report the harasser, make sure that you employ strong, self-respecting body language--eye contact, head up, shoulders back, a strong, serious stance. While it's not necessary to be angry or defensive, which actually might undermine your case, remember that timid, submissive body language will make you appear unsure and weak and will give the harasser an opportunity to exploit the weakness. In the end, remember that they are wrong. End of discussion.

Respond with the appropriate level force. If your harasser is abusing you verbally, then stick to verbal confrontation. If your harasser is abusing you physically, if possible, defend yourself, but do what you can to get away from the situation. Often when harassers feel challenged or threatened, they will increase the level of harassment, so you are better off removing yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.

End the interaction on your own terms with a strong closing statement like, "You heard me. Stop harassing women." By clearly stating your desired outcome, you are telling the harasser what you want and why you want it. Depending on whether you have witnesses or not, this also can help support your case with human resources though you do not have to verbalize opposition for the harassing behavior for it to be considered illegal.

If the victim is a union member, reporting the harassment to the union steward may garner support and secure a potential ally. According to the National Labor Relations Act, unions must represent and aid their members in stopping sexual harassment, a form of discrimination. However, as seen in the case of the Chicago Ford plants, sometimes the union may not do what its supposed to do to represent its members. While a victim can file a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), they should be aware that there are time limits on filing grievances, and that they must be filed within six months of the date of the incident being reported.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Gender Sensitivity Training course?

As difficult as it may feel or be, documenting your harassment can go a long way in helping support a harassment case with human resources or in court. When you maintain a record of what your harasser is doing or has done, you should photograph or keep copies of any offensive material at the workplace. Keep a journal with detailed information on instances of sexual harassment. Make sure to note what was said or done, the dates and times, the frequency of the harassment, and whether there were any witnesses. If so, list their names and job titles.

If possible, you should inform others, such as co-workers and personal friends and tell them what happened. You also should consider obtaining copies of your evaluations, annual reviews, pay scale and/or raises you've received, and any other information directly pertaining to your job performance as these documents may be necessary for proof of discrimination and/or retaliation.

If the harasser has threatened you physically or exhibits violent tendencies, you should not only inform your human resources department immediately, but you also should file a complaint with your local law enforcement agency. Avoid the inclination to downplay the harasser's threats or worry about what it will do to their job or reputation. Take the steps necessary to ensure that you are and remain safe.

If the harassment results in you needing to file a complaint with the EEOC, you should consult an attorney. While you are not required to have an attorney, it's wise to consult with one before you file your complaint as they will evaluate your complaint and advise you to whether you have a strong case, then they will walk you through the process of filing it. Attorney referrals can be obtained by contacting local or national organizations for women or LGBTQ+ individuals, your union, specialized employee interest groups, law schools and/or legal aid community services that also may offer services either free of charge or at a very low rate. There also are state Fair Employment Practice (FEP) agencies, or state Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offices.

The steps a victim can take to ensure that their rights are being protected are much more clear than those available to a co-worker. When a co-worker witnesses sexual harassment, the process of dealing with it can be much trickier because it involves inserting oneself into the situation and figuring out how to help the victim without becoming the target of the harasser.

What can a co-worker do to help a victim of sexual harassment?

First, don't assume you know what's going on or how the victim wants to deal with the situation. The best course of action is to let the victim know what you've witnessed and ask what they want to do to resolve the problem. Let the victim know you support them but also let them know they have a right not to have to work with a harasser. Avoid judging the victim, and since you're probably not the only one in the workplace who notices the harassment, do your best to discourage others from gossiping or making jokes about the victim or harasser. Do your best to support the victim and remind them that the harassment is not only not their fault but that it is illegal.

If the harasser is a co-worker, you can offer to inform a supervisor or someone higher up the chain of command. Sometimes this is not possible because the harasser is close to upper management. In that case, you might offer to contact human resources for the victim and report the harasser. If the harasser is a supervisor or someone at the executive level, then the human resources department might be the first stop. When, as in the case of the Chicago Ford plant workers, the company seems intent on burying the harassment and discounting the victim, the best option may be to pursue an outside source of support, such as the union, a local mediator, or the NLRB. The key is to let someone in a position of responsibility in the organization know what is going on so they can do something about it.

If you are in a supervisory position, your job is to ensure that your employees are in a safe and respectful work environment. Therefore, it is your job to confront the harasser with the claims of harassment and tell them to stop. If you are not the person's direct supervisor, then you may need to report the harasser to human resources and let them manage the situation with the harasser's supervisor.

Despite the fact that it my be a difficult situation to deal with, you should never ignore sexual harassment in the workplace. Not only can sexual harassment hurt the victim and their co-workers, but when sexual harassment is allowed to continue, it can harm the organization by damaging its reputation and affecting its bottom line.

If you choose to pursue your case through the legal system, it's important to remember that very few sexual harassment cases make it to federal court and for those that do, the process can take years. Victims who win sexual harassment cases in federal court can receive the following remedies: attorneys fees, reinstatement of promotion, compensatory and punitive damages, pay for lost wages and benefits, and injunctive relief, which are changes in workplace policy and practice to prevent future harassment. The amount of damages awarded depends on the size of the company. In the case of the Chicago Ford plant women, the case took over six years, two of which were spent waiting for the EEOC to conduct its investigation. The plaintiffs in the case probably will see the settlement much sooner than most because Ford accepted responsibility and didn't appeal the verdict. However, in the case of Price Waterhouse versus Hopkins, it took more than a decade for the case to work its way through the courts and the appeal process. This is not to discourage anyone from filing a suit against a harasser or a company that is guilty of harassment. Rather, it's a realistic assessment of the way in which the justice system approaches sexual harassment and the time and energy that probably will be required to pursue such a case.

The bottom line is that sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal and employers have a legal responsibility to ensure and maintain a safe and respectful workplace environment. Addressing the issue with the employer by using proper channels and filing a complaint with human resources is the first step in dealing with a harasser, but if you do not get satisfactory results, there are a wide range of options.