The endless revelations of high-profile sexual harassment scandals (in politics, tech, media, Hollywood, etc.) are inescapable reminders of what people already know: sexual harassment in the workplace is endemic across industries of all types. Perpetrators and victims of workplace harassment include both men and women, however women are disproportionately targeted. According to a recent study, one in three women between the ages of 18-34 has suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. Despite the fact that sexual harassment constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many women continue to suffer either in silence or in protracted litigation, which often fails to yield just results.
Behind most of these high-profile abusers are the companies or entities that employ them. All too often, employers, once they are made aware of sexual harassment, determine that the financial benefits of shielding high-powered harassers outweigh the cost of silencing their less powerful victims. This dynamic perpetuates a perverse imbalance of power. Sexual harassers tend to target individuals they perceive to be vulnerable: women who are in positions with less authority; who have something to gain or lose; or who lack economic stability, self-esteem, or credibility. And while sexual harassment isolates women, their high-powered abusers benefit from a far-reaching network of equally influential cohorts willing to turn a blind eye to the abuse.
The brave women speaking out about their victimization at the hands of sexual harassers are turning this antiquated cost-benefit analysis on its head. The message from women is clear: we will no longer be the ones to pay the price under a workplace culture of silence, acquiescence, and acceptance. The reputation of employers and entire industries are at stake, and they must be equipped to respond to this important moment. They must start by working swiftly to implement changes to prevent further erosion of trust and credibility. Likewise, victims of sexual harassment must be emboldened to report without risk of retaliation.
Here are Legal Momentum’s 5 recommendations for urgent employer action:
Adopt an in-house sexual harassment policy with teeth and then stop ignoring it. At this juncture, many employers have sexual harassment policies on the books (if you don’t, you should) but few pay any attention to them. This is a huge mistake in the current climate. Review your policy to make sure it is clear, comprehensive, strong, and establishes a chain of responsibility so that all actors in the process can be held accountable. Your policy should define and prohibit sexual harassment, establish reporting and investigatory procedures, and put in place mechanisms for enforcement and self-evaluation. You should look beyond Title VII to establish a safe, fair, and respectful workplace culture that sets the bar high for all employees.
Be fair and consistent.When enforcing your workplace policy, do not afford immunity or special treatment to valuable employees or leadership.
Discipline sexual harassers. To establish accountability, employers must terminate or take appropriate action against managers, supervisors, or other employees found guilty of sexual harassment. Keep in mind that these are not criminal trials and guilt need not be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Employers should also reconsider their reliance on arbitration and settlements that employ non-disclosure agreements. Retaining known sexual harassers while silencing victims will only exacerbate the problem over time.
Train to eliminate predatory behavior and threats of retaliation. Conduct annual trainings of employees, supervisors, and managers with a view towards preventing or eliminating hostile workplace culture. Be sure to provide guidance on how employees at all levels can intervene, and train leadership to be vocal and lead by example. Legal prohibitions against retaliation should be emphasized broadly. Encouraging a culture that disapproves of predatory conduct at the outset can help stop it before it becomes a larger problem.
Review your process. Leadership should conduct periodic reviews to ensure that the policy is being enforced, claims are legitimately investigated in an independent and timely manner, and reporting is not being discouraged.
If you are an employee, here are 5 things you can do (in addition to being vocal):
Say No! Make it clear that sexual harassment is unwelcome. Even if you submitted to certain behavior in the past, you can always change course and make it known that the behavior is unwanted. Do not be ashamed—you did not put yourself in this situation, the harasser did.
Document the harassment. To be actionable under federal law, conduct must generally be frequent or severe, so try to document everything that happens in detail (including names, dates, places, times, witnesses, and nature of the incident). Keep a paper trail of relevant evidence, including emails, texts, and correspondence. Threats of retaliation are unlawful under Title VII and can be used against your abuser.
Report sexual harassment internally. Request a copy of your workplace policy and report in accordance with those procedures. If your workplace doesn’t have a policy, start by reporting to HR or your supervisor (if s/he is not the abuser). If you belong to a union, contact your union representative for guidance.
File a discrimination complaint with your local or state fair employment agency and/or the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Act quickly because there are applicable legal deadlines for filing a formal complaint with local, state, and federal agencies and for bringing a lawsuit. The sooner you compile your documentation and file your complaint, the better—even if harassment is still ongoing (you can always supplement a complaint with additional instances if necessary).
File a lawsuit. You can likely bring suit under applicable federal, state, and/or local employment discrimination laws. Keep in mind that you must first file a complaint with the EEOC if you later wish to bring a federal lawsuit under Title VII. Consult an attorney for further guidance.
For additional guidance on your legal rights as an employee, you can contact Legal Momentum’s Helpline at firstname.lastname@example.org.