The #MeToo reckoning has exposed the pervasiveness of workplace sexual harassment and assault, empowering victims to speak out—but many do not know how.
Quinn Emanuel was the first major law firm to institute a practice dedicated to representing victims of sexual harassment in the workplace and employment discrimination, and I’m heading up our historic #MeToo practice. I’ve spent over two decades doing this work—but I also know much of this fight begins before I get involved.
Below, I lay out strategies on how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace when it happens—and how best to move forward once it has.
Step 1: Save all emails and texts.
If you are being sexually harassed through email, text or any other form of electronic communication—including Snapchat, WhatsApp or any other app—save those written communications, and be sure to store them somewhere where your company or harasser cannot access them. (Sending to a secure personal email account, for example, is a good idea.) If you only keep documentation on your work computer or work phone and you are unfairly terminated for fighting back against your sexual harassment, you may find yourself unable to access this critical evidence when the time comes.
Step 2: Create a record of any verbal harassment.
Often sexual harassment comes primarily or exclusively through in person interactions that do not automatically create any kind of record of their occurrence—so any time you suffer in-person or telephonic sexual harassment, write down the date, time, place and person who harassed you, as well as the names of any witnesses to the harassment. Don’t worry if there are no other witnesses besides you—many harassers are careful to avoid detection, and a contemporaneous record that you create can serve as compelling evidence in place of a witness. Make sure to also write down any threats, promises or sexual and disparaging comments your harasser makes.
It is also generally not a good idea to keep your notes somewhere accessible by work colleagues, especially your harasser. Instead of keeping physical notes in your desk or electronic notes as a local copy on the desktop of your work computer, take the notes home, or email them to a secure personal account.
Step 3: Check your company’s policy on sexual harassment.
Find out if your employer has a policy on sexual harassment. This may be available on your company’s website or in your employee handbook; if not, ask a supervisor or any one in your Human Resources department who is not sexually harassing you. If your company has one, follow the steps in the policy, including filing a written complaint. If your company does not have one, be aware that federal law protects you from sexual harassment from your employer.
Step 4: Report the harassment.
Report the harassment to the appropriate individuals at your company—most likely to the HR department. If possible, report your harassment in writing and follow up in writing if you feel like your employer is dragging its feet on addressing your claim. Written communications are superior to verbal communications, as sexual harassment cases often end up as “your word against his” due to a lack of written evidence. If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, you can also confront your harasser and tell him or her to stop.
Step 5: File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
If your employer won’t take action against your harasser, you should contact the EEOC as soon as possible. (Click here to learn how.).
Depending on where you work, you will have either 180 or 300 days from the date the harassment took place to file with the EEOC. While charges of “ongoing harassment” can allow the EEOC to review conduct that took place before the 180/300 day deadline, it is always better to file as promptly as possible.
The EEOC will investigate your claim, and may attempt to bring you and your employer to a settlement agreement. If you don’t reach a settlement—or the harassment continues—request a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC. This will allow you to bring a private suit in court.
Step 6: Get a lawyer.
You should contact an attorney or law firm that specializes in and understands workplace sexual harassment claims. They can help you determine when and how to sue your employer, and any other steps that you should take. Hiring an attorney is especially critical if your employer has retaliated against you—threatened you, demoted you, fired you or otherwise acted against you due fighting your sexual harassment. Federal law prohibits this, and a lawyer can help you sue for damages.