I am starting a series of posts, the "What Will Happen To Me If I Report . . ." series, to talk about practical, rather than strictly legal, consequences of reporting illegal conduct. I am not going to talk about statutes of limitations or filings requirements, or the like. This is not legal advice to be used in lieu of contacting legal counsel. I want to address a more elementary concern of many employees caught in a situation at his or her current job, and discuss the practicalities of the situation. The first issue I want to address is sexual harassment.
You are at work, and either a co-worker or boss, is giving you unwanted sexual attention. Maybe he wants to tell you dirty jokes, he asks you out, he starts touching you. You don't want to make waves. You need your job. What do you do?
I believe sexual harassment is more about power than about sex. When someone harasses another, for whatever reason, he or she is trying to assert some form of control. Unfortunately, with a typical sexual harasser, who is most likely a man, he probably will not stop on his own. If you ignore him, he will probably persist. If you give him dirty looks, he will probably persist. If you meekly tell him to stop it, he will probably persist. It is understandable that most women who are harassed do not want to rock the boat and they certainly do not want to jeopardize their jobs. But, if you want the conduct to stop, you are most likely going to make waves and the work environment will change. Others might get upset with you because work isn't as "fun" anymore. Others may tell you they don't trust you. You might be ostracized. It is especially hard if the harasser is a supervisor or even a top executive or the owner of the company. If you report the harassment, the work environment will change.
So, what if you decide to just take it. You're tough. You think can handle the unwanted attention. Most likely, the harassment will get worse. Remember, the harasser is not a suitor who will get the hint and move on. The harasser is more likely someone who wants to control you and have power over you. He wants power. He will probably escalate his behavior. And, true sexual harassers do not act in vacuums. You are probably not the first woman he has harassed and, unless something is done, you won't be the last. If you are a "pioneer," a woman working in a traditionally male occupation, such as construction, warehouses, etc., you may encounter more than one harasser. The women brave enough to venture into non-traditional jobs, usually because the pay is higher than in the traditionally female jobs, sometimes are perceived as a threat to men who are insecure (most harassers, and abusers, are very insecure people).
In order to have a legal case, you must complain to management. But, you are not thinking about lawsuits, you just want to be left alone and be able to perform your job. Unfortunately, sometimes that will not happen. Today, there are many employers savvy enough to recognize how detrimental sexual harassment is to the morale and production of employees and will either seriously discipline or terminate the harasser(s). But, there are those situations where the bosses in charge may dig in their heels and either tell you that it's just a "he said/she said" situation and it cannot be resolved. Or the employer might slap the harasser on the hand. Or the employer may be the harasser. You may not be free from the harasser, his harassment, his retaliation, or the retaliation from his friends or from management who are upset with you for coming forward. The work environment could get worse.
What should you do? I realize this is a very difficult situation for someone to find herself in. You might be a single mom barely eking out a living. You need your job. Your kids needs braces, or school supplies, or you need to pay the rent. Some women go along with their bosses. Some even perform sex with the boss just hoping to get through the horrible situation. It is not fair that you have to deal with this. You cannot sleep, you are testy with your loved ones, you grow to hate yourself and feel worthless. You blame yourself for being harassed.
First of all, IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!!!!!! And, you are stronger than you think. You cannot let the harassers control you. You must honestly report the harassment to management or human resources. You cannot pull punches. Even if you request anonymity, ultimately you will not be anonymous. You may get hassled, or threatened, by the harasser or others. Ideally, you can find another job which is as good as the one you've got. Even if you can't, I hope you can muster the courage to report the behavior. Reporting sexual harassment is the only hope you have of stopping it.
Sexual harassment is not just about you. If you come forward, you are helping others. In recent years, many companies take sexual harassment complaints very seriously. Part of the reason is because women in situations like yours came forward. It is because of their courage, and the courage of jurors, who stopped the rampant harassment by taking on the difficult tasks of sexual harassment lawsuits. Smart management executives realize how devastating sexual harassment is in the workplace, to the morale and productions of the company's workers, and to their pocket books if they have been sued.
In the sexual harassment cases I have handled, I have seen my clients transform before my eyes. They come in stressed and at their wits' end, with no sleep, nightmare, marital problems. And if they have the fortitude to go forward, I see them get stronger and stronger. They should be proud. Because women have stood up to harassers, sexual harassment happens only a fraction of what it was in the past. These women have helped their daughters, their granddaughters, and countless women they never met. The jurors who have heard the cases and are appalled have made such a societal difference. It is not easy bucking the status quo. Most people don't. But, if women do not come forward, the abusers win. You may need to contact a lawyer, or the situation may resolve on its own, but either way, there is no resolution unless you report the harassment.
We are heading to a day when sexual harassment will be rare. I do not think harassment will be eliminated because it is human nature for insecure people to try to bully and harasser those they think are less powerful than themselves. But, the workplace is considerably better for women than it was twenty years ago and it will be better still twenty years hence. Just know that you are not alone and you can make a difference.