In theory, federal and state employment laws, as well as the company’s internal policies, protect you from sexual harassment on the job. Most companies proudly announce that they have zero tolerance for sexual harassment.
In reality, it can be hard to prove sexual harassment and difficult to convince an employer to take action. Even companies with explicit anti-harassment policies may try to avoid actions that would disrupt the performance of a top employee, even if they mistreat others on the job.
If you take the right steps before you report sexual harassment, you have a better chance of convincing your employer to act and have recourse if they don’t protect you like they should. What should you do before notifying your employer of sexual harassment?
Make your own records
If you make a complaint but can’t provide any specific example, the company will have a hard time validating your concerns or justifying any punitive actions they might need to take on your behalf.
Keeping detailed records of every time your supervisor says something inappropriate or each time one of your co-workers forward explicit and offensive emails to the team may make you feel like a pedant or a tattletale. However, those records can help convince the company that something is wrong or validate your complaints if they don’t protect you.
Ask the other party to stop
If you are in a position to do so, let the person or people involved in the situation know that their actions offend you. Sometimes, verbalizing a boundary is enough to get people to respect it.
Other times, you may deal with escalating behaviors from co-workers after you ask for their respect. Keeping records of when and how you asked the other party to stop can help you show that they knew their actions were inappropriate because you clarified that for them.
Check the employee handbook
Many companies have specific internal reporting practices that you need to follow when dealing with sexual harassment. For example, you may be able to bypass speaking to your supervisor and make a complaint to a neutral human resources representative instead.
When you have documentation and follow the right protocol, then the company needs to take action. If they fail to do so or if they punish you instead of the person or people harassing you, you will then be in a position to take the next step. Protecting yourself is important to anyone already coping with sexual harassment at work.