Experiencing Sexual Harassment at Work? Here’s what you can do
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Have you ever been sexually harassed at work? If so, you’re not alone.
NPR reports that 38% of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
If you’ve been in this situation, you may not have known how to react.
It's a confusing, complicated time that's difficult to navigate. It can be exhausting and emotionally draining.
You must also consider the financial impact sexual harassment can have on your life.
What if you need to take time off work? Or make a job change?
Here's how you can take action now.
What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment can mean different things to different people. The law defines it as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) offers a more comprehensive view. It explains that sexual harassment is:
“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Types of Sexual Harassment
The EEOC defines two types of sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo: When a supervisor or co-worker demands something from you, like a sexual act, in exchange for getting something you need, like a promotion.
- Hostile work environment: When someone does or says something that creates an intimidating or demanding environment or a situation that negatively impacts your job performance.
Quid pro quo harassment is carried out by a supervisor, manager, or someone in a position of power over you.
But a hostile work environment can happen anywhere and be committed by anyone at your workplace.
What Does Sexual Harassment Look Like In Real Life
Sexual harassment can show up in various ways, and the definition may not fit all situations.
In some instances, there’s no question whether the conduct is sexual harassment. But sometimes, you may not be so sure.
If someone does or says something that makes you uncomfortable, intimidated, or distracted enough to interfere with your work, it could be sexual harassment.
For instance, you may see it as:
- Repeated compliments on your appearance
- Discussing or asking about one’s sex life
- Sharing nude, pornographic, or sexually explicit material
- Vulgar language or sexual jokes
- Sexually suggestive text messages or emails
- Unwanted gifts of a sexual or romantic nature
- Spreading sexual rumors
- Unwelcome touching such as a pat on the back or hug
- Requests for sexual favors
- Rape and sexual assault
Law enforcement agencies and other organizations may define sexual harassment differently than you do.
But you have a right to feel safe at work.
If you’re not sure whether the conduct you experienced was sexual harassment, consult with your manager or human resources department ASAP.
The Impact of Sexual Harassment on Your Financial Health
There’s no doubt that sexual harassment at work takes a mental and emotional toll. Stress, anxiety, depression, headaches, nausea, insomnia, and PTSD are common.
Those issues can manifest physically, leading to heart problems, digestive issues, or chronic pain.
And getting treatment for your emotional and physical health? That can have a severe impact on your financial health too.
If you have healthcare coverage, you may have to pay co-pays, coinsurance, or deductibles out of pocket.
Plus, you may need to take time off work to go to your appointments.
Vacation time and paid time off can help cushion the financial impact. But not everyone has that option.
In some situations, you may need to change jobs.
Besides the stress of quitting your job and finding a new one, you must also consider how to prepare your finances for the transition.
Take these steps to prepare your finances for a job change:
- Build your emergency fund
- Cut back on monthly expenses such as ongoing subscription services
- Find out how to take your retirement savings with you
What to Do if You’re Experiencing Sexual Harassment at Work
You have the right to report any unwanted sexual attention or behavior, even if your employer is part of the problem.
Remember that taking action is a personal decision. If necessary, get a lawyer's advice before you decide what to do next.
While a lawyer is another expense that can impact your financial health, it may be very appropriate and worth the cost.
Consider using legal services you may have available as a benefit through a confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at work.
Here are a few things you can do:
Know Your Rights in the Workplace
Understand your employer's policy regarding sexual harassment. If you have questions about the procedure, don’t hesitate to ask human resources to clarify it.
What if your workplace doesn’t have a sexual harassment policy? Report the unwanted activity to human resources and ask what steps you should take.
Document every unwanted comment, touch, activity, and inappropriate photo, joke, or gift.
The more you document the behavior, the easier it will be to prove what happened, when it happened, and why it's wrong.
Make sure to also document conversations you have with human resources.
To protect yourself, keep track of what steps they advise you to take in case legal authorities become involved.
Tell Your Harasser to Stop
Set clear boundaries and tell the person that what they're doing is not acceptable. Be polite, if possible. But also be clear.
You might say:
- Your compliments make me uncomfortable. Please stop complimenting me.
- Talking like that is offensive to me. Please don’t communicate that way.
- The topic of that conversation isn’t appropriate for the workplace. It makes me and other people uncomfortable. Please stop.
When you file a sexual misconduct complaint, your harasser may blame you for the consequences.
They could kick it up a notch and harass you even more. Other employees may shut you out, especially if the complaint of harassment is about a popular employee.
Even though retaliation isn’t legal, it’s a real fear. Rather than suffering in silence, make a plan to confront retaliation head-on:
- Document retaliation or suspected retaliation
- Get your union involved
- Speak to human resources
- Store your documentation outside of the workplace
- Talk to a therapist
Check with a Lawyer
You don’t need a lawyer to report sexual harassment. You can file a formal complaint with your employer or the EEOC without one.
But sexual harassment can be confusing to navigate. Consult with a lawyer if you’re unsure whether the behavior constitutes sexual harassment or you worry your employer won’t take your statements seriously.
Take Time Away
Sexual harassment can cause lots of stress in the workplace. Your reports of sexual harassment may go unresolved for weeks or months.
Even if you decide not to report it, you shouldn’t have to endure it day after day.
It's smart to have an exit plan if you are experiencing sexual harassment at work. You may want to take some time off or find a new job altogether.
What You Shouldn’t Do
You may not be keen on the idea of becoming the “talk of the office” by reporting your claims. But ignoring it won’t make the harassment stop.
If you’re experiencing sexual harassment, here’s what not to do:
- Don't pretend it's not happening or joke about it.
- Don’t retaliate with the same kind of behavior.
- Don't give in or go along with requests that make you uncomfortable.
How to Report Sexual Harassment
The most effective way of dealing with harassment is to tell the harasser to stop. It can be difficult and uncomfortable for you, but it’s crucial if you decide to take more formal action in the future.
You should also speak to your human resources department. They'll help you figure out whether there's a pattern of harassment and how best to handle the situation.
If the activity doesn’t stop or you need to report the incident for your safety, you may take it to the next level. What’s best depends on the situation, but you have a few options:
- Report it to law enforcement: You may want to go directly to law enforcement for some types of sexual misconduct, such as sexual assault or rape.
- Follow your company’s policy: Report the incident according to your employee handbook.
- Involve your union: If you’re a union member, talk to your union representative. They can often communicate with your employer on your behalf.
- Make a claim with the EEOC: File a charge with the EEOC for help resolving the situation.
- File a lawsuit: Talk to a lawyer about your legal options to sue your harasser.
How to Heal from On-the-Job Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment can cause emotional trauma and leave you with physical and financial scars.
When you go back to work after reporting sexual harassment, it is only natural that you feel uneasy and even alienated.
But with time, you will get over your initial feelings of helplessness and anger and once again be able to regain control over your life.
There are, however, a few things that can help you speed up the process of recovery after a sexual harassment incident at work:
- Accept what happened and allow yourself to experience your emotions in healthy ways—practice self-care to promote your wellbeing.
- Talk to someone about the harassment. You could get professional help from a counselor or join a support group for others in the same situation.
- Journal about your experience to make sense of what happened and work through your emotions.
- Don’t blame yourself. What happened wasn’t your fault, and you have nothing to be ashamed of.
You also don’t want to neglect your financial health.
Review your finances to assess any damage. You may need to cut back on extra expenses to replenish your savings or build up a financial buffer.
A budget is an excellent way to get your finances in order. It can help you find the best ways to cut expenses and reduce your spending.
Sexual Harassment at Work: The Bottom Line
When you experience sexual harassment, your job performance could be affected. You may feel tense and confused when other employees behave this way.
You may also be embarrassed to speak up or seek help.
But know this: No one deserves unwanted sexual comments, jokes, or advances from her boss or other co-workers.
Take steps to protect yourself and your mental and financial health.
Reach out to your friends and family for support or enlist the help of a lawyer or counselor. And remember, it’s not your fault.
Next: What to Consider Before Leaving Your Current Job
Article written by guest contributor Amy Beardsley
Amy Beardsley is a Freelance Writer and Professional Ghostwriter, whose work has appeared in dozens of financial planning and real estate blogs and magazines. Amy has also ghostwritten content for hundreds of social media profiles. With a background in the legal field, she transforms complex ideas and information into engaging easy-to-understand stories.