Reprinted from TheHill.com
By Heidi Williamson
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a critical issue that impacts America’s working women. As women’s contributions to the workforce and their family’s economic security increases , their ability to work in an environment free from violence, hostility and intimidation is as important as pay equity, family leave policies, and affordable health care.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes sexual harassment, a form of gender discrimination, illegal. However, many women still find themselves subjected to catcalling, inappropriate jokes, or approached for sexual favors.
In 2015, nearly six thousand women filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sexual harassment. Though likely an underrepresentation of those who experience abuse, it is important to know what to do should you decide to address sexual harassment in your workplace.
1. Know your Rights
Knowing what Title VII states is important, but understanding your company's policy and procedures regarding sexual harassment is key. These documents should be widely available and detail the process your human resources department uses to address sexual harassment. Good policies include detailed definitions about the behaviors that are classified as sexual harassment; the types of disciplinary actions the company can take; the choice of an informal or a formal complaint process; confidentiality requirements; and how they prevent retaliation for victims.
National advocacy groups like Legal Momentum, National Women’s Law Center, and 9to5, National Association of Working Women provide excellent resources on federal and state laws as well as procedures that can complement your companies’ HR in-house process.
2. Tell the Harasser to Stop
If you feel safe, tell the harasser directly to stop. Be specific about the behavior that makes you uncomfortable.
If you do not feel safe speaking directly to the harasser, you can write a letter to the individual indicating your concerns. Legal Momentum, an advocacy group that educates on this issue, has a great sample letter that you can use.
If you do not feel comfortable speaking with the harasser either directly or in writing, consider speaking with the harasser’s supervisor and/or your supervisor. In order to effectively utilize any workplace protection process, either in-house or through a government agency, you must indicate that this behavior is unwelcome.
3. Document, Document, Document
Keep a journal about each incident of harassment that includes: date, time, name of the harasser, comments made by the harasser, what happened during the incident, and witnesses present. Keep this journal in a safe place away from other personal items and documents.
4. Follow company procedures
While it may feel uncomfortable, you must allow the company to address this matter. By law, employers are liable for acts that contribute to a hostile work environment, including the behavior of its managers, supervisors, and to some extent co-workers.
5. Involve Government Agencies
You may file a complaint with local, state, and federal agencies like the EEOC. Consult an attorney or advocacy group about specific procedures and timelines to file a complaint.
6. Advocate for stronger protections
Women make up the majority of low wage workers and women of color account for more than a third of them. According to the NWLC, some of the highest rates of reported harassment come from the restaurant, agriculture, and hospitality industries. Not only do these jobs pay low wages, but employees are more likely to be supervised by low-level supervisors that cannot hire or fire them, but have enormous control over their daily work, such as control of their schedules, job training, and maintaining machinery and equipment. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Vance v. Ball State University that a person must be able to “hire, fire, or demote” employees in order to be considered a supervisor in discrimination lawsuits, thus making it is more difficult for employees to hold employers liable for the abusive behavior of co-workers on the job.
If you have been sexually harassed at work, advocate for the Fair Employment Protection Act to restore protections for workers in the federal law. This bill will allow employees to hold employers accountable for sexual harassment by individuals that have the ability to hire and fire and for those with the authority to control the daily activities of employees.
These steps are not always easy. The threat of workplace retaliation is a real concern and most women, regardless of their job, cannot just change careers when sexual harassment takes place. Far too many women do not report such behavior and do their best to continue to work and take care of their families. They are not weak or uninformed. They are, in fact, breadwinners, co-breadwinners, mothers, and leaders. Their resiliency does not absolve employers of their responsibility, nor is it a remedy for sexism or a hostile work environment. Workplace protection begins with policy and is strengthened by the individual acts of employees to hold employers accountable and promote gender equality.
Heidi Williamson is a reproductive health, rights and justice advocate for women and girls of color. She works as a policy analyst at a DC think tank and regularly consults with social justice organizations throughout the country.