Where to turn when you can't report harassment to HR

Some HR departments are useless; others, hostile. Where do we go when human resources departments fails us?

Published November 25, 2017 11:00AM (EST)


The emotional repercussions of sexual harassment can feel like a dizzying carousel ride with an end that may never arrive. The feelings of violation and shame that follow sexual harassment can last a lifetime, and unpredictably resurface at the unlikeliest of times.

Many survivors of sexual harassment — self included — can relate. In the past month, as waves of harassment accusations swept over Hollywood, I, like many others, painfully recalled the times I was put in an uncomfortable situation by a man who needed a creative solution to validate his power. The first time it happened, I was 22 and working in the media industry in New York City. I didn’t know how to handle the harassment, so I called my mother. I felt so embarrassed, alone and like I needed to emphasize that I didn’t do anything to warrant his unwanted advance. At the time, I didn’t understand that it had nothing to do with me and I was just a pawn in an ego trip, but my Baby Boomer mother told me to ignore him and if he kept contacting me, report it to Human Resources.

Unfortunately, HR wasn’t an option. I had gone to the HR department about a similar abusive issue a few months before, and I was told to look for another job if my current situation was unbearable. Reporting the incident to HR didn’t feel safe. My harasser also wasn’t an employee, he was a source, and someone who had a lot of power in the industry I was covering.

Years later, when I was working in tech marketing, a similar situation arose, and again, HR wasn’t an option. There was an executive who thought I’d enjoy looking at inappropriate photos of his girlfriend at work. An investor who asked me to come over when his girlfriend wasn’t home. Again, it didn’t feel safe to report the incidences to HR, especially when HR was a third-party company or a group of my peers.

During these incidents, it was also difficult to understand what was going on and even if what I had experienced constituted sexual harassment. The phrase “sexual harassment” was attached to such seriousness, and taboo, that I felt too terrified of the consequences that would follow to report a colleague’s behavior and label it harassment. There was a lot at risk, including my job. Instead, after each incident I told myself “it is what it is” and did my best to move on, which looked a lot like forgetting it ever happened and maintaining some sort of relationship with the perpetrator.

I can’t help but wonder if the confusion and complacency I felt around these experiences could have been avoided if I had been educated on how to respond and navigate sexual harassment in the workplace during my formative years. At no point in my education was I taught how to report, respond or identify sexual harassment. If the #MeToo movement is any indication, nearly every woman has been sexually assaulted or harassed; and statistics show that over one-third of all women in the U.S. report having been sexually harassed at work. Around 75% of workplace harassment incidents are unreported, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

That could be for a number of reasons, but one may be because up until now, the lack of education — and the silence — around sexual harassment has left women in the dark as how to respond, report and identify. As one friend said a couple weeks ago, she’s still unclear on what qualifies as sexual harassment. Yeah, me too, I said.

There are several definitions for sexual harassment, but here is how the United Nations defines it:

unwelcome sexually determined behavior as physical contact and advances, sexually colored remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions. Such conduct can be humiliating and may constitute a health and safety problem; it is discriminatory when the woman has reasonable ground to believe that her objection would disadvantage her in connection with her employment, including recruitment or promotion, or when it creates a hostile working environment.

A few more qualifiers they note, are:

1. The incident must occur in a place of work or work-related environment

2. The incident must occur because of the person’s sex and/or is related to sex

3. The incident must be “unwelcome, unwanted, uninvited, not returned, not mutual

4. And, it must affect the terms/conditions of employment (read more: quid pro quo sexual harassment) or the work environment itself (hostile work environment sexual harassment).

Once someone has been harassed, there is no “best way” or “guide” on how to respond, despite my best attempts to find such a resource. I sought out to write this article to find more useful education and guidance on how to handle harassment in the workplace, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for, something I consider to be problematic still, considering the lasting and damaging effects that can occur after sexual harassment in the workplace. One study in 2011 showed that women and men who were sexually harassed had increased depressive episodes in adulthood compared to those who weren’t.

Hollaback, an online organization formed to combat harassment, says “there is no right or wrong way to respond to harassment, because it isn’t your fault. Your response is a matter of personal choice.” In a conversation I had with two experts — Adele Failes-Carpenter, coordinator at Project SURVIVE, the City College of San Francisco's peer education sexual violence prevention program, and Leslie Simon, Project SURVIVE’s founder — the two of them emphasized that there wasn’t a guide or tutorial on how to respond because each incident is so unique. There isn’t a step-by-step guide on how to survive harassment that can guarantee a predictable outcome.

They did, however, suggest a few strategies to make the survivor of sexual harassment and assault in a professional environment feel less alone and cope:

1. Record that the incident happened in a journal.

2. Speak up to the perpetrator if you feel comfortable doing so. Hollaback again offers great advice on how to speak up to a perpetrator, including to say what feels natural but don’t be apologetic in your response.

3. Tell a trusted friend and/or colleague for support. However, if that person is a manager, that person should be required to report the incident.

4. Write a letter (send to the perpetrator or don't). This is another emotional outlet.

5. Seek out a professional counselor for support if you don’t feel comfortable talking to friends.

6. Don’t shame or blame yourself. This is very important.

7. Start making an exit strategy (to leave on your own terms) if necessary.

8. Finally, make plans to file a lawsuit if that feels right for you. The New York Times published a guide including information on how to file a lawsuit, and while this option might not get you the outcome you want, it will undoubtedly help someone else in the future.

As women continue to out the powerful men who targeted them, it’s important to note that sexual harassment isn't the only form of abuse that occurs in the workplace. Hopefully this uprise in discourse around sexual harassment and assault will open the gate to recognize and fight the other forms of discrimination that occur too. This is just one more step toward dismantling the patriarchy, which has never really been about gender, but more about fear and the abuse of power.

As for me, #MeToo has not only empowered me to speak out, but it has made me feel less alone. There’s still much work to be done, but each new story that comes to light has the potential to inspire more women to take off the blindfolds they never gave consent to wear.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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