By Lindsay Halm, Employment Lawyer, Schroeter Goldmark & Bender
Nobody knows exactly why it is happening at this moment in history. But nearly every day for the last month, another man stands accused of sexual harassment. Each woman to tell her story lends courage to the next and so on and so on. If you have been following these stories on the news or on social media, you might feel encouraged: finally, people are paying attention! Maybe you have shared your own story and have felt less alone in your suffering. It is true there is strength in numbers.
But perhaps all of the attention paid to these celebrities and their victims (often, other celebrities) makes you feel like nobody pays attention to sexual misconduct unless it involves the rich and famous. Maybe you think nobody will believe your story because it hasn’t been reported on TV or in the newspaper. You have more power than you know. The laws that protect against sexual violence and harassment in the workplace protect rich and poor, citizens and non-citizens, brown and white, gay and straight, the famous and the not so famous. In Washington State, you have the right to go to work without having to endure unwanted physical touching, lewd comments, or requests for sexual favors. The law does not require that your boss be nice to you, but he cannot target you sexually.
So, what should you do if someone is harassing you at work?
(1) Tell someone. The majority of victims of sexual harassment do not come forward to report abuse. They worry nobody will believe them or they will be fired if they complain. But you cannot get protection from harassment in the workplace until you tell someone at the company who has the power to stop it. This is usually a manager or owner. When you report harassment, don’t say something vague like, “he’s bothering me.” Be specific about what happened. Did he touch you? Where did he touch you? What did he say? How did it make you feel? If your boss is the person harassing you, tell your boss’s boss or another manager you trust. If a coworker is harassing you, tell that person’s boss. If there are other people being targeted by the harassment, make a complaint together with the other workers. (Remember: there is strength in numbers.) If the harasser assaults you physically, consider reporting it to the police.
Once you report the misconduct to your employer, it is illegal for the company to punish you for making a complaint. For example, your boss cannot demote you, fire you, or reduce your hours just because you report sexual harassment.
(2) Take notes. As soon as you can, write down what the harasser did to you, when he did it, and the name of any person who saw or heard what happened. You should also keep notes of what you tell your employer about the misconduct and what they say in response. If you complain in writing, keep a copy.
(3) Find help. You do not have to suffer alone. Ask your employer’s human resources staff about free and confidential counseling options (sometimes through what is called an “employee assistance program” or “EAP”) or obtain a referral from a service like Consejo Counseling.
(4) Consult with a lawyer. If the harassment continues even after you report it to management, or if your employer fires you for complaining about it, reach out to a lawyer.
You do not have to be rich or famous to stand up to sexual harassment. At SGB, we have helped countless clients on their journey to hold employers accountable. If you need help, call us.
The material in this article is general in nature and is not intended as legal advice. You should contact a lawyer if you have a question about your particular situation.