How to Respond to Sexual Harassment at Work

By Barbara Mitchell 

Q: What should I do if I’m sexually harassed at work?

A:  As we’ve seen recently in the news, you are not alone. It distresses me that even though employers have been conducting sexual harassment training for many years, we’re still dealing with this issue.

I’m sorry this is happening to you, and you do not have to put up with it. Federal law protects your right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment.

If you can, tell the person to stop the conduct you find offensive. Clearly and firmly state what behaviors you want to stop immediately. This is not the time to be overly polite or vague—speak firmly and loudly enough so others hear you.

Document the behavior, and be as specific as possible with dates, times, witnesses, and details of the conduct. Share this record with a trusted colleague or family member, and document the dates you shared your story. If you received emails or other written communication of a harassing nature, retain copies.

Document the behavior, and be as specific as possible with dates, times, witnesses, and details of the conduct.

Don’t wait to report the harassment. Waiting only increases the probability that the behavior will continue. Chances are also good that you’re not the only one who has been harassed, so speaking up may prevent others from being harmed.

Read the harassment policy in your employee handbook and follow it as best as you can. This usually means working with your supervisor and/or human resources. Of course, if your harasser is your supervisor, you need to go one level above that person to share your story.

In instances where you don’t feel comfortable going up the chain of command to a supervisor's supervisor, you can address the harassment with a non-supervisory senior staffer, trusted colleague, or HR representative.

Once you’ve reported the harassment to HR or your manager, they have an obligation to investigate. They will try to keep the investigation confidential, but they will need to interview potential witnesses. Please don’t let the investigation keep you from coming forward—this is the only way your organization can deal with the harasser.

If you don’t want to report the conduct to your employer, you have the right to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Title VII of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act prohibits sexual harassment. Under Title VII, you have to file with the EEOC within 180 days of the harassment. Most states have similar laws, and filing with your state may extend the statute of limitations.

Bottom line: Don’t let sexual harassment continue. Speak up and take action.

Barbara Mitchell is a human resources and management consultant and author of The Big Book of HR and The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook. Do you have a question you’d like her to answer in “Ask the Expert”? Send it to [email protected].

Employee Policies