The news of decades of sexual harassment allegations made against film executive Harvey Weinstein has shocked and appalled many ― and for good reason. But the issue of workplace sexual harassment is not unique to Weinstein. Rather it is a pervasive problem, transcending industry and class, and persisting not just in the entertainment industry but in the tech, medical, academic, service, and law enforcement industries, too.
Sadly, women (and gender non-conforming people, who Attorney General Jeff Sessions rolled back workplace protections for this week) in any profession are likely to be confronted with some form of gender-based harassment from a man in a position in power. This can take many forms, like soliciting sex or a romantic relationship, promises of career success in exchange for sex, making inappropriate sexual comments, or engaging in inappropriate touching.
The good news is that women have become increasingly vocal about their experiences, thereby raising awareness and chipping away at the national tolerance for such misconduct.
In July 2016, former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against Roger Ailes, then-head of Fox News, that ultimately resulted in his stepping down from the network. (Ailes passed away 10 months later, in May.)
Earlier this year, women in the tech industry came out swinging against the industry’s propensity for sexism and harassment, specifically at Uber and Google, thus opening the floodgates for other women to speak up about their own experiences being victimized. Women employed by Gucci, McDonalds, the Plaza Hotel, and countless universities have also alleged serious issues of harassment over the past year.
Of course, not all victims of sexual harassment have the means that entrepreneurs like Susan Fowler and media personalities like Carlson have, but considering the pervasiveness of the problem, and the frequency with which women will have to face it, these very public cases of sexual harassment can provide tangible takeaways for others who might experience similar harassment.
HuffPost talked to Carlson and her lawyer Nancy Smith, as well as Kim Churches, the CEO of AAUW (the American Association of University Women) about what every employee needs to understand about sexual harassment.
Know Your Rights
Churches told HuffPost that employees should first and foremost know what their rights are.
“Understanding what your handbook says, what your policies are…and understanding what sexual harassment is” are of utmost importance when starting a new job, emphasized Churches. She also said that employees should know what rights they are guaranteed under Title XII ― and know that if those rights are violated, they can, and should, file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Carlson, whose forthcoming book Be Fierce digs into her experiences at Fox and the lessons she learned, told HuffPost that the biggest takeaway from the Weinstein scandal is to find power in speaking up.
“Look what happens when the floodgates open!” she said. “One by one women gain courage from another sharing their story and more and more come forward. It’s a chain reaction of confidence and liberation to not be silenced anymore.”
Confide In Family, Friends, Or Coworkers
“Women are afraid to talk,” Smith said, “because they’re not in power.” But she also emphasized that it can be incredibly empowering to share what’s going on with a trusted confidante.
Opening up to a trusted inner circle can also do more than alleviate the stress and emotional burden ― it could potentially result in an allyship.
“There are too many cases where victims think they’re overreacting,” Churches told HuffPost. “When you talk about this with an inner circle it helps you to process what happened and feel less helpless, and it helps you to better articulate your game-plan going forward.”
Men who harass women are often victimizing multiple people at a time, or have a history of doing so in the past (much like Weinstein and Ailes) ― confiding in someone who may also be a victim of the same person’s harassment could bolster your case.
Understand The Limits Of Human Resources
“I’ve been a lawyer for 37 years. I can’t remember a case where HR helped my client,” Smith told HuffPost.
Smith recommended instead that employees who are victims of harassment seek their own legal counsel, and that placing too much hope on H.R.’s role in your complaint or lawsuit is not the best approach.
“The sad fact is, if you stand up for sexual harassment, you’re probably going to lose your job...or your career,” Smith said.
Keep A Daily Record Of What’s Happening
Another thing Smith brought up is the importance of record-keeping. The easiest way to do this is to record any conversation or instance of harassment ― however, in many states, it’s illegal to record someone with them knowing. In that case, Smith said, there are other ways to keep track.
“Every day when you get home from work, keep a diary of what happened,” she told HuffPost. “If there are inappropriate text messages or emails, keep a copy of them at home. Don’t let them expire. Keep records at home, not in the work place.”
It’s important to put any incriminating documentation onto your personal devices rather than devices provided by your employer.
“Don’t keep them on a work phone or work computer,” she said. “The minute you complain, they’re going to take those things from you.”
Churches agrees. She told HuffPost that it’s important to keep a diary of the harassment, but that it’s equally important to keep a diary of your own productivity.
“Too many people when they’re faced with harassment are worried about retribution for themselves,” she said. “Understanding how to protect yourself by documenting your own productivity can be very, very helpful.”
Fight The Bigger Fight
The above tips are helpful tools to have within in the current system but, Smith said, that system is where most of the biggest problems lie.
“We need to insist on laws that prohibit confidential settlement agreements,” she said, citing Weinstein as a perfect case study of how millions of dollars in private settlements don’t stop the culture of abuse or harassment ― they just sweep the issue under the rug.
“It didn’t take eight or more settlement agreements to have Mr. Weinstein allegedly decide to change his conduct,” Smith said. “It took the New York Times.”
Churches echoed the sentiment that harassment is a systemic issue: “Women should just know that the most important thing is that, in the society we live in, this behavior is still allowed in too many sectors of our workplaces. This is too normal.”
Since Carlson’s 2016 lawsuit, she has devoted much of her time and passion to the bipartisan effort to change mandatory arbitration laws, which employees often don’t realize they’re signing off on in their employment contracts.
Arbitration forces employee complaint cases to be overseen by lawyers chosen by the company, thus rarely ending in a win for the victim of harassment. (A 2011 study at Cornell University showed that only 21 percent of cases that went into arbitration resulted in a win for the employee.)
Carlson has joined the effort of Senator Al Franken, who introduced the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2017 in March.
Perhaps it’s worth a call to your Senator to see if they plan on supporting the bill.