All too familiar – What to do if you think you’re being sexually harassed at the office

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With the dawn of the #MeToo movement, the public has learned that far too many women have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. Often, the perpetrator could be anyone they encounter at the office: a colleague, a customer, a vendor, possibly even someone in a supervisory role.

Sexual harassers’ actions toward their victims can range from the blatantly obvious, such as demanding a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion or making comments about a woman’s body, to the incredibly subtle — innuendo, for example — and everything in between. Sometimes, it really can be difficult to tell whether a behavior was indeed a form of sexual harassment.

While every sexual harassment situation is both unique and complex, each needs and deserves both time and attention to be resolved properly, according to Rose Miller, a human resources professional with more than 30 years of experience, who is president of Albany-based Pinnacle Human Resources, LLC.  She adds that sexual harassment isn’t necessarily about sex, but more about having power over someone else.

According to attorney Sanjeeve DeSoyza, a partner who works out of the Albany office of Bond Schoeneck & King, PLLC, “harassment can take many different forms.”

DeSoyza, who has focused his practice on representing employers in labor and employment matters, including sexual harassment, for the past 15 years, said sexual harassment “is not limited just to physical contact or sexually explicit comments. Other behaviors, such as leering, innuendo and intrusively personal questions could also be harassment.”

Attorney Giovanna D’Orazio, a partner with Saratoga Springs-based D’Orazio Peterson, PLLC, who focuses on the employee side of employment litigation and personal injury law, said dirty jokes and inappropriate internet memes can be added to the list.

So how does a woman go about determining whether or not she may have been sexually harassed?

A “good indicator” of whether or not a behavior could be considered sexual harassment is how it makes a woman feel, said Sarah Delaney Vero, an attorney and human resources consultant who owns and manages Delaney Vero PLLC in Rensselaer.

If a woman starts to notice she is being treated differently than her male colleagues, that could be a sign of sexual harassment, Delaney Vero said.

In short, “an employee experiencing [any of these types] of behavior should trust her gut; if it doesn’t feel right, it probably is not,” said DeSoyza.

If you believe you may be the victim of sexual harassment at your place of employment, the experts consulted for this article suggest taking the following steps to work toward appropriately resolving the issue.

Brush up on an employer’s sexual harassment prevention policies and procedures

Since October 2018, every employer in New York state is required by law to have a sexual harassment prevention policy in place, and the employer must also deliver a written copy of those policies and procedures to each and every employee.

All four professionals recommended that employees learn the details of the policies at their place of employment.

One of the most important pieces of information in these documents is the name of the person or people designated by your employer to receive reports of alleged sexual harassment. It will also outline the steps an individual should take to file a formal complaint within their office.

“It is your job to utilize the procedures that are in the workplace.” It’s not necessarily your responsibility to stop the harassment, says Delaney Vero.

Confront your harasser 

If an employee is comfortable doing so, DeSoyza recommends confronting the harasser directly to let him know that his behavior is not only unwelcome, but that it also needs to stop. An employee should warn the harasser that if he persists, the behavior will be reported to management.

In making this suggestion, DeSoyza also noted that women are under absolutely “no obligation” to stand up to their harasser and have “every right to go immediately to management for help.”

“You can certainly call out a colleague. … Sometimes it’s uncomfortable though, and no employee should feel like they have to,” said Delaney Vero.

Document every instance

According to Miller, one of the most important steps in the investigation process is for a victim to write a detailed narrative of what they remember taking place, including when they were harassed, sticking to the basics of who, what, when and where.

She said it’s crucial to put the experience in writing because the victim and the person designated to receive reports of alleged sexual harassment can review the account, and make certain he or she has all the facts straight before proceeding with an investigation.

In addition, D’Orazio recommended saving electronic pieces of evidence, such as any inappropriate emails or texts, that an individual may have received from the harasser.

Along with documenting the experiences, DeSoyza also suggested confiding in a close friend or a trusted colleague and sharing the experiences with them.

“That outside perspective can be invaluable in those ‘less obvious’ situations,” he explained.

Meet with your employer’s designated individual

The first step in preparing to file a complaint with an employer is to schedule a conversation with the person designated to receive reports of alleged sexual harassment. According to the experts, this individual is often a company leader, a member of the management team and/or a human resources professional. Depending on how large or small the employer is, it is also possible that an individual could meet with a representative from the company’s legal department, even its owner.

During this first discussion about the alleged harassment, Miller suggested approaching the incident as a question, not necessarily a claim or an accusation. She also said that a victim should be prepared to share as many details as possible about the encounters. If a victim is nervous or concerned that she won’t be taken seriously, Miller encourages victims to bring a trusted individual to the meeting who will advocate for the victim.

Miller added that it’s entirely possible that an individual might not have experienced sexual harassment, but rather a misunderstanding that can be resolved without having to file a complaint.

If after hearing accounts from both the victim and the harasser this designated person recommends filing a complaint, do so and continue to follow his or her instructions along with your employer’s sexual harassment prevention policies and procedures as you continue to work toward resolving the issue.

What should someone do differently if the harasser is a supervisor, part of the human resources department and/or one of the parties designated to receive sexual harassment complaints?

Even if your employer’s policy does state who you should report the alleged sexual harassment to in any of the three situations above, Delaney Vito suggests “going up the chain and finding somebody who will listen to you … because there is an obligation on the part of employers to respond appropriately when allegations of unfair treatment and sexual harassment rise in the workplace.”

In the case of reporting a direct supervisor’s alleged harassment, D’Orazio indicated the victim may have to go over her supervisor’s head to do so.

Reach out to external resources

If an employee isn’t getting a response to a legitimate internal complaint, fears retribution from an employer for filing one, or no longer works for the employer under which the harassment occurred, there are both state and federal agencies who will investigate civil claims of illegal conduct.

At the federal level, an individual may file a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to its website, the agency is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person’s race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or genetic information. For information about the agency, visit eeoc.gov/overview.

At the state level, state employees and contractors can file complaints with the Governor’s Office of Employer Relations (goer.ny.gov), while all other employees may do so through the New York State Division of Human Rights (dhr.ny.gov).

Delaney Vero explained that after someone files an online claim with the state’s Division of Human Rights, it’s submitted to an investigator, who will review the complaint, bring in both parties and then investigate the complaint.

If the harassment was of a physical nature, for example, groping, grabbing or rape, both D’Orazio and Miller remind individuals that those actions are criminal offenses and said victims should report the behavior to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Retain an attorney

If an individual decides to file a sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC, the victim needs to retain an attorney who is experienced in labor and employment law. Going to court should be seen as a last resort, Delaney Vero said, if the harassment was severe or of a criminal nature.

D’Orazio admitted that the civil side of “the legal system can be complicated” and all of its options can be confusing. She said that retaining an attorney can help someone navigate that system and help meet the deadlines for filing with the EEOC or the New York State Division of Human Rights.

According to Delaney Vero, other benefits of retaining an attorney include having a professional who is able to let the client know her rights and who listens to concerns, as well as serving as a sounding board if the individual is nervous about either the investigation or the process as a whole.

In addition to the emotional toll, victims need to weigh the financial cost of retaining an attorney. Both Miller and Delaney Vero said that some attorneys may conduct basic consulting for sexual harassment cases, such as helping women either understand their rights or determine their legal recourse, or possibly writing a letter to a woman’s employer advising them that the company isn’t following the state’s anti-harassment laws, for either a small fee or no fee.

For “good recommendations,” D’Orazio suggested looking at client testimonials and getting referrals from other attorneys.

“You want to have good advice and counsel, sometimes from someone who has more legal knowledge than a girlfriend or a parent,” said Delaney Vero.

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