As the revelations of rampant sexual harassment in Silicon Valley (and the dozens of women speaking out against overgrown warts Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News,) have shown us, headlines and public awareness aren’t nearly enough to eradicate gendered harassment at work. Not even close.
Testimonies from the women involved in these cases illustrate is what we’ve collectively known for a long, long time: Our culture is complicit in creating an environment where sexual harassment is all too common.
According to a 2015 survey, one in three women have been sexually harassed at work, and in a report that same year from the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, more than half of sexual harassment claims result in no charges.
It’s an aspect of deeply ingrained, systemic sexism that not only is hard for some people to recognize and call out—it comes with significant obstacles in fighting back. The fear of not being taken seriously, or facing retaliation, is pervasive.
Not to mention the subtleties with which offensive and inappropriate words or actions may be delivered, which can cast doubt into the mind of the victim, with thoughts like “Maybe it’s not enough of a ‘big deal’” or “I shouldn’t rock the boat.” But if the thought of interacting with a particular person makes you fearful, we have a problem.
As Kelly McDonald, senior HR business partner for Cogo Labs, a startup incubator in Cambridge, MA, says: “Aside from the obvious reasons of feeling like a claim wouldn’t be handled appropriately or taken seriously, many people don’t report sexual harassment because they just don’t know what the process is.”
“Experiencing sexual harassment is deeply personal and each person will want to address their own instance differently,” McDonald notes, but there are certain general protocols you can follow to ensure incidents are being documented and dealt with appropriately.
“Ask someone you trust. If you have a coworker or manager that you feel like you can confide in, then bring it up with them. If not, ask a friend who can give you an outsider’s take on what happened,” McDonald says.
“If you really don’t feel comfortable mentioning it to anyone just yet, then document it for yourself. Send yourself an email with the date, time, and a description of what was said or what happened. Bottom line, if someone said or did something that made you feel uncomfortable, then it’s always worth addressing.”
McDonald stresses the importance of not underestimating the incident. “Definitely don’t stay silent. Even if it seems like a minor incident, what if it becomes a pattern? What if someone else is experiencing the same thing?
“I always tell my employees that if something doesn’t feel right, they can always send me a quick email mentioning what happened and I can file it away, just in case. That said, if something serious happens, like physical contact or an explicit statement, then you should address the issue immediately.”
“HR investigations are done with as much privacy and confidentiality as possible while still making sure the investigation is thorough and fair,” McDonald says.
“Any identifying specifics are mentioned only when absolutely necessary, and because it might be difficult to remain completely anonymous, anti-retaliation policies protect anyone who reports an incident. Check your own company’s policy on this to be sure, but there’s typically zero tolerance for retaliation.”
“Filing a claim can start with something as simple as someone dropping by my office or sending a short email to say ‘FYI, this happened and I just think you should know about it,’” McDonald says.
“HR’s job is to collect the facts and get the whole story and make a decision from there. There are layers and levels to filing a claim; it’s not all or nothing, so be open about what you feel comfortable with and how you’d like the information to be handled.”
As for the biggest steps we can all take to ensure our work culture stops allowing such rampant sexual harassment?
“The biggest thing that a company can do is to create a culture of respect,” McDonald says, which she admits is a somewhat nebulous concept. But there are everyday things we can all do.
“Don’t let the little things slide, because that makes people think it’s OK to say and do things that make others uncomfortable. And it’ll only get worse. Call people out when they aren’t being respectful. Be proactive and vocal about the company’s stance on harassment,” she says.
And hold management accountable: “If a company stays silent on these issues then employees will too. It’s our responsibility to speak up.”