Below are some ideas & resources that can help you assess your options if you have experienced, witnessed, or learned about sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. There are a number of approaches that you may choose to take; please know that no one approach is right for everyone, and which options are best for you may depend on the specifics of your situation.
First of all, what are sexual harassment & sexual assault?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — the federal agency responsible for enforcing discrimination laws — defines sexual harassment this way:
Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment can also include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Both the victim and the harasser can be any gender, and the victim and harasser can be the same gender.
Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in an adverse employment decision (like the victim being fired or demoted).
The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
This definition refers to what constitutes sexual harassment legally. But even less severe comments or teasing can create a bad work environment, and you still have a right to speak out about your experiences, even if they don't meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.
RAINN defines sexual assault as "sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim." It can include rape or attempted rape, fondling or unwanted sexual touching, or forcing a victim to perform sexual acts. Sexual assault does not necessarily involve physical force; perpetrators may use emotional and psychological coercion, or manipulation, to force a victim into non-consensual sex.
Legal definitions of sexual assault vary from state to state. You can use RAINN's database to find out the legal definition of assault in your state.
What can you do if you are a victim of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace?
First of all, know that you're not alone. Sexual harassment and assault are a widespread issue in the workplace. It's hard to know exactly how common they are, because according to the EEOC, an estimated 75% of workplace harassment incidents go entirely unreported. But surveys suggest that as many as 1 in 3 women and about 15% of men have experienced sexual harassment at work. Sexual harassment and assault can happen to anyone, of any gender, in any industry.
There are a number of options you can consider if you have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace. The choices you make may depend on what kind of harassment you have experienced, your relationships with your boss and coworkers, and other factors.
There are three main steps you may want to take when confronting an issue like this in the workplace: DOCUMENT what is happening, DISCUSS with coworkers and others you trust, & DEMAND change.
Here are some ideas about how you can take each of these steps. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions, and that it’s up to you to decide which suggestions will be the most useful and comfortable for you!
Consider documenting any harassment you are experiencing, even if you don't think you want to report it. If you change your mind later or if the behavior escalates, having a record of what happened will make it easier to provide evidence in an investigation.
Write down any inappropriate comments the harasser has made and any inappropriate actions they have taken, along with the date and time. You should also write down the names of anyone who may have witnessed the harassment. Take photographs of any physical evidence. Save emails, texts, photos, voicemails, and any other digital evidence of the harassment.
Store these records on your personal phone or computer, rather than any property owned by your employer. If your harasser has sent emails, texts, or photos to your work email or phone, you can forward them to your personal email or send them to your personal phone, so that you have easy access to the records.
If you are sexually or physically assaulted, you can file a police report. For a basic definition of what constitutes sexual assault in Washington state, see here.
If you choose to communicate with the harasser and tell them to stop, you may consider doing so in written form, via email or text. If you choose to report their behavior, it will likely be helpful to have a record that you have clearly and unambiguously told them to stop, so that you can provide evidence that the harasser knew their behavior was unwelcome. In most cases, it's best to tell them clearly to stop just once — if the behavior continues, it isn't always effective to continue communicating with the harasser.
You can talk to coworkers you trust and find out whether they have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. If more than one person has experienced harassment by the same individual, it’s easier to come forward together. If your coworkers have observed a general culture of harassment, you can all speak out together. And in general, it's useful to talk with coworkers you trust — they can verify your statements in the case of an investigation, and stand behind you if you choose to report your experiences.
Harassment can be demoralizing and alienating, so make sure you’re getting the support you need outside of work too. That may mean talking to friends and family members you trust, or talking to a therapist or victim advocate. Shame is a common reaction for victims of sexual harassment and assault, but remember that if you are a victim of sexual harassment, you’re not the one who has done anything to be ashamed of; your harasser is the only one responsible for their actions.
Another option, if you feel safe and comfortable doing so, is to address the issue with the harasser when it happens. There is no legal obligation to do this before reporting harassment, but there are circumstances where it can be effective to tell someone that their actions are unacceptable and need to stop. But don’t feel pressure to do this if you think it won’t be well-received or if you have reason to fear retaliation.
After you've discussed the situation with your coworkers, consider speaking out about it as a group. You can find out if your coworkers will join you to demand change together — whether or not they have experienced harassment themselves. There's power in numbers. You may choose to write a letter with your coworkers or approach your supervisor together.
Individually or with a group, you can report the harassment to your manager, another manager, or the Human Resources department, especially if you trust that they would take it seriously and handle it in a way that it would be useful.
If you want to report a harassment incident to your manager or HR department, know that when you do, your employer is legally obligated to take action. That means taking the complaint seriously, investigating it, and taking corrective action. Of course, that doesn’t mean the manager or HR department in question will take action, or that they will be as thorough as impartial as they should be, but they should.
Know that if you choose to report sexual harassment in the workplace, it is against the law for your employer to retaliate against you for reporting. Again, that doesn’t mean every employer will follow the law, but it is important to know that if your employer fires you, reprimands you, threatens you, or otherwise penalizes you for reporting your harassment, they may be breaking the law. You can learn more about retaliation on the EEOC’s website here.
You can also file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (learn how here). If you are in Washington state, you may also file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. If you have reported to your employer and they aren't taking action, you might consider letting them know that your next step will be filing a formal complaint with the EEOC or HRC. Knowing your rights, and demonstrating that you know them, can be a powerful way to demand change.
You may also consider consulting with a private or pro bono employment lawyer to learn more about your legal options. An employment lawyer can give you confidential advice about your rights, even if you don’t think you will move forward with an official complaint.
Keep in mind that all of the suggestions listed here are just that — suggestions. You know your situation better than anyone, so you should spend some time finding the options that feel the most safe, comfortable, and reasonable for you. You may also consider speaking with a victim advocate or a counselor — trained professionals who can help you strategize about your options and find the best plan for your safety and emotional wellbeing.
What can you do if you have witnessed sexual harassment or assault in the workplace?
If you witness an incident but aren’t a victim, you can say something! In fact, you should say something. Telling a harasser to cut it out may be appropriate it some cases — it lets them know their behavior is noticed and unacceptable. You can also check in with the person who was harassed and let them know you witnessed it and would be willing to confirm that in an investigation. Document the incident even if you were just a witness; memories fade over time, and a written record will likely be helpful if the victim decides to report it later.
What can you do if a coworker, family member, or friend reports workplace sexual harassment or assault to you?
Believe them. Know that victims of sexual harassment often feel shame and fear about their experiences. One of the most important things you can offer them as a friend or coworker is helping them to feel confident in their decision to report their experiences to you & others. Don’t question their experiences or try to justify the behavior they have experienced. Remember that even if the accused harasser has never said anything inappropriate around you, it doesn’t mean that they have never harassed anyone.
Listen to them. Let them talk openly with you & let them know you are willing to hear their story and be there to support them.
Share information and resources with them. You can share this guide with them, as well as any of the linked guides & resources below or linked throughout the text. You may also offer to help them research agencies and nonprofits that can offer them support or guidance.
Don’t tell them what to do. It’s important for victims of sexual harassment and assault to maintain their sense of agency and make their own decisions about what steps they should take to respond, if any.
Other resources & guides
“Sexual harassment,” EEOC
“Sexual Harassment at Work,” Equal Rights Advocates
“Sexual Harassment Fact Sheet,” Feminist Majority Foundation, 2014
“What to Do If You Face Sexual Harassment at Work,” The Wrap, Oct 5, 2017
“What to do if you’ve been sexually harassed at work,” Moneyish, Oct 10, 2017