What Do I do if I’m Sexually Harassed?

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I’ve received this question so often, I thought it would be easier to put it all down for people to share.

I’m not sure if what I have experienced is sexual harassment. After all, she didn’t touch me

There is a range of acts which fall within sexual harassment, or even sexual assault. This could be very serious, such as rape and sexual assault to sexual banter which makes you feel uncomfortable. Just because she, or he, didn’t touch you, does not mean you were not sexually harassed.

Any act with sexual overtones that makes you feel violated or uncomfortable is sexual harassment. If there is no sexual overtone, it is harassment, and I’ll write about that next.

Here’s a diagram I drew up with American psychiatrist, Kernan Manion MD on the gradations of sexual harassment

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If a person forces themselves on you physically, that’s sexual assault. You have every right to go to the police.

When he licks his lips and leers at me, I really don’t know what to do

Tell him: “This is unacceptable behaviour for the workplace, please stop.”

Many stay quiet which makes perpetrators bolder and go further with their acts. Licking lips develops into brushing an arm or even breasts.

When you make a stand and say STOP, the perpetrator will back off. If they don’t, tell them that you will report them. That often works. However…

But the harasser is my boss

Or managing partner of the law firm. Or the managing director. Or, here’s my favourite – the head of Human Resources.

I’ve lost count of the number of times the harasser is best friends with the HR head. Harassers are experts in grooming powerful contacts. They are often liked by the big bosses. If there is a report against him, management would say, but he’s so nice, he could never do that. Once in a while a perpetrator is someone everyone agrees is a sleezeball. That’s rare though.

Once the harasser is someone senior or the big boss, it’s hard to stand up to them. Yet doing nothing translates into weeks, if not months, even years of hell.

I’ve had well educated and normally assertive women talk to me about how they lived with sexual harassment by big bosses for several years. They tell themselves they are strong, so they put up with it. But over time, that remark, that rub, gesture…. it gets to them. They start doubting themselves. The once assured woman becomes a shadow – taking the long route round to avoid her boss, getting out of business trips with him, manoeuvring meetings to make sure others are there. Her day to day existence centres around how to avoid being harassed by him.

So I ask them the question – have you thought about leaving?

If you were to tell a boss to stop sexually harassing you, or reporting him (or her), this is a fact. I am not going to sugar coat it and tell you that your company policies and the law protects you. Yes they do on paper, but in today’s world that’s not happening.

Once you’ve told yourself that you will leave (if this is not resolved), you’ll feel an amazing sense of liberation and empowerment. This is because you have taken back control. You can now decide, do you want to report this person and leave, or just simply leave. There is no shame in the latter. This is your life and what you feel comfortable with.

Keeping quiet and letting the harassment drain you – it’s not worth it. You deserve so much more. Leave. Do something.

I want justice and I am afraid he will harass others.

The women who approach me tell me this. I say good on you, now this is a journey, you’re the hero but you are going to face obstacles along the way. You will learn a lot about yourself and the courage that you never knew you had. You will also discover who your friends are.

Michelle Russell shared her journey with me. A shy nurse who just wanted to do her job, was sexually harassed by her male colleague. Her trauma began after she reported it. Her employers took a while to investigate and then told her she had no case. She stopped work and he was promoted. Michelle felt betrayed by her employers and despite her anxiety, is now a huge campaigner, often at Westminster to publicise her case. She wants to take her case to court and is crowd raising £20,000. This prohibitive cost is the main reason we don’t hear of many sexual harassment cases in court. Michelle discovered her courage and is touched by how supportive her family are.

Michelle appeared on BBC on International Women’s Day talking about her case

How do I report sexual harassment?

Does your organisation have a policy? That’s the first go to. Most do. If there isn’t one, find out about the law. If you have a lawyer friend, great. If not, google sexual harassment laws in [your country]. Not many countries have a dedicated sexual harassment law. They may be in the form of anti discrimination laws. Many Malaysians are unaware that their Employers Act obliges employers to act on reports of sexual harassment. A dedicated sexual harassment law for public spaces has been drafted by women’s groups and awaiting the new minister.

Even if there is no clear policy, your employer is obliged to provide a safe and healthy workplace. This means they need to deal with employees with threatening conduct such as sexual harassment.

The most likely go to is Human Resources. A survey I did last year showed that only 14% approached HR. Trust is low. HR people themselves admitted that they were not trained on sexual harassment and therefore unsure of how to deal with reports.

You can also approach your legal or compliance departments. There is also your boss if you trust him or her.

It’s not easy making that report. People tell me the double trauma. First, the sexual harassment itself. Second, in making the report, they are not believed, or questioned in a way that shames them. Victim blaming is still strong.

You need support before you make that report. Speak to a trusted colleague. Do tell your significant other. You will need the emotional support as you go through this step. People tend to take a while before they talk to their spouse or partner, but then are bowled over by the tremendous support they get. If you are not in a relationship, speak to family or close friends. Make sure your cheerleader team is backing you.

You need a rock too. Almost like a mantra. Remember, no one can invalidate your feelings. They are yours. So what if the HR person brushes off sexual remarks. This happened to you, not them. You might even be thrown off guard – am I too sensitive? No one has the right to judge you or your state of mind.

What do I say?

Tell them the facts as they happened and the impact on you.

It helps if you have documented every event as it transpired. It’s likely you didn’t document the first events. That’s ok. When you are ready, do so.

As far as you can, write down the date, time, place and whether there were witnesses. For example:

On Sunday, 1st April 2018, at the Family Day picnic, Martin brushed his hand on my thigh. Jane and Alison were with me but they did not see it. When I pushed him away, he laughed and said, “I know you want it.”

Describe in detail the exact movements and what was said.

Include how you felt at the time.

“I felt angry and humiliated. I wanted to yell at him but was afraid he would get back at me later.”

Explain how this might change your workplace habits.

“I now avoid him which is difficult. I sit far away from him in meetings and try not to take assignments when I know he will be there.”

This shows your feelings at the time and the effect on your ability to work. You may worry that this shows you are unprofessional, but you are entitled to feel safe at work.

Each time you have written down an incident, e-mail it to yourself. This is a timestamp of sorts and helps if you need evidence later on. You can e-mail or WhatsApp a trusted colleague, explaining that this is for evidence building and please do not share it until you are ready. Many sexual assault cases lack evidence and courts have begun hearing friends’ testimony as to the state of mind of the victim at the time. While this is not iron clad, every little bit helps.

Will the perpetrator be told?

Yes. Organisations have to follow natural justice and hear the other side. Your organisation should have a process in place. Ask how it works and what happens next. You have every right to know this. While the organisation cannot tell you what is going on during an investigation (they need to be objective), they can tell you the status and when to expect a resolution.

I used to receive reports as in house counsel. I would ask the reporter, what do you want. Sometimes it was a simple apology. One woman wanted the perpetrator fired. Some do not want the process to kick in but want to be heard and want the conduct to stop. Be clear on what you want. The organisation may not be able to give you want you want, especially if you want someone fired for a sexual remark. But they are obliged to act on it.

If you fear the perpetrator will retaliate, tell the person you are reporting it to. Most organisations have a No Retaliation Policy (often it’s within a Sexual Harassment or Whistleblowing Policy). If there is retaliation of any kind, report it immediately.

What if my employer retaliates?

You have a tough choice. Do you really want to work in such an organisation? Are you a member of a union or association that you can report this to?

This is when you might need a lawyer. I know this is expensive. If money is an issue, find out how you can get help. Following #MeToo, some Bars have support for sexual harassment survivors. There are women’s groups and other non-profits who provide support and advice. Find out. It’s ok to be a man approaching women’s groups by the way.

They’re asking me to sign a non disclosure

Non disclosure agreements (NDAs) have their purpose. It ensures employees don’t walk away with a company’s trade secrets and other confidential information. Sexual harassment should NOT be a secret. It is a wrongdoing which should not be covered up. If the act is criminal, a non disclosure becomes an obstruction of justice and the people involved in drafting it and asking you to sign it are complicit in covering up a crime. So if you experienced sexual assault (like many of Weinstein’s victims), a non disclosure is outrightly illegal.

Sexual harassment (short of assault) in most countries, is not a crime, but it is wrong.  A non disclosure disallowing you to talk about what happened to you is unenforceable. Recently, the UK Law Society warned law firms against NDAs to cover up sexual misconduct. The Equality and Human Rights Commission have asked companies to ban NDAs on sexual harassment.

Even if you are offered money to stay silent, you can say no. You can take the money as damages for what you have suffered but they have no right to silence you. I know of several large reputable organisations that have tried shoving NDAs down victims’ throats. Each person who told me, refused to sign. They turned down the money too.

I feel so alone

You. Are. Not. Alone. The numbers of people sexually harassed at work is staggering. All you need to do is talk about it, and someone will say, that happened to me too. Which is why #MeToo went viral. If you talk to a colleague about your experience, you are very likely to discover that your perpetrator harassed several other people. It’s a pattern. This is why organisations need to take action against harassers. They are dangerous cancer cells that make workplaces toxic and unsafe.

Knowing the power and relief behind sharing your stories, led me to design a guide for circles specifically on sexual harassment. You can download it here. I’ve facilitated various circles over the past five years and seen how much people can support each other. Often, you don’t need answers. You just want to be heard. And believed.

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