What To Do If You’re Facing Workplace Discrimination Or Sexual Harassment

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Hollywood has seen so many changes during its recent exposures of powerful men as sexual harassers, assaulters and just general pervs. Seriously, there are so many troubling allegations that a website was created solely for the purpose of informing consumers whether their fave shows and movies are the work of “rotten apples.”

The #MeToo movement and the work of the aptly-dubbed “Silence Breakers” across the United States has been moving and empowering for so many people facing their own tough circumstances, but let’s face it, not all of us are in positions of privilege or power. Not everyone can necessarily drop a name and observe the due punishments of their abusers or harassers. Many people feel as though they just have to live with sexual harassment, assault, or discrimination because it’s their only option, professionally and financially.

You have options. You do not have to live with being called degrading names, being touched against your will, or watching bosses and co-workers perpetuate the unfair practice of prejudice. It isn’t easy and no journey through the complex and heavily-weight system of oppression is, but you are worth joining the fight. This could be something as small as talking to an HR rep or as big as filing a police report.

These are a few common scenarios and helpful pieces of advice for those facing discrimination, sexual harassment, or other misogynistic circumstances at work. No matter what, we stand with you, we believe you and we also empathize with you, both out of experience and solidarity.


If your co-worker calls you a discriminatory name or slur…

In a survey by Fierce, Inc. conducted in March 2017, over 40% of respondents reported that their organization would benefit from increased diversity. This number increased to 50% for those ages 18-29, but decreased to 30% for those 60 years old or older.

Despite the encouraging info about attitudes towards diversity, we’ve learned by now that it can still be hard to be a minority or a member of a marginalized community in a corporate or professional environment. Your qualifications and your intelligence are often questioned, you face frequent microaggressions and there are sometimes people who are so ignorant that they will use slurs to describe or address you.

This behavior is unacceptable, but not infrequent.

Many women and minorities report being called names at work. This ranges from being called bossy to being referred to as a bitch either to their faces or between other co-workers. There has been a significant movement to end these degrading, gendered monikers and aggressions, but nevertheless, they continue.

Many people will tell you that this is common. Some people might even say that times have changed and that we should be grateful that things have improved. This is common and things have improved, yes, but nobody should ever be forced to rejoice in not being called something worse than a bitch.

No more boys’ clubs.

If your coworker has called you a discriminatory word, make sure that you have some form of proof. Maybe it was in an email or a Slack message. Keep a screenshot, take a photo, copy it into a draft, write it down. Do something to maintain a record of that person’s stupidity.

Depending on your comfort level or position, you may be able to speak out. Sometimes that’s much easier said than done.

Complain to HR or your boss if you decide that you’d like to bring it to the next level. Many companies will consider these things serious offenses and investigate the matter.


If your boss calls you a discriminatory name or slur…

The aforementioned points are still true when it comes to being called some sort of derogatory name, but if your boss is using this language, it does make things both more complicated and more disheartening. It should not be our reality that people in positions of power feel comfortable using harmful and historically violent terms, but it is commonplace in corporate environments, especially for those at the top who don’t feel as though they should be or can be held accountable for their actions.

It’s common advice that you should immediately speak out if someone with power uses inappropriate words to describe you, but that’s not always easily done. When someone who cuts your check calls you a bitch, it’s not quite so simple to tell them just how you feel.

Always, always keep a record of these incidents.

Also, as much as it might be unfair, if you’ve noticed this repeated behavior, you should be willing to start the job search. You do not have to put up with being in intolerant, misogynistic environments and you should look accordingly. Check out different jobs and roles. If anything, this will get you feeling motivated and encouraged.

When it comes to reporting, there’s no hard-and-fast rule or foolproof guide. You may want to speak to HR, but you also might be worried that your boss will treat you differently or that your job will be in jeopardy if you speak out.

Depending on the frequency and nature of any harassment, you can also check out the EEOC‘s guideline to their legal protections and standards.

If the worst does happen and you are wrongfully terminated from your job, there are legal options. FindLaw has a guide on your legal rights in regards to wrongful termination suits.


If your co-worker hits on you and you’re uncomfortable…

It’s always kinda awkward when a co-worker hits on you, whether you’re interested or not. If you’re not into it, it’s even more complicated.

Make sure that your initial response is firm and clear. If a co-worker asks you out, tell them that you aren’t interested in dates or hanging out outside of work and that you’d prefer to keep things professional. It’s tough and probably feels “impolite” based on the rigid standards of the gender binary as well as the fact that men can be incredibly violent when faced with discrimination, but you need to make sure that you are communicating how you feel.

Some people cross the lines of wondering about your level of interest or asking about dates and will say explicit, inappropriate, or disgusting things. In this case, it’s necessary to take action.

Keep a record of these correspondences and speak to HR immediately. If you believe it crosses a legal line into stalking or harassment and would like to file some sort of suit or motion of protection, this resource center breaks down the laws by state.


If your co-worker touches you without your consent…

Once someone touches you against your will, that is officially crossing the line from harassment to assault.

This can be anything from groping your private parts to penetrating you against your will. You must report these acts, which are threatening to your immediate physical and mental wellbeing.

First, make your displeasure known. Tell your co-worker to stop and if you can, ask for help from another person in the office.

As mentioned previously, record incidents. Make sure you’re aware of the time, date and location of a possible assault. You’ll want to have these records for any future legal or professional proceedings, so maintain your awareness of your surroundings as best you can.

Report your assault immediately. The sooner the better. This could mean filing a harassment claim or calling the police. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission outlines their protections online.

Please keep your mental state in mind. If you need someone to talk to, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline. This hotline can help you in a variety of different ways, including:

  • Confidential support from a trained staff member
  • Support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams
  • Someone to help you talk through what happened
  • Local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery
  • Referrals for long term support in your area
  • Information about the laws in your community
  • Basic information about medical concerns

Remember, you have so many people backing you and supporting you. Please do whatever is best for you during this process.


If your boss hits on you and you’re uncomfortable…

A boss making a pass at you is even more complicated than a co-worker hitting on you. Bosses have structural power over you at companies, giving them an unfair imbalance or putting them in a position of a higher standard. If your boss hits on you, there may be inappropriate implications or fears of possible ramifications and all of these things foster a very unprofessional and distracting environment.

Forbes and several other publications inexplicably caution professionals to “watch the messages you send.” This is victim-blaming and it only perpetuates rape culture. You should not have to alter your appearance or your demeanor to avoid being put in uncomfortable situations. Your boss should simply know better.

Tell your boss that you intend to remain professional. As mentioned, keep a record. In this case, be very aware of the location, time, date and discussion. If your boss mentions any sort of quid pro quo, you must be able to recall and keep record of that.

Know your rights. Consult a lawyer if possible, though you’re not obligated to press charges. Depending on the severity of the incident, you may considering taking legal action, but you can also contact with human resources or at least tell a close friend or family member.


If your boss touches you without your consent…

As is the case if your co-worker sexually assaults you, this is more about legal options than maintaining professional boundaries or office politics. Check out the EEOC for more info on your rights just in case.

Check out the previous recommendations, but also understand that you may need to get a lawyer involved if the boss is the perpetrator. Workplace Fairness details the boundaries and standards of sexual harassment and assault cases in the workplace.

An employer is always legally responsible for harassment by a supervisor that culminates in a tangible employment action. The company cannot avoid legal liability on the basis that you did not complain about the harassment, or because it took other steps designed to discourage workplace harassment. The Supreme Court recognized that this result is appropriate because an employer acts through its supervisors, and a supervisor’s undertaking of a tangible employment action is equivalent to an act of the employer.

If you have been harassed by a supervisor, you should consult with an attorney to determine whether you have been subjected to a tangible employment action. If you have been, then you would be entitled to pursue a lawsuit to recover for the harm you have suffered, including lost wages and psychological harm.

You should also call the police if necessary. That can be an extremely scary situation and if your safety is at jeopardy, you should do whatever is possible to maintain your mental and physical preservation.

Afterward, please seek the necessary emotional support. If you need someone to talk to, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline. This hotline can help you in a variety of different ways, including:

  • Confidential support from a trained staff member
  • Support finding a local health facility that is trained to care for survivors of sexual assault and offers services like sexual assault forensic exams
  • Someone to help you talk through what happened
  • Local resources that can assist with your next steps toward healing and recovery
  • Referrals for long term support in your area
  • Information about the laws in your community
  • Basic information about medical concerns

It may feel like the end of the world, but we promise that you are strong enough to get through this and you don’t have to do it alone.


If you see discrimination or harassment as a bystander…

Watching someone become the subject of harassment or discrimination is incredibly painful. This might mean watching a co-worker touch or grab another co-worker or hearing of a co-worker calling another co-worker a degrading name or a slur. Whatever the circumstance, you can get involved.

As a bystander, there is a certain responsibility to doing the right thing. In the process, you’re helping someone else and being an ally to someone in need.

There are tons of resources online that detail how to be a better bystander, taking yourself from passive to active and remedying a myriad of different situations.

As Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” You can remain an active voice against oppression by serving as a witness, listening without judgement, providing encouragement and standing in solidarity with any co-workers who are facing discrimination or harassment.


If you feel unhappy at work…

It’s important to be fulfilled and excited about your job. No, this doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to love heading to work every single day, but it should mean that your job doesn’t jeopardize your sense of mental wellness and emotional wellbeing.

If you can, talk to someone. This database provides a list of therapists or psychologists based on your location and can also help you navigate which doctors work with your insurance.

Not everyone has the means to be able to access or afford a therapist. There are a ton of self-help books on the market and you can always choose the right read for your needs. There are also choices when it comes to podcasts, mobile apps, or YouTube videos.

Sometimes it all gets to be too much. If you or someone you know are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

In any case, it is also best if you begin your job hunt, just in case. Start looking around, applying and checking out Glassdoor as a resource for investigating future employers and workplaces.


If you feel unsafe at work…

According to a study by Fierce, Inc., one in every five individuals surveyed felt unsafe at work. This number increased exponentially when it came to the women survey, with nearly a quarter reporting that they did not feel safe in their workplaces.

This means that you’re not alone if you don’t feel comfortable. No matter what your experience has been, you must be able to focus, thrive and grow in your workplace without fear.

According to the United States Department of Labor’s OSHA Workers’ Rights and Protections, you do have the option to refuse work, but this is if the obligations of your job are life-threatening or dangerous.

Your right to refuse to do a task is protected if all of the following conditions are met:

  • Where possible, you have asked the employer to eliminate the danger, and the employer failed to do so; and
  • You refused to work in “good faith.” This means that you must genuinely believe that an imminent danger exists; and
  • A reasonable person would agree that there is a real danger of death or serious injury; and
  • There isn’t enough time, due to the urgency of the hazard, to get it corrected through regular enforcement channels, such as requesting an OSHA inspection.

You should take the following steps:

  • Ask your employer to correct the hazard, or to assign other work;
  • Tell your employer that you won’t perform the work unless and until the hazard is corrected; and
  • Remain at the worksite until ordered to leave by your employer.

No matter the problem, you can contact OSHA if you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Make sure that you keep a log of the problems that you experience. Write things out, including dates, times and specifics, so that you can be clear and sure if/when you decide to start the process of a complaint or exit.

Tell someone you trust about what you’re going through. Give them the details just in case something were to happen, but make sure that they’re unbiased and able to keep your information totally private.

Depending on whether or not your work has a human resources department, you can also discuss your feelings with an HR representative. This should be a trained professional who can work with you in order to improve your circumstances.

Again, it may also serve you to begin looking for another job. Though it isn’t ideal, your safety and health may depend on removing yourself from the situation.

If you believe that you’d like to press charges, Nolo provides readers with a guide on suing for harassment or discrimination. It’s not easy, but in the end, it may be worth speaking out and taking action.

Again, no matter what, we stand with you and want the best for women or marginalized people everywhere. You deserve to feel valued, recognized and rewarded for your role. We stand with you.

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