How to navigate reporting harassment internally

Written by Working Women Advocates volunteer, Rebecca Motola-Barnes.

In my previous piece, I aimed to give HR professionals justification and guidance for investigating sexual harassment complaints. Here, I’m taking the perspective of an employee who has been harassed at work, and going over the steps for reporting.

First, I want to reiterate that it is generally illegal for you to be harassed at work or by a co-worker. Harassment based on your membership in a protected class is a form of discrimination, and it is illegal for your employer to discriminate against you. Your employer should have an anti-discrimination policy in place (check your Employee Handbook!), as well as a procedure for responding to complaints of harassment.

Ideally, we would never need to make use of the these policies and procedures, but we live in an imperfect society that often makes the act of accusing someone of harassment riskier than perpetrating harassment. That’s why we created Working Women Advocates: to provide resources and aid to you and others like you.

So, how do you take your complaint to your employer?

Documentation, documentation, documentation. I cannot stress enough how important it is for you to keep as detailed a record as you can of your harassment. Collect as much concrete evidence as you can: texts, emails, records of phone calls (especially at odd hours), photos, witnesses, recollections of in-person occurrences including dates and times; and begin to keep notes on negative encounters if they are ongoing. If you are reporting persistent abuse, and you’re afraid you’ll have to wait for it to happen again in order to have better evidence, don’t let that keep you from reporting now. Gather what you can and make your plan for reporting. You can always provide follow-up evidence to support your initial claim.

Seek allies. You may not be the only person facing this type of harassment. If you are comfortable doing so, ask around. See if others in your position, or who share your gender presentation/identity, or who have some other commonality, have experienced similar behavior. There is absolutely strength in numbers; encourage them to report as well.

Choose who to report to, or select an order. If your harasser is someone other than your supervisor, you may choose to speak with your supervisor first. If your employer has an HR department or manager, you should definitely report to them either shortly after you speak with your supervisor, or go to them directly. If your employer does not have an HR department or manager, determine who in the leadership of your organization is responsible for HR and report to them. Ultimately, the responsibility for making sure their company is not performing illegal activities rests with the CEO (or equivalent), so you can report to them.

Request an in-person meeting with the individuals you’ve selected (in your preferred order) via email. The email will act as a record, so make sure to keep a copy and add it to your documents collection. At your in-person meeting, provide as many details as possible, and give copies of your documentation. It’s ok to be emotional in these meetings, but you may want to prepare a script for yourself so you can make sure to cover everything. Be specific: vague accusations may be met with scepticism whereas detailed accounts are more likely to be believed. Additionally, details can be confirmed during the investigation, thereby strengthening your position.

Before you leave your meeting, you should ask how your employer plans to handle your complaint. They are legally obligated to investigate upon receiving your complaint, so they should outline the investigative process for you here. If they do not, let them know it’s what you expect. You can also tell them what you hope they’ll do about the harassment — even if they don’t follow your recommendation, they will consider it.

After your meeting(s), follow up with a detailed, written account of your complaint, sent again via email. This should match the account you gave at your meeting, and include when and with whom the meeting took place.

While your employer is conducting their investigation, they should keep you apprised of their progress. They are not obligated to provide every detail, but should at least let you know they are proceeding and how long they expect it to take. An investigation can take some time — it’s important to be thorough — but should not be indefinite.

During this time — after reporting but before a determination has been made — you may be subject to retaliation. Retaliation is action taken by your employer or co-workers against you, after you report discrimination, as punishment for reporting; actions like termination, demotion, or harassment. If you are experiencing retaliation after reporting, make sure to document this too, and report it. The retaliatory action should be reversed or ceased immediately, otherwise it’s time to seek a lawyer.

Once their investigation is complete, your employer will make a determination as to what should be done to stop the discriminatory behavior. They should let you know what their determination is, or tell you upon request. This may not necessarily result in your harasser being terminated. If their investigation found that they could remedy the situation with other disciplinary and/or rehabilitory actions, your employer has the right to choose those. You may not be satisfied with this, and you should make your doubts known, but it is their decision to make.

At this point, your options for dealing with the situation internally are basically exhausted. If your employer has done their job correctly, your harassment will cease, and you can go back to being the kickass employee you are meant to be. However, if the disciplinary/rehabilitory actions do not stop your harassment, or make it worse: keep documenting, keep complaining, lawyer up, and start planning your exit.