Dec 5 2017
Connecticut’s workers have watched in wonder over the past few months as employee after employee has come forward on the national stage to say that they were subjected to sexual harassment. And workers have watched as most employers have (rightly) made clear that even the most famous manager is ultimately accountable for his actions.
But if you are like many Connecticut employees, you (or someone you know) may also be wondering what to do if you experience sexual harassment in your workplace.
The short answer is: it depends — on the workplace, on the seriousness of the misconduct, on the identity of the harasser, and on your own personal circumstances. The best legal and strategic advice — particularly about an issue as sensitive and important as our jobs — is individualized.
Still, there are a few steps that most Connecticut employees can take if they experience sexual harassment at work.
Document what is happening to you. Write it down.
Create a log of what happens to you. Who harassed you, where, and when? Who said what? What happened? Why did this person harass you? Did you tell anyone? Who? Does management know? How do you know they do?
Do this on your own time, either during a break or after work.
The best way to document what is happening is through email. Email is time-stamped, and it isn’t easily forged, which means it can be good evidence later if that becomes necessary. Send emails to yourself using your personal email account. Do not use your work email, and do not use your work computer or smartphone.
Do not audio-record any conversations, especially ones in which you are not participating or telephone calls.
In addition to writing down what happens, tell other people whom you trust what is going on. This can include coworkers.
Make your objections clear to the harasser. If you don’t want a coworker to touch you on the shoulder, or to ask you out on a date, or to make sexualized comments, say so. With limited exceptions, you should not assume that the harasser “must know” that what he is doing is wrong.
Beyond just voicing your concerns, put them in writing. Say what happened, that it made you uncomfortable, that you consider it to be a form of sexual harassment, and that you want it to stop. Again, email is best.
You can object to improper workplace conduct even if you played along — willingly or unwillingly — in the past. You always have the right to change your mind. You can also object even if you are treating different colleagues differently. Going on a date with one coworker, for example, does not entitle any other coworker to a date with you.
If the harasser complies — for example, by not asking you out on a date once you have made your intentions clear and then does not retaliate against you in any way — then there may be no reason to file a complaint.
If the harassment is so significant that no person could be confused about its acceptability (such as, for example, intentional touching of private body parts), skip to Step Three.
File a formal internal complaint.
You should start by reading your employer’s policy about sexual harassment (or harassment generally). It likely will tell you how and where to file a complaint. If you are confused, start by emailing your complaint to your supervisor. If your supervisor is the harasser, go to your supervisor’s boss or to human resources. If the harasser is the CEO, go to the board of directors. If the harasser is the sole owner of a privately-held business — that is, one with no shareholders and no board of directors — skip to Step Four.
As with Step Two, you should put your complaint in writing. Use the language from your employer’s policy that applies to your situation, such as the term “sexual harassment.” You don’t want whoever is tasked with investigating your complaint to be confused about what you’re alleging. Then, allow your employer a reasonable opportunity to take corrective action. Cooperate with the investigation. If you are asked questions about what happened, answer them truthfully and completely.
You can complain about sexual harassment by your coworkers in your workplace. You can also complain about conduct by third parties, such as customers, vendors, or contractors. Your employer has an obligation to maintain a safe workplace for you. You can also complain about conduct outside of the workplace if your employer is involved in some way. For example, your employer should know about and prevent sexual harassment at a networking dinner or a company holiday party. Your employer also should know if a coworker is harassing you outside of work hours.
At all times, focus your complaint on serious matters, not trivial ones. For example, a coworker may have touched your hand in a romantic way, but if you tell him to stop and he stops, you may not want to file a complaint. You should reserve complaints for sexual harassment that alters the conditions of your workplace — meaning it becomes more difficult for you to be productive and successful at work.
If Step Three does not work — because the employer does not care about your complaint or conducts a shoddy workplace investigation; the harasser does not comply with the corrective measures; or you experience retaliation from your employer or a coworker — go to Step Four.
It is never too early to have a confidential conversation with a lawyer who represents employees who have been sexually harassed. However, it can be too late quicker than you think. You only have 180 days under Connecticut law (and 300 days under related federal law) from the last act of harassment to file a legal complaint in an administrative agency. Do not wait to talk to an experienced employment lawyer until it is too late for that lawyer to help you.
Finally, do not quit your job without talking to a lawyer first. You might believe that you had no choice but to quit, but a judge or a jury might disagree.
If you believe that you are in physical danger, remove yourself from the dangerous situation, and call the police, as well as a lawyer.