The widespread coverage of Donald Trump’s words and reported actions toward women has increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment. I suspect very few women needed this education.
Since I was a first-year associate at Big Law and told by a partner that having an affair with him would be “good for my career,” sexual harassment in the workplace has been a hot button for me. This incident and others motivated me to write a book to educate women about their right to be free of sexual harassment and discrimination at work. Because I wanted to motivate readers to pick up the book, I created a legal thriller titled “Terminal Ambition” that pivoted on a female partner’s battle against the Old Boys’ Club in her firm.
Wanting to leave no stone unturned in my quest to educate women about these rights, I included in the novel a nonfiction appendix about the relevant law. The final portion of the appendix included 12 escalating steps that a woman can take if she is subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace. Here they are:
Say “no” clearly. Much better to say you’re not interested in dating than to say you’re busy. Don’t spare his feelings; protect yourself. If the harassment doesn’t stop, write the harasser a letter or e-mail requesting that he stop, and keep a copy.
- Write down specifics of what happened, including the date, place, offensive conduct, and possible witnesses. If there are witnesses, ask them to write up the incident, too. Do this for each instance. Because your claim may boil down to he said, she said, this step is vitally important to enhance your credibility. The written record should not be kept at work.
- Report the harassment to your supervisor, the human relations department, or other appropriate authority at work. Make the report in writing if possible. This step is particularly important if the person harassing you is a co-worker, client, or customer because, otherwise, the employer may be unaware of what is happening. Make notes about your meeting.
- Avoid the temptation of talking about the situation or you may be subject to a defamation claim against you.
- Continue to keep a written record including the notes described above (#2), copies of all correspondence, and notes about any meetings concerning your complaint.
- Review your personnel file. In some states, you have a legal right to make a copy of its contents.
- Follow whatever “official” procedure your company has for handling sexual harassment complaints. Find it in your employee manual or ask human relations.
- As these steps escalate, you may suffer physical or psychological damage. See your doctor for help and for documentation.
- Involve your union if you’re unionized.
- File a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency, or with your state’s fair employment agency. The EEOC hotline is 800-669-4000. Be prompt! The deadline for filing your complaint may be as soon as 180 days from the act of harassment.
- File a private lawsuit after you have filed with a governmental agency. You can ask a court for money damages, to reinstate you in your job, or to force your employer to adopt practices that would deter future harassment.
- Prepare yourself for the results of taking these steps. Your employer may retaliate. You may have trouble finding another job; you may be branded a troublemaker; you may be shunned by other workers (including women); you may open up your personal life to scrutiny by others; you may incur legal fees; and you may feel anxious, isolated, and depressed. Consider joining a support group.
Understand that employers expect these consequences, as well as women’s training to be “good girls” and not make waves, to deter prosecution of complaints. Employers embrace the motto, “You have to go along to get along.”
I’m proud to say Terminal Ambition has been chosen by the National Association of Women Lawyers as its January Book Club selection.