While headlines focus on famous men who lead prominent organizations, the majority of sexual harassment happens in ordinary office buildings by ordinary managers or workers who are insecure about their status in life, feel a need to rattle or dominate others to make themselves feel better, or see their colleague as a potential sexual gratifier. They don't love their victims. In fact, they may want to hurt them through embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation.

Most harassers are men, although women also have been reported. The targets are usually women. However, men filed approximately 17 percent of the sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2016. 

Most employees try to ignore the behavior, at least at first, waiting to see if it will go away. Some clearly ask the harasser to stop. Others try to play along or laugh it off, unwittingly sending mixed signals of encouragement to the harasser.

The correct response, of course, is to report harassing behavior to a supervisor or human resources. A responsible employer will listen to the description of the events and then speak to the instigator. However, reporting sexual harassment is a difficult thing to do. Employees who are being harassed at work often feel alone and powerless. Will the report do any good? Will HR stand up for me? Will I be retaliated against? Will I lose my job?  

How do you effective oppose or report sexual harassment?

Most organizations are required to have an anti-harassment policy — but few states require employers to educate their workforce about it. As a result, employees who experience sexual harassment often don't have adequate preparation for how to deal with the situation or lodge an effective complaint.

The quality of corporate HR departments varies widely. Some will respond quickly and effectively to a complaint while others are ineffective and powerless to take real remedial action within their organizations. Some HR departments have been created more to defend the company than to help employees. These types of HR departments may treat the victim is the problem. Regardless of the type of HR department in your company, however, it is in your interest to make an internal complaint.  There are two primary reasons for this:

  1. It gives the company knowledge of the situation and that ability to fix it; and  
  2. It is often required by law in order to preserve your right to bring a legal claim later relating to the harassment.

Here are some steps to consider when opposing sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Say “No” Clearly. Tell the person that his/her behavior is offensive and you want it stop. Refuse all invitations in a firm and direct manner. If the harassment doesn’t end immediately, ask the harasser to stop in writing (or email). Send a copy of the email to your personal email account so that you have a copy for your records.
  • Document, Document, Document. If you are being sexually harassed, start writing it down. Write down dates, places, times, and possible witnesses to what happened. If possible, ask your co-workers to write down what they saw or heard, especially if the same thing is happening to them. Remember that others may (and probably will) read this written record at some point. It is a good idea to keep the record at home or in some other safe place. Do not keep the record at work. Assume that everyone you speak to may try to deny what you said later. Keeping documentary evidence to prove what happened is key. 
  • Check Your Company's HR Policies. Many employers have policies and procedures written down that deal with how to make and respond to sexual harassment complaints. To find out your employer’s policies, look for or ask to see a copy of your employee manual, any written personnel policies, and/or speak to someone in the human resources department, if one exists. You may be able to use these procedures to stop the harassment and resolve the problem. At the very least, following your employer’s complaint procedures (if any exists) will show that you did what you could to make the employer aware of the harassment.

When you are ready to report sexual harassment:

Once you have done everything short of lodging a formal complaint, it is time to move the issue to the next phase of the process.  Here are some tips to consider when it is time to make the report:

  • Read this article about dealing with HR.
  • Make all reports in writing. When push comes to shove down the road, HR is liable to either not "remember" you made a complaint or to remember it substantially differently than you do. Putting your report in writing is the only way to prove you made a complaint, when you made it, and to whom the complaint was made.  
  • Don't Sugar Coat It.  Now is not the time to be nice or to soft-pedal what happened. When you are making a report of sexual harassment be honest, be blunt, and be factual. Don't hold anything back because it is embarrassing or you feel ashamed. YOU did nothing wrong. Remember that.
  • Maintain Good Records.  You know that written report discussed above?  KEEP A COPY. A written complaint does you no good if you send the only copy to HR. It might...you know...get lost. 
  • Go to the EEOC.  Consider going outside the organization to the EEOC. If your complaint involves EEO-based (age, sex, race, religion disability, color) discrimination or harassment then consider making a complaint to the EEOC sooner rather than later. There will be little question that a report to the EEOC is protected activity under the law. This gives you a somewhat higher level of protection from retaliation than if you merely report internally. 
  • Lawyer Up.  Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are in a situation in which you feel you need to make a complaint against management then, make no mistake, your job IS at risk. Start looking for a qualified employment attorney who represents employees. Be warned, in many parts of the country there aren't that many who lawyers who specialize in representing employees. So start looking before you need one. And don't expect such a lawyer to visit with you for free. This is not a simple car accident case and you aren't looking for a PI lawyer who can take your case on a contingent fee basis. Employment law is very specialized and contingency fees are generally not available for consulting services. If you find a qualified lawyer to advise you, however, it is money well spent.