Recent accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s rampant alleged sexual harassment of actresses, journalists, musicians, and various others has launched a nationwide dialogue about horrors of sexual harassment in the workplace. The damning allegations against Weinstein have inspired women to speak up about their experiences, with efforts such as the #MeToo social media campaign having emboldened those who have been survivors of sexual assault and harassment to share the cold, hard truth of what many women are subjected to on a daily basis.
The numbers are vast, though perhaps not shocking: According to a 2016 US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) comprehensive study on workplace harassment, 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Even assuming a conservative estimate, this means that statistically, one in four people are affected by workplace sexual harassment. Of these, many never report the instances of harassment they endure for fear of losing their livelihood and being slapped with social stigma that may further inhibit them from job opportunities in the future. Making matters more complicated, time is of the absolute essence when it comes to workplace sexual harassment and misconduct. Unknown steps to take in muddy water, mere weeks to tell what happened to someone who can help, and—of course—the harsh reality of being further mistreated for unwarranted and undesired advances and/or comments all seem to be reasons that an epidemic has long been underway with such little progress toward a cure for it.
According to Jeanie Sleadd, an attorney at Heninger Garrison Davis, while recent Hollywood sexual assault scandals have inspired a willingness for women to come forward, there is a statute of limitations in place that must be considered as one decides to take action about experiencing sexual assault and harassment. “You’re dealing with a limited amount of time,” she notes, stressing that an individual has just 180 days from the time of the last incident to file a complaint with the EEOC.
“Many people are not aware that this is the first step to taking action against a workplace sexual assault,” she adds. From there, the EEOC reviews the details of the incident. If the EEOC deems it grounds for a sexual assault/misconduct case, the EEOC may file a suit on behalf of the employee. However, the EEOC may choose not to pursue it and send a “right to sue” letter to the person filing the complaint. “Unfortunately, from here, you have just 90 days to file a lawsuit in civil court—so it’s a short timeframe, and you have to act quickly,” says Sleadd. “It’s hard enough as it is to come forward, and then you also have to consider the time constraints.”
Adding to the ticking clock, Anna Carroll, another attorney at Heninger Garrison Davis, notes that the individual must notify his/her employer of the harassment before filing a formal complaint with the EEOC. “Then, if the employer does nothing, you can take it to that next level,” says Carroll. “Every situation is completely unique, but we see that companies with clearly defined policy and protocol [with regard to sexual assault/harassment/misconduct] tend to handle these cases more efficiently and effectively. Still, what tends to be the common thread is that you have people going to work and being made to feel uncomfortable—that’s what is completely unacceptable.”
“Take notes, keep every email, save every text message,” stresses Sleadd. “That proper documentation will serve to strengthen your case later on.”
With such a pervasive problem spreading through American employment arenas, some critics have questioned why the countless women who have been survivors of sexual assault refused to come forward until recently. The critics themselves, it seems, are perpetuating the problem by relentlessly questioning victims’ motives or continued silence “There’s a lot of victim-blaming that goes on when it comes to sexual assault and harassment,” says Carroll. “Many of these women who are suffering every single day—whether they’re being called a name day in and day out or having to ward off sexual advances day in and day out—feel as though they can’t say anything because their livelihood will be at stake. Then, they’re being told, ‘Suck it up; he didn’t mean anything by it,’ or being told to ‘brush it off,’ and their psyche is being affected on all sides.”
“At the end of the day, you deserve to be able to go to work without worrying about being assaulted or harassed,” adds Sleadd. “We want people to know that we’re here to guide them through the process of reporting. We’re here to point people in the right direction with what to do once they’re ready to tell their story.”
Sexual harassment in the workplace is clearly defined by the EEOC with the following statement: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
If you have been subjected to workplace sexual harassment or assault, contact the EEOC here.