Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in CONFIRMATION (2016)
Kerry Washington as Anita Hill in CONFIRMATION (2016) Frank Masi—HBO

How to Deal With Sexual Harassment At Work

The release over the weekend of the HBO movie Confirmation, depicting Anita Hill’s sexual harassment claim against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas, will likely prompt a new round of discussion on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is defined by the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.”

If you think you’re being harassed, take these five steps:

State your objections clearly

I once attended a company offsite complete with trust falls and other physical group activities. At one point, with co-ed groups climbing over each other in yet another survival game, one of the male colleagues made a graphic remark about the women touching the men. I and another female colleague spoke up right away, “That’s not funny.” After the exercise, he apologized. From then on, he kept his same boorish humor but after work hours and not with his female colleagues.

The situation may not resolve as cleanly as mine did but your reaction needs to be that clear. Don’t make a joke. Don’t stay silent. Don’t get mad – you want to diffuse the situation, not escalate it. A neutral voice is sufficient. This also goes for people who witness harassment – you can and should let the offender know the remarks or actions are unwelcome.

Document the unwanted activity

If you state your objection and the harassment continues, continue to state your objections but also document the specifics – date, time, place, details of what the offender did, your response, the offender’s reaction, and who else was present who might have witnessed what happened. You want to have this information available for others you will call in to help you because you already tried to fix the situation on your own and that isn’t working. You can and should get help.

Consult helpful outsiders

Start with your support system outside the company. Consult a mentor or friend in HR, and share the documented details. They may have additional strategies to try before escalating the situation. I have a friend who is an employment lawyer. Whenever I have a client who’s even thinking about escalating a discrimination or harassment case or who’s wondering about non-competes or other employment contract issues, I run it by my lawyer friend, not for official legal advice, but for a layperson-friendly explanation of the issues. Do you have a similar resource you can tap?

Consult helpful insiders

You also want to look for support inside the company. Have you seen harassment of others? Are these colleagues willing to join your effort? Maybe a case has already been opened, and you can lend your support to that. What does your company policy guide state about how to report harassment? Typically, HR is the first step to make an official case, but you may want to start the dialogue with the offender’s boss.

Start an official case

If you don’t know the offender’s boss or aren’t comfortable dealing directly with that person, then start with HR. Your HR contact should open an investigation which will include speaking to the offender, that person’s boss and other potential witnesses to the offender’s behavior. Again, your documented details will come in handy here, so you really want to have all the activity captured.

Remember that these steps are helpful for all types of harassment, not just sexual harassment.

Remember, too, that you are involved even if you are not the offender or the harassed: If you see bad behavior, you should call it out. If you are the manager of someone who is harassed or someone accused of offending, you need to take action immediately—listen with an open mind to both accounts, document as much as you can, and enlist HR support.

Finally, remember that a good litmus test for whether behavior is unacceptable is whether it makes another person uncomfortable. If, after watching Confirmation, you are tempted to reopen the debate on Clarence Thomas v. Anita Hill in your own workplace, people might find the topic too sensitive or too controversial and therefore uncomfortable. Save your movie reviews and soapbox comments for after work.

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