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I was sexually harassed at work. Here’s my advice for interns

Dealing with sexual harassment is never easy—but there are additional challenges when you’re just starting out.

I was sexually harassed at work. Here’s my advice for interns
[Photo: champja/iStock]

This story is part of Fast Company‘s editorial package “The Intern Economy.” In the spirit of back to school and new opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, we’ve collected the personal stories of interns and managers to reveal what this step on the first rung of the career ladder means for the future of work. Click here to read all the stories in the series.

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Hello new intern,

So you’re off to your first “real” job, probably feeling nervous and excited—perhaps even wondering, “Oh my god, what am I doing?” Don’t worry, I’m here to tell you that some days you’ll feel like a complete failure (psst, the feeling doesn’t go away, but you’ll learn to harness it). Other days, you’ll feel like you own the world. Celebrate the good moments, because they’ll be your light when the going gets tough.

Here’s the truth about working while young and new: You’ll meet a lot of people who have more power than you. Some of these people will be amazing. You’ll learn more than you can imagine, find mentors, and build friendships that stay with you through jobs, careers, and cities. However, not everyone will be awesome; in fact, some will be downright awful.

While there isn’t much data on the percent of interns who are sexually harassed, the truth is that when you’re just starting out, you’re in an especially vulnerable position. Interns start at the bottom of the ladder, making it especially uncomfortable to complain if someone higher up is behaving inappropriately. Additionally, many unpaid interns aren’t protected legally in the same way that full-time employees are (more on that later). 

The good news is that since the #MeToo movement began, people have started to speak more honestly about sexual harassment at work. We’re calling out bad behavior and building resources so others can benefit.

The last time I was sexually harassed in the workplace, I wasn’t young and naive. I was battle-tested and experienced—and it was still hard. But I’m sharing my story so that you know what to look out for and how you can best deal with harassment if you do encounter it. 

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A few years ago, I joined a small company. I was the first female employee and the only woman in a leadership role. Though I was in a position of leadership, I was still sexually harassed. Since then, I’ve talked to CEOs, CMOs, and VPs who’ve gone through the same thing. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone.

Before I started, my manager sent me a birthday present. He also sent me texts with music suggestions and encouraging words during the negotiation process. I responded with excitement, looking forward to a congenial working relationship. I thought nothing of it. I was joining a “family,” and I knew this mode of communication was pretty normal in the startup community.

But in his case, I found out that the behavior wasn’t normal; it was predatory. In my new role, he pursued me romantically, and the ensuing stress that occurred stretched my capacities to the limit. The work environment became increasingly difficult. Sure, there were some things I should have done differently. Regardless, predatory behavior at work is not acceptable, and managers who treat employees cavalierly and disrespectfully shouldn’t be allowed to rise through the ranks.

We didn’t have HR, and I didn’t trust the leadership, so I didn’t tell anyone what happened. Instead, I confided in friends, eventually choosing to stay and keep working toward my goals. But I didn’t have that opportunity.

I was told by management that I wasn’t doing enough and that I was “difficult.” I was put on a performance improvement plan, though my performance had been impeccable. I decided to leave instead. With the help of an employment attorney, I was able to negotiate and get a deal that bought time to recover from the experience and figure out my next move

Today, I am the cofounder of a startup called Simone that helps provide employees with legal and professional resources. I’m not a lawyer, but hopefully what I learned from my experience will be helpful as you head off to your first internship. Here’s what you should know: 

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Understand your rights

If you’re considered an employee—that is, you’re paid regularly by the company—then you have rights under federal and state law. Title VII (a section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act) is a federal law that prohibits discrimination and harassment of employees in the workplace. (There are a few restrictions, based on the size of your employer.) 

If you’re not paid regularly, you’ll need to prove you meet the “threshold remuneration” test, a standard that can render an unpaid position protected by federal law if you are sexually harassed at work. However, this is where state law can come in. In certain states, Title VII is extended to unpaid interns as well. 

If you’re already in an unpaid role, don’t stress. You still have rights; you’re just not protected under these laws. It’s still beneficial to follow the advice below so you have support and options.

Harassment comes in different forms

Not every instance of sexual harassment is explicit, like being called sexist slurs or being touched inappropriately. Most feel more nuanced. One-off remarks may be considered stray comments, but if there are multiple instances, your situation may fall under a “hostile work environment” for women, which can amount to sexual harassment. 

If a manager and subordinate are romantically involved (even if both are consenting adults), it is considered “sexual coersion” because of the power differential between the two people. Anyone can revoke consent at any time. If you experience damage to your career following an inappropriate manager-subordinate relationship, like being excluded from projects, or not being given opportunities, you can make a claim.

It’s also important to know that you’re not alone. Organizations like Better Brave offer free guides for people experiencing harassment. You can also reach out to Crisis Text Line or Empower Work if you want to speak to someone urgently and confidentially. For LGBTQIA+ people experiencing harassment, the legal hurdles can be more difficult, but organizations like Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal tailor their support and services to the LGBTQIA+ community precisely for that reason.  

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Take notes

After experiencing harassment, it’s important to write down what happened, including what was said or done, who said or did it, and when and where it happened. Include any witnesses and take screenshots of texts, Slack messages, or emails. 

My manager was pretty cavalier in his communication, and I saved everything. Keeping an independent record is important for two reasons. First, sexual harassment can occur over a period of time. In my case, my harasser sent messages that were flirtatious but didn’t cross lines, shared personal, but not concerning, stories with me, and established emotionally intimate behaviors with me, slowly turning up the heat and testing boundaries, until he finally crossed a line. An independent record will help you identify why you’re uncomfortable with a coworker’s behavior and give you the evidence you need to take action. 

Second, no matter what happens, you have your account, which can bring peace of mind and more options. Today, there is no simple mechanism to securely and independently report sexual harassment, but new companies like Vault are starting to tackle this problem. In the meantime, take advantage of Better Brave’s documentation guide.

Tell another colleague what happened immediately

Tell someone at work you trust. They can be a peer, your manager, or a witness to the incident, but it’s essential to repeat what took place to a colleague. Keep a record of their reaction, including how they responded to you and what they said. Sometimes people will react in unexpected ways—don’t take it personally. Simply add their reaction to your record. 

In my case, the work environment was extremely dysfunctional, so telling a colleague didn’t seem like an option, but I wish I had. Verbalizing what is happening can help you clarify what you want to do. This is especially important if you decide to pursue a claim. The earlier you figure it all out, the better, since statutory time limits on filing sexual harassment reports do exist.

Most of us realize something wrong has happened when we talk with others who’ve experienced something similar. Finding a safe space where you can ask questions and get support is essential. 

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Gather information

Before you file an official report with HR, gather information. The goal is to create a map for HR, to underpin your first-person account with truthful corroboration, and to show you made a considered decision in filing a report. Asking coworkers who you told or who were witnesses to the incident to be external validators of what your report includes is the first step. You can also ask other coworkers if they’ve had similar experiences with the person you are reporting, or with others at work. 

The company will take a harassment report more seriously if a pattern of behavior emerges. People who sexually harass tend to do it more than once, and often people haven’t spoken up (for legitimate reasons). However, it often takes one voice to empower others to speak. The strength of the collective is real.

Consult an employment attorney

If you feel confused about how you should handle an experience at work, even prior to filing a report with HR, talk to an employment attorney. Employment attorneys can be indispensable as you go through this experience. Before you set an appointment, create a timeline and narrative from your record and include any evidence you have.

Attorneys usually will schedule a free 30-45 minute consultation, review your story, and decide if they’d like to take you on as a client. Before you sign anything, make sure you understand the fee structure and agreement. Sometimes attorneys will take cases on a pro-bono basis and the client pays nothing. 

Remember, ask as many questions as you want; you need to know what you’re signing up for. Base your choice of attorney on their track record and practice area of expertise, but also make sure you feel comfortable with them. Avvo, an online directory, and Martindale Hubbell, a professional attorney organization, both provide reviews for attorneys and can help you in your assessment. You can also search for local legal aid societies and organizations dedicated to helping those experiencing sexual harassment get help.

File a report with HR

Read your employee handbook for instructions on reporting sexual harassment claims at your company. Generally, your report should reflect your written account, as well as anyone who is available to verify what happened. If you’re working with an attorney, they will guide you on what to expect as you go through the process of filing the report, participating in the investigation, and responding to the results. 

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If your company fails to run an investigation, or finds nothing in their investigation, you still have options. Employment attorneys can help you negotiate an exit package, which includes a financial settlement, health care extension, and reputation and public communication provisions regarding your separation. If you decide that you want to stay, your attorney can help you negotiate the terms of that stay and ensure the company delivers on their promises.

Talk to a therapist

Sexual harassment is traumatic, and the effects linger. Talking to a trained professional can help you process the anger, anxiety, and other emotions you may feel, while you figure out what outcome you want. If you’re concerned about your ability to pay, many therapists offer sliding-scale fees.

Keep your friends close

It’s hard to ask for help, especially when you feel vulnerable, but reaching out to people who care about you will keep you grounded. You might be afraid to “dump” on a friend, which is understandable, so make your ask specific. For example, when I was weighing reporting my manager to the CEO of the company, I asked a friend to help me make a pros and cons list and then give honest feedback about what I should do. Agreeing to a shared purpose helped us treat the situation strategically—and with honesty and empathy. I also had daily texts of love and support, introductions to people who could counsel me, and daily reminders that what I wanted for my life mattered.

I left that situation empowered because I left on terms I fought for. Remember, you are not without recourse or options, friends or supporters. You get to be the one to make decisions for your life, and that’s all the power you need.

Now go out there and shine. 

With power and love,

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Mary


Mary Rinaldi is a NYC-based brand and product adviser helping organizations and individuals center their stories and products in user research, analysis, and contextual thinking. She cofounded Simone in 2018 to help employees, especially women, reclaim their agency at work and build financial, emotional, and structural power in their workplace.

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