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Here’s what to do if you’re sexually harassed while working remotely

It definitely can happen online or on the phone, so here are practical steps to take if you need to report misconduct.

Here’s what to do if you’re sexually harassed while working remotely
[Photo: hitmanphoto/iStock]

Reporting sexual misconduct has never felt “easy,” and working from home hasn’t made it any easier. What are the steps you should take when you’ve been sexually harassed in a work environment over phone or online meetings?

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First, verify the jurisdiction under which the harassment falls. Different authorities have jurisdiction over sexual misconduct, which is comprised of gender discrimination, verbal and visual misconduct, or physical assault.

If the experience is traumatizing, distinctly offensive, or creepy—for example, threats, exposure or unexpected masturbation, spying on someone through a camera—it’s likely criminal. Seek the advice of an attorney. RAINN, the National Sexual Assault Hotline, can provide you with resources. To convict in these cases, the burden of proof is typically “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Different states have different laws, which is why legal advice specific to your experience is important.

If the experience violates your civil rights to a nonhostile work environment, and particularly if you feel the overall work environment is supportive of the perpetrator, you should seek the help of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At one end of the spectrum, the EEOC will consider whether the frequency and intensity of the harassment have risen to a level that impinges on your rights and is discriminatory. At the other end, it will consider whether or not a single incident, such as a stated quid pro quo, i.e. a promise to do something for you in exchange for sexual activity, has coerced you. The legal level of proof required for this can be a “preponderance of evidence.” That’s why timing is particularly important when reporting these violations as there is a short window for the EEOC’s engagement. It ranges from 45 days for federal employees to contact an EEOC Counselor to 180 days for others, and longer, depending on the state where the incident occurred. The military has one of the shortest windows.

Except under unusual circumstances, you should also report sexual harassment to your employer, whether or not the evidence you have rises to legal standards. Larger employers will have a “Code of Conduct” to which all employees are held. Often it is a violation of the Code of Conduct to not report sexual harassment. Employers can take action to eliminate the harassment and, even if the courts are not involved, provide corrections to the perpetrator or even fire them. You will want the organization’s help to protect you, particularly if the harassment is coming from one of their suppliers or customers.

When do you want to be cautious about reporting to your employer?

  • When the culture supports the behaviors that led to the harassment.
  • If the perpetrator is above you in the organization, has significant power or status, or is employed in Human Resources or Compliance. For example, Google’s Chief Legal Officer was accused of having multiple affairs with employees. Noble Energy’s General Counsel was found to be taking photos underneath tables of female employees in skirts.

Under these circumstances, you should identify an ally. It can be helpful to have spoken with an employment attorney prior to reporting. Workplace Fairness can point you in the direction of someone in your area.

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If you want to remain anonymous, and you work for a publicly held company, your company is required to have a hotline for reporting misconduct. When speaking with the hotline, first verify who will see your anonymous report. The intent of the anonymous hotline is for the report to reach the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors. However, at some companies, the reports pass first through Compliance, Human Resources, or both Compliance and HR. If you are confronting someone at the upper echelons of the company, whether you wish to remain anonymous or not, it is best to send an anonymous letter (certified) to the Chair of the Audit Committee at the address of the company headquarters.

For smaller companies, it may be possible to similarly alert investors. Unfortunately, for small companies without investors, options are more limited.

To defend yourself, you may be tempted to record your perpetrator. Different states have different legal responses to recording someone without their permission. Be sure you know yours. It can’t hurt to start online conversations with, “Would you mind if I record this?”

Sometimes, the industry you are in does not have a traditional reporting hierarchy. If you are a patient who has been harassed by a medical professional, you can file a complaint with the state medical licensing board. If you are in academia, it is possible your professional association has additional options.

If the #MeToo movement has demonstrated anything, we now know that sexual misconduct perpetrators have impulse control problems, almost like an addiction to power plays. Standing up to them when you don’t have to be physically in proximity to them is more important now than ever. Without your advocacy, they will continue to abuse others. Your report is part of the solution, and HR may just need your report to take action.


Laurie Girand is the president of I’m With Them.

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