What every woman needs to know

So much has been said and written in the last several weeks about sexual harassment and assault. It feels like a watershed moment for working women in America. But is it?

We’ve learned about the grotesque behavior of many powerful and famous men who all had much to lose. These men took unfair advantage of those susceptible to their power, but were ultimately brought down by their fame. Once their courageous victims started speaking out, the organizations these men worked for were forced to act because we were all watching. There was no more hiding.

But what about the countless regular people who behave this way, every day, in every workplace in this country? For these people, there is no risk of media coverage, and very little risk (if any) to their jobs or reputations should they be caught behaving in an inappropriate manner. Those who may come forward and reveal they have been victimized surely have more to lose.

Sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is very common and very hard to prove. According to Nancy Ezold, one of the country’s leading sexual discrimination lawyers, “The victim has to prove unwelcome touching or comments and differential treatment.” And since there are usually no witnesses, “the victim must be credible.” Even then, it is common for the accused to deny or re-frame the events, and/or attack the character and motives of the victim. It’s easy to see how things can get ugly—fast. Add to that, the risks of losing your job or being blackballed in your industry and many victims just can’t afford to speak out, which is why so many incidents go unreported.

If you’ve worked at an American company in the last 20 to 30 years, you’ve no doubt attended mandatory sexual harassment training. Most companies do this to protect against lawsuits, not necessarily to protect employees. At every meeting I’ve attended, employees were instructed to report any incidents to Human Resources with the assurance that the perpetrator would be seriously punished and possibly terminated. But how often does that really happen?

According to Ezold, in over 99 percent of cases it’s the victim who ends up leaving the company, not the offender. What happens in the white-hot spotlight of fame is very different from what happens in the dark corners of the regular world.

So what should you do if you find yourself in such a situation, on the receiving end of inappropriate (or worse, criminal) behavior? Here is Ezold’s advice:

  1. Document the incident as soon as possible while it’s fresh in your mind. It is a good idea to email it to yourself (using your private email) so the documentation is time and date stamped.
  2. Go to Human Resources and make sure to use this key phrase; “I believe I’m being harassed” or “assaulted.” Then document the details of this meeting.
  3. There is strength in numbers. If you can find just one more person who is also wiling to speak up, it is far more powerful.
  4. Hire a lawyer.

Once you have done all this, it is in the hands of the justice system. Your lawyer should be able to tell you what to expect depending on the details of your case. Most successful sexual harassment settlements are financial settlements that include, unfortunately, separation from the company. Victims are also usually required to sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to discuss the case with anyone. A key factor in these negotiations is how long it will take the victim to get another job at the same salary. This is just one of the reasons a lawyer is advisable.

Another unfortunate outcome can be the company taking action against a victim. When this happens, it’s called retaliation. This can take many forms ranging from not receiving plum assignments to getting fired. However, it’s important to understand that there are time limits on what is considered retaliation. If a company waits long enough, it can argue that its actions against the employee were unrelated to the incident. Yet another good reason to have an attorney.

There are Harvey Weinsteins, Charlie Roses, Matt Lauers, and Kevin Spaceys everywhere. Let’s not waste the sacrifice of the brave women who have come forward. Let’s use it to protect all women now and in future generations from harassment and assault. It starts with us.