8 next steps to take if you’ve been sexually harassed at work

With high-profile allegations in the entertainment industry and political scene making headlines, victims are getting positive reinforcement for coming forward to report sexual harassment.

»RELATED: Sexual harassment in the workplace: What is it, how to report it and more you should know

But it's still a harsh and hard situation for women (and some men) in those industries, along with workers in virtually every segment of the American workforce. Occurrences are so common that a 2015 Cosmopolitan study found 1 in 3 women said they experienced sexual harassment at work, even though Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has made it illegal for more than half a century. "Men have more social status," Georgetown University management professor Catherine Tinsley explained in Fast Company, adding that such sexual advances are a power play, a way to put an assertive woman in her place. "That's not the way it should be," she emphasized. "It's the way it is." 
It's essential to report sexual harassment, but victims must take consider several precautions before reporting, according to leading industry experts.

Here are eight steps to take if you've been sexually harassed at work, based on advice contributed by sources as diverse as Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, the American Association of University Women and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Know the definition. "Very generally, 'sexual harassment' describes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature," according to the American Association of University Women. What makes it illegal is that it violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 
It's worth noting that the federal law applies to employers with 15 or more employees, which includes federal, state and local governments; private and public colleges and universities; employment agencies and labor organizations. It's not the kind of thing you report to the police or that leads to jail time, but since sexual harassment is against the law, victims can file civil lawsuits against their harassers and sue for monetary damages. 
Steve Cadigan, founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures, told Fast Company that it's also important to understand that a sexual harassment claim doesn't have to include behavior that is strictly sexual. "Under the law, sexual harassment is 'creating a hostile work environment' that by definition is fairly broad," Cadigan said. Sexual harassment can also involve co-workers or bosses who are the same gender.

Find out if your state will protect you. State laws punishing sexual harassment and other discrimination vary wildly, as do the statutes of limitations governing how long you have to file a claim. Be sure to check out your state's laws in this area before you go any further with a sexual harassment claim or even talk about it. Knowing your stuff means you can "print out a copy of the statute, march right into HR and say, 'Here's this law that protects me,'" Elizabeth Gedmark, an attorney at A Better Balance: The Work & Family Legal Center, told Cosmopolitan.

»RELATED: Woman says she lost work hours after reporting sexual harassment

Act within the 180-day window of opportunity. Employees at companies with more than 15 employees can make a complaint to the EEOC, but you must file it within 180 days of when the sexual harassment occurred.

Understand your company's obligations. "You can never be fired for raising the issue, but know that when you escalate, [the company's leadership] is compelled to investigate, and they can't necessarily do it anonymously," Tinsley noted. Officers of the company are required to report any claim of sexual harassment brought to their attention, noted Cadigan, both because it potentially involves sexual harassment and because an employee might be breaking the law at work. 
"There is no way you can assure that you will not be fired or blackballed for making a claim of sexual harassment," Cadigan said. The EEOC found that charges of retaliation linked to sexual discrimination claims grew to about 40,000 in 2015, which is more than double the number in 1997.

Manage your expectations of human resources. While you might think of HR as your ally in the system, it's important to remember that HR employees are paid to act in the best interest of the company. In most cases, "Going to HR is a box you need to check in order to give your employer the chance to do things properly before you can pursue other options," like a lawsuit, Deborah Marcuse, an employment attorney at Feinstein Doyle Payne & Kravec in Pittsburgh told Cosmopolitan. "Don't go in expecting an advocate." In the best case scenario, HR will hear you out as a neutral party; at worst, they could take sides with the company over you and even be overtly unpleasant.

Set up a defense against possible retaliation. Understand going in that HR does not have to keep your conversation confidential, advised Cosmopolitan, and your report of sexual harassment could get back to your manager. Make certain you document all meetings with HR, including details about who you met with and when and what you talked about. "Too often we see people where HR might try and deny that they ever spoke to them," Gedmark noted. You can also record your meetings with HR and other company officials, but only after determining that it's legal to record a conversation without the other person's consent in your state.
Also, find out if your company has a policy that protects whistleblowers from retaliation. If they do, read it and print it out.

Document from start to finish. Take notes or write up memos of disturbing meetings, phone calls or conversations immediately after they happen so the details are fresh in your mind. If you were sexually harassed digitally, save voicemails and emails and screenshot Slack chats and texts and print them all out -- just not at the office. Bring the printouts to the meeting.

Step through the process carefully. Write down what you plan to say to report the harassment ahead of time, adding as many specifics as possible, and practice your talk with someone you trust who doesn't work with you, Cadigan added. Ask for a meeting with the person you choose in your chain of command and invite the appropriate executive from HR.

Once you have expressed your complaint, ask: "Do you think this behavior is acceptable at this company?" If those you are reporting to admit it's wrong, note that in writing for future reference. In fact, visibly document everything they say, and ask them to slow down if needed. At the conclusion of the meetup, thank them and ask what the next steps are.

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