Facing workplace sexual harassment can be a terrifying and demoralizing experience. You may feel scared to report it to your employer, out of concern for retaliation such as getting fired for the complaint. You may also worry about your ability to secure a new job without a positive reference from your current employer or manager, who may be directly involved in the harassment.
Other times, you may believe that no one will take your side without witnesses or concrete evidence. It’s important to stand up for your rights and hold a harasser accountable for his or her actions.
Sexual harassment can take on many forms, but all of them are illegal. If someone at your work is touching you in a sexual or degrading manner, making lewd gestures or intentionally rubbing up against you, that’s harassment. So is any form of physical or sexual assault by a manager or co-worker.
Verbal harassment is common as well. It includes sexual jokes, repeated comments on your body, appearance, clothing, personal life or sexuality, demeaning or vulgar language in the workplace and offensive nicknames. Even passing around emails, cartoons or similar images of a sexual nature, ranging from pin-up calendars to the overt display of sexual items in the workplace can create a hostile and inappropriate work environment.
If your employer does not have a clear sexual harassment policy in place, this can sometimes prove difficult. Smaller businesses may not have a human resources department or another manager to report the issue to. In this case, if you can, attempt to directly address the issue with your harasser. Ideally, you will do so in writing (via email), which proves that you attempted to address the problem.
Maintain copies of any complaint you submit, and do your best to be professional but firm when you request that the harassment stop. You should also take steps to note exactly how you experience harassment. Keep a journal, which you store outside of work, that notes every inappropriate joke, touch or quid-pro-quo solicitation you receive from co-workers or managers. Records that show the date, time, exact events and names of the people involved can help substantiate your claim to your employer or, later, to the courts.
You may not want to file a complaint right away, especially if your employer gives you reason to believe the problem will get addressed. However, if you face retaliation or if the harassment continues or worsens, filing a formal complaint with the state via the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and potentially the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission helps ensure an outside authority will step in.
If you lose your job for reporting or pushing back against harassment, you should take steps right away to file a formal complaint. You will only have 180 days after the most recent incident to report the issue to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. Take action now to protect yourself and future workers from abuse.