After widespread sexual-abuse allegations were lodged publicly in 2017 by dozens of women against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, which eventually led to his conviction as a sex offender, claims of sexual harassment in the U.S. have surged.
But the data also reveals that while more women are willing to speak publicly, they may not fully understand what happens after they file a complaint.
Al Harris, a founding partner of the Chicago law firm of Ungaretti & Harris and co-author of "Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work," says that women who think about filing a complaint need to realize that the "adverse consequences are pretty awful" and taking such action can lead to embarrassment and exposure of sensitive issues.
In addition, the average payout to women who successfully prove sexual harassment is less than $30,000, he says.
"If you can just get out of it (the situation), you're far better off," Harris says, adding that may mean leaving the department or the company where harassment is taking place.
For women who want to stay and file a complaint, here's a look at what can happen:
- A company is obligated to investigate and make a resolution. Unfortunately, "there's no obligation on the process or the outcome," which means you may or may not like the action that is taken or the conclusion, Harris says. The investigation is up to the employer — an HR person or supervisor may do it, or they can even hire an outside party.
- Sometimes the police investigate. Beyond a physical or sexual assault that will involve criminal charges, even cases of "unwanted touching," can be classified as battery. The police are less likely to investigate if your claim involves something like off-color jokes by the harasser.
- You can hire a lawyer. About a third of employees say they don't trust their human resource departments, so Harris advises a victim may feel more comfortable hiring a lawyer who can provide advice about how to proceed if you're not satisfied with the outcome of the investigation.
Once a resolution is reached by a company regarding your complaint, then is the time to file with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if you are dissatisfied. Harris says if you try to file with the EEOC before a company investigation, then the case is likely to be dismissed and you "severely limit your legal options down the road."
Harris says that about half of the cases that end up with the EEOC are because women report that retaliatory action was taken after they filed their complaint. A study by the National Women's Law Center finds that seven in 10 people who report sexual harassment face retaliation, such as termination, being denied promotions, or being sued for defamation.
Once you decide to file with the EEOC, here's what to expect:
- Your employer is notified by the EEOC and asked to respond to the complaint.
- The EEOC will investigate your claim, which usually means they interview any witnesses and review other evidence. It can take six months to a year to complete this process from the time you file your complaint.
- If the EEOC believes that discrimination took place, it will ask you and your employer to participate in voluntary mediation, or "conciliation."
- Once the EEOC has processed your charge, you will be given a letter that states you have fulfilled the legal requirement of filing a charge and now have the right to sue the employer. After you receive the letter, you have 90 days to file a lawsuit in court. This time limit can vary by state.
Deciding whether or not to file a sexual harassment claim can be a difficult decision, but it can also be challenging to go through the process once you take that action. To be prepared, make sure you understand your company's process, are prepared to go through an investigation and get legal representation if you feel you need more support and advice.