Julia Green* was restless after experiencing sexual harassment at work for the first time. She remembered feeling frozen, her mind barely grasping the unsolicited comment a male coworker made about her body when no one was within earshot. Did he really say that? Was she overreacting?
She spent the following nights staring at her ceiling, replaying in her head what happened and wondering what she should — or could — do next. Should she report it to HR? Would they believe her? What if they didn't, and this ruined her career?
Like Julia, 69% of women in the U.S. have experienced sexual harassment at work and face these difficult questions. Furthermore, one survey found that 72% of workplace sexual harassment victims don't report it out of fear that they will be labeled as troublemakers or lose their jobs. It's a traumatizing, overwhelming, and incredibly intimidating situation, even when you know that what happened to you isn't right.
So how do you protect yourself and do what feels right to you?
Shaynira González, an HR professional based in Wisconsin, says that there are ways that you can utilize your company's human resources department effectively to navigate this situation and protect your professional reputation.
Below, she walks us through the five things every woman should know if she is a victim of sexual harassment at work.
1. HR is trained to listen to you
Being a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace is an incredibly tough situation, but rest assured that they will hear you if you decide to file a report. HR professionals are trained to handle a variety of situations, including sexual harassment claims within the company.
"In my career, I have seen claims from different individuals no matter their background, gender, orientation, or position in the company," said González. "Sexual harassment can be as simple as someone being uncomfortable with a sexual joke they overheard, a message on someone's T-shirt ... to a more complicated scenario, such as two coworkers that dated and are now no longer together but one of the individuals still tries to get back together with that partner."
2. The investigation is confidential
When you report what happened, that information remains between you, the HR professional, and, if necessary, your manager. The person you're filing a claim against won't know that it was you who filed the report.
"If we get someone that claims they have been sexually harassed, we start an investigation where we ask all the information, talk to the other party that is accused, but at the same time maintain the confidentiality," explained González. She also suggests checking if the human resources department in your company has an anonymous hotline available for these cases.
3. A protocol is in place to keep you safe
Once the HR professional has reviewed everything (the specifics of the claim, who was involved, possible witnesses, and other data), they set rules with the help of your manager. These rules will ensure that you and the person you filed a claim against remain separated and have no contact in the workplace while the investigation is underway.
"Human resources must make sure the individual feels safe and can reach anyone from their leadership or HR when they need to. The individual can communicate with whoever they feel comfortable," explained González.
4. You have other options
"We also encourage communication with law enforcement, if needed, too," added González.
If filing a complaint through your company's HR department isn't something you want to do, you also have the option to file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with your local Fair Employment Practices Agency (FEPA). You must take this step before you can file a lawsuit related to sexual harassment under federal law.
Be aware, however, that there are deadlines to file a charge. You have to file within 180 days of the last incident.
Once you file a charge, EEOC will investigate and determine whether the incident was a form of discrimination or not. If the agency finds no cause, they'll give you a Notice of Right-to-Sue, which allows you to go to court on your own. If they find a cause, they might attempt to resolve the situation with the employer or, again, give you the right to pursue a lawsuit.
If you decide to file a lawsuit, you have 90 days to do it.
5. Surround yourself with people you trust
Experiencing sexual harassment of any kind shouldn't be something you go through alone. It's vital to surround yourself with friends, family and people you trust outside of the workplace.
If need be, turn to mental health professionals to process your experience and figure out ways to keep yourself healthy during a time where it's very easy to isolate and place the blame on yourself.
Your support network will remind you that you're not alone.
*Name changed to maintain confidentiality. Important note: While we interviewed an HR professional for this article and provided a clear guide, every case is different. If you're a victim of sexual harassment at work, please consider getting personalized advice specific to your situation.