Early in her career, corporate communications specialist Tatiana Shams worked in environments where she felt sexually harassed and belittled by several co-workers and supervisors. As a woman of color, Shams said that she experienced multiple situations where she felt colleagues were making assumptions about her abilities and sexuality based on her ethnicity. But one particularly inappropriate boss stands out.
That man, she said, made lewd comments and sexually propositioned her multiple times a day. When she called him out on it, he always said he was "just kidding." But the behavior continued.
"That one really hurt," she says, adding that these inappropriate remarks were part of her daily landscape. "You start questioning yourself. It can lead to PTSD and erode your confidence."
Shams eventually left that role and moved on. Today, as a senior specialist, CEO communications for T-Mobile, Shams is now in a role that suits her skills as a multilingual former broadcast journalist, where she has positive working relationships with her entire team, but, as with many women who face on-the-job harassment, the damage lingers.
"It's been five years," she says, "and even now, in a workplace where everyone is respectful, and I have a great boss, you still feel like you can't make any mistakes."
Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) estimates that 34% of women have faced sexual harassment throughout their careers, with women of color far more likely to experience harassment than white women. According to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), contractors and freelancers are not protected under Title VII and are, therefore, especially vulnerable in today's gig economy.
If you've experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, what can you do to mitigate the damage and move on with your work lives? You're likely to be confronted with an array of questions, including how to handle interview questions for future jobs. The answers to these questions can help you navigate your path forward.
What is sexual harassment?
Covered under Title VII of the Civil Rights, sexual harassment includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature," according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The victim can be of any gender, as can the aggressor.
According to the EEOC, less aggressive behavior, such as teasing, can also be considered sexual harassment if it is persistent and creates "a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)."
Should I disclose my sexual harassment when I am searching for a new job?
If you signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of a settlement, you might be legally bound to keep the circumstances that led you to leave your last job confidential.
"With a nondisclosure, you can't ever discuss it," says Scott Pollins, board member of the National Employment Lawyers of America. Even without one, it's usually wise not to be negative about a past or current employer when you are looking for a new job. However, whether legally required or voluntary, silence can present a challenge if you are asked why you parted ways with your last employer during an interview or on a job application.
"You are under no obligation to share details about your past work experiences. A potential employer should not be probing for details during an interview. They are putting themselves in the position of retaliation," Pollins says, noting that a hiring manager who attempts to interrogate an applicant about their past sexual harassment may themselves be seen as engaging in harassment. "They are opening themselves up to potential legal vulnerability."
To maintain your poise in the interview, it makes sense to gloss over the transition. Simply say you realized it was time to look for new opportunities.
"It's best to just say you are looking for a new opportunity or that your past job was no longer the right fit," Pollins says. "You don't want to create the impression that you left due to a problem."
Even the minimal facts of a harassment complaint and subsequent departure can lead recruiters to worry that you might be litigious. There is still a stigma that accrues to women who make formal harassment complaints.
This attitude, Pollins says, "perpetuates the damage, hurting her even after she leaves, following her in her attempts to get a new job."
A better tactic than talking about why you had to leave your last position is to transition your answer in a way that allows you to talk about why you want to work for this prospective employer.
How do I get a reference from that company for my next job?
To a degree, the kind of reference you can expect to receive from an employer where you filed a complaint depends on the size of your former employer.
"If your former company is a big enough employer to have an HR department, then they are working off a script," Pollins says.
HR personnel at large employers are likely to be permitted only to confirm the position you held and how long you worked there. Prospective employers will know that this policy holds true for all employees. However, if you had a C-suite-level position, things can get trickier, Pollins notes.
"For that level of position, the new employer would expect more information," he says. "So then you would work your reference out with your prior employer. You could negotiate what you want the company to say about your departure."
Should I ever disclose my harassment experience at my next job?
The only occasion when Pollins thinks it might make sense to disclose your harassment experience at our following jobs is when a co-worker or direct report confides in you that she is currently facing sexual harassment.
"In that case," he says, "the opportunity to offer support, to say 'here's how to handle that,' may make the risk worthwhile."