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November 2, 2006
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Don’t report sexual harassment (in most cases)

Sexual harassment in American work life is pervasive — as much as 80 percent in some sectors. But most women don’t stand a chance of winning a lawsuit. So having a plan to deal with the problem is a good idea for all women.

When it comes to harassment, Georgia Gatsiou, chef at Beard Papa, says: “I would talk to him myself. I am aggressive like that.” You should probably take that approach as well. Most sexual harassment isn’t severe enough to hold up in court, and the law isn’t strong enough to protect you from most types of retaliation. So unless your safety is at risk, you’re usually best off handling the harasser yourself rather than reporting him to human resources.

To win a lawsuit, courts require proof that harassment was severe and pervasive in the work environment, according to Alisa Epstein of New York-based law firm Samuelson, Hause & Samuelson. And that employee handbook becomes important too. Gatsiou is typical of employee handbook readers: “It’s big. I’ve read a lot of things in that handbook. Maybe there’s something about harassment. I don’t know.” But when you report to human resources, you must follow your company’s policy precisely or you risk losing your ability to take the company to court.

After you’ve filed a report, human resources will protect the company, not you. Human resource executives talk about their concern for harassment. But, according to Jim Weliky of Boston-based law firm Messing, Rudavsky & Weliky, “most human resource departments don’t live up to their propaganda.”

The law is set up to encourage a company to take proscribed steps to protect itself from liability rather than to protect your emotional stability, or, for that matter, your career. Once you take action against a harasser, retaliation is your biggest problem.

“Very few retaliation cases we have were not triggered by reporting the problem to human resources,” says Weliky. “But not all retaliation is strong enough to make it to court.” Retaliation is usually subtle: fewer invitations to lunch, a cubicle that isolates you from office networks, and project assignments that are boring. That sort of retaliation effectively holds back your career without standing up in court.

Just because you don’t have a lawsuit doesn’t mean you need to put up with harassment or retaliation. It means you need to take things into your own hands.Your goal should be to stop the harassment without hurting your career. No small feat but possible.

“This is a negotiable moment,” says Carol Frohlinger, attorney and author of Her Place at the Table: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating Five Key Challenges to Leadership Success. “Before going to human resources, have a frank conversation with the person making you uncomfortable.

“Be clear on what behavior is harassing and that you don’t like it. As long as he doesn’t repeatedly refuse to negotiate like saying, ‘You’re so premenstrual’ and walking away,’ ” Frohlinger said, “you should negotiate things for yourself.”

As in any important negotiating session Frohlinger advises that you assess your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement,” or BATNA.Your BATNA is probably to leave the company. But you should let your opponent feel that your BATNA is to go to human resources. Because no matter how arrogant he is, he will not be happy about being dragged into a ‘he said-she said’ mess before the human resources department.

When you negotiate, aim high: If your harasser is your boss, ask for help to switch departments, and ask to go to a better department with a top manager. It’s in your harasser’s interest to help you. Or, if a co-worker is harassing you, make sure the co-worker appreciates that you handled things yourself. You save the co-worker a lot of problems by not reporting him.These are ways to decrease the chances of retribution while squelching the harassing behavior.

If the harasser will not negotiate with you, assess your power versus his. “Sexual harassment is more about the balance of power than what has been said,” advises Weliky.

When Kate, a high-powered New York City lawyer, was young and working with a managing director, she recalled an incident in which he asked her to “bring the papers by my hotel room, and don’t worry if I’m only wearing a towel.”

She thought the comment was ludicrous and told the whole office. “I could do that because I was on my way up in that firm, and he was doing poorly,” she said. “He didn’t have a lot of ways to make my life difficult. In fact, someone told his wife and she bawled him out in front of his co-workers.”

A great situation, but most of you cannot depend on your harasser’s wife for vigilante law enforcement. If the balance of power is not in your favor, and you get nowhere negotiating, find a new job and leave the offending company — in that order — because it’s always easier to find a job when you have a job, even if you hate the job you have.

There is plenty to do in this world that does not require you to work in companies that enable a boys’ club atmosphere. There are a lot of men who feel alienated in this atmosphere too.

Find those men and work with them. Then get a lot of power in your career and create a workplace culture you believe in.

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I am rather disappointed to read advice like this, particularly from someone who has thought so much about many issues affecting our work and lives.

If a black person (of either gender) encountered racism at work, would you offer this same advice? If not, would it be worth addressing why not? This perspective is focused solely on the individual. Will that harasser only harrass one woman? What about trying to find out who else has been affected and tackling the situation with others. What about the men you say don’t work well in this environment?

Hi, Jazmin. You bring up a lot of intersting questions. All of them are worth tackling, but I don’t tackle them here — to do them all would be a book, maybe.

Even though this is hard advice to hear, I think you have to ask yourself, What would be better advice in the case of this post? I haven’t found anyone with better advice, and I interviewed a lot of people.

I wish the best advice were: Talk to human resources because the law will back you up. That would make us all really happy, I think. But we’re not there yet.

Good piece..and very true…which is an slur on our society…gutsy approach..


Speaking as a man that was harassed at work here is my perspective. Don’t report it! I was working for a large metropolitan fire department when an ex girlfriend started sending hard core porn to me at the fire station. By department order I reported the stuff and notified my supervisor who curtly replied “What, you don’t like naked ladies? Are you some sort of fag?” I asked that it be investigated.

This opened a Pandora’s Box of trouble for me. The department was concerned some of the porn I was receiving was actually illegal child porn. They began investigating ME accusing me of ordering it and trying to cover it up with the ex girl friend claim. My credit was run, I was questioned for 8 straight hours, had my rights read to me and had to submit hand writing samples, and I was the victim of this. I endured several months of scrutiny over something I wish I had never reported.

What do you think about confiding in a coworker you trust and seeking their advice or input before doing anything.

I had a coworker confide in me about some inappropriate sexual advances made on her by one of the senior partners at the company.

I think just having someone to talk to, who knew the players involved, was helpful to her. She needed to talk it out, so-to-speak. I did not get involved in the situation directly (and she never asked me to do so). She handled the situation fine on her own but would come into my office to gather strength.

But I’m curious what you think about letting someone else know.

Wendy, this is great advice about talking to a friend at work. Harassment is awful to deal with, no matter what the legal situation is. Sharing your situation with a friend, getting advice, having a sounding board, these are all good tactics to give you strength in a bad situation. Thanks for pointing this out.

Regarding women and their careers… My Mom was a successful career woman back in the 40’s and 50’s when it was not so socially accepted. My darling wife is a career woman and an MA student. I have three daughters and two granddaughters. Thus it ought to be no surprise that I believe in women, in their capabilities and in their magnificent contributions.

I’m pleased you put the qualifier “(in most cases)” in the heading to your post otherwise I would have taken great exception.

And, I have a few additional comments:

[1] I agree with your concluding observations… “There is plenty to do in this world that does not require you to work in companies that enable a boys’ club atmosphere. There are a lot of men who feel alienated in this atmosphere too. Find those men and work with them. Then get a lot of power in your career and create a workplace culture you believe in.”

[2] My strongly held view is that if a woman is harrased (in any way) at work or elsewhere she must (at the same time) (a) protect herself and (b) advocate and protect her rights as a huiman being.

[3] IF this can be done quiety and with grace then “fine”. However women MUST find find appropriate ways and means to “claim their equal rights to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness and… RESPECT”, and sometimes this means that women ought to have the name of a kick-=*ss great (preferably female) lawyer who can make the case in a way that individuals and companies understand. That make them pay!”

I agree that sexual harassment shouldn’t have to be formally reported, because you should be able to stand up for yourself. Female or male, if you can’t handle your own business, when you go to file suit, you’re going to be looked at as someone lame who now wants the law to deal with something you didn’t want to deal with on your own.

Look what happened to Benjamin. Instead of handling his own personal business, he chose to report it “by department order”. He could have just told her to stop and dealt with it on his own. He would have saved himself from being berated by his supervisor and then dragged through the mud during the following investigation.

Same thing for the ladies. There’s no reason that your co-workers shouldn’t have enough personal respect for you to listen to what you have to say and stop harassing you. Also, if you do decide to go the lawsuit route, you’d best have A LOT of CONCRETE evidence. Don’t count on person X testifying that they saw this and that. Don’t count on person Y putting in writing that they know that you were harassed. Without evidence, all you’re doing is alerting HR that you’re going to be a problem in the future, and they’re going to start looking for ways to legally remove you from the company before you start something.

Earn your own respect (men or women), and you won’t have to bother with lawsuits.

The problem with what Bill C. says above is that if the harrasser had respect for the harrassee, there would likely not be an issue in the first place. Of course there are people who are more sensitive to things than others, but I find it hard to believe that in most of these situations (the guy with “only a towel,” for example), the offender doesn’t know that a line is being crossed. If there was respect for that line or the party on the other side, then, well, chances are Mr. Bathtowel would have cracked some other lame joke . . .

Bill C. seems to think that it’s a rational siuation and that we’re dealing with reasonable people, but it is not a sound assumption in many sexual harrassment situations. I doubt that the porn girl, for example, would have just stopped on her own–clearly she was looking to jam her ex up in the worst possible way that she could imagine, and it worked. Had he confronted her, I don’t doubt that she would have realized that her strategy was working and then would have doubled her efforts. Blaming the victim, male or female, in these kinds of scenarios just isn’t helpful.

Interesting points, quycksilver… and worth elaborating on.

> The problem with what Bill C. says
> above is that if the harrasser had
> respect for the harrassee, there
> would likely not be an issue in the
> first place.

I agree with what you’re saying, however your point assumes that the harassee had given the harasser reason to respect them before any harassment occurred at all.

In a perfect world… in which we do not live… everyone would respect everyone. :) In the real world, sometimes respect is found within someone’s response to harassment. A bully might pick on a kid for his lunch money, but when that kid stands up to him instead of giving it up, perhaps the bully _finds_ respect for that one kid and leaves him alone from then on. Same thing with harassment in the workplace. There are bullies in the workplace who feel free to pick on people that they deem unworthy of respect. Is it fair? No. Life isn’t fair. However, depending on that person’s response to them, the harassment is going to continue or stop.

My point was that if you stand up for yourself and let the person know that you’re not having it, they might respect you PERSONALLY and treat you properly from then on and MAYBE even apologize, since they now see themselves as guilty of disrespecting someone that they *now* feel deserves respect.

> Of course there are people who are
> more sensitive to things than others,
> but I find it hard to believe that in most
> of these situations (the guy with “only a
> towel,” for example), the offender
> doesn’t know that a line is being
> crossed. If there was respect for that
> line or the party on the other side, then,
> well, chances are Mr. Bathtowel would
> have cracked some other lame joke . . .

Absolutely. I agree. The question is “does the harasser respect the line or the person?”. I think it’s clear that “the line” is not respected by the harasser, so the deciding factor in whether they choose to step over that line with any individual is the personal respect they have or don’t have for that one individual. Running to HR doesn’t make that person respect YOU. You just got them in trouble… maybe… IF they choose to believe your word over the harasser’s word.

> Bill C. seems to think that it’s a rational
> siuation and that we’re dealing with
> reasonable people, but it is not a sound
> assumption in many sexual harrassment
> situations.

I think that harassers are bullies, and for the most part bullies are chumps. If you let them know they’re not going to get off easy for harassing you, they’ll move on to an easier mark. If not, then it’s clear that they’re not going to respect you personally, and HR is your next best bet. I say it’s worth it to see if you can get your own respect FIRST.

> I doubt that the porn girl, for example,
> would have just stopped on her own–
> clearly she was looking to jam her ex up
> in the worst possible way that she could
> imagine, and it worked.

No. It didn’t work. He worked HIMSELF! :D

I’m not implying she would have stopped on her own. Now that I’m re-reading his post, I’m not sure if she was sending him actual physical materials or emails. His first option is to tell her to stop. If she’s not going to respect him personally, his next option is to block her email address, or if she was sending him materials in the mail, refuse to accept them.

Instead, he chose to complain to his supervisor… a man, who was not homosexual… that he was receiving materials with “naked ladies”, and he didn’t like it. He set himself up to LOOK like a homosexual himself, and he was scrutinized because of THAT, and not because he was receiving porno in the mail or email. He did it to himself.

The point is that his supervisor was wrong for accusing him of being gay AND using the word “fag”, derogatory term. The man was following the rules and was treated unfairly.

I see quycksilver’s point. Sexual harassers are not rational people. If they were, they wouldn’t be harassers! I used to work for an organization that worked with women in skilled labor and construction. You can imagine what some women on these fields faced on the job. These were tough women who undoubtedly stuck up for themselves. But sometimes, that only worked to provoke the agressor and led to more vicious harassment.

That is why workplace measures need to be in place and enforced so that it is not up to a person to withstand harassment and hostile work environments alone.

Would this advice apply in the military environment?

I’m in the military. Where the geeks are promoted. They aren’t bullies. But the men who wouldn’t get the time of day from a woman, yet b/c they hold higher rank they get this false sense of courage allowing them to way overstep in situations that are unacceptable. I’m being bothered by a man that seriously out-ranks me. It isn’t blatant comments, except for the one about thinking of me and this ‘obsession.’ He leaves me things in my office chair, he emails me on the week-end and his days off, calling me on his day off and saying “This is…” and using his first name. This is totally unprofessional behavior and inappropriate in a military environment. It’s not blatant comments, but more of mind games. For example, the other day I was discussing my next assignment and he looked at me dead-on and said, “You aren’t going anywhere.”

I’m ignoring him, now unless I’m being tasked with a project. If I have to I will confront him.

It’s very difficult to work with this person, b/c I’ve lost complete respect now. In civilian society, without the benefit of his rank he would be a Woody Allen-type. But with the rank on his shoulders, he gains this false courage and thinks he can control.

But reporting in the military is tough. There is a system in place, but it is a true good-ol’ boy system. Although admittedly drastically improved from the past, I’d still be thought of as the woman who must have done something to encourage this man. So, my hat is off to women that do report this sort of activity in a military environment.

* * * * *  * *
This is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. I’m really sorry that you are having to endure this, but you do a great service to a lot of women by describing your situation.

Based on the description here….

This is harrassment becuase the person is attracted to the women and he is getting extra, special time with her (for example, on the phone, on the weekend, on a first-name basis which is not ordinary for this position). He is also using his rank to make her life difficult, limit her professionally, and underine her authority. The problem is that it’s all very subtle, and he’s not actually breaking the law. Or, if he is, it would be extremely hard to prove in a he-says/she-says battle.

Reporting sexual harrassment in the military is a joke. The number of women who report and find that nothing is accomplished is huge, and the number of times men retalliate for this reporting, with no repercussions to them, is also huge. Corporate life is a harrassment disaster, and the miliatary is worse.

There is no point in talking about the need to reform, the need to stand up against these men, etc. The woman writing here clearly needs to keep her job. She is likely to jeopardize her ability to support her kids if she reports the harrassment with the intent to bring this man in line.

The best thing to do is figure out how to get reassigned so you don’t have to work with this person. One way to do it is to find some man or woman who has a little bit of authority in this area of assignments and can understand that you are feeling sexual tension from your boss without you reporting it. My thinking is that you will get more done if you do not make an official report, if you do not make a claim that someone is legally bound to report. Someone will understand the implied problem and want to help you. This is what I hope. I think that each organization has someone in it who can be an ally. Even the military.

This is really sad advice to be giving. I feel really bad for everyone stuck in this situation. But most women simply cannot afford to jeopardize their careers in order to intigate the workplace refore that the legal community and legilslators should be taking responsilbity for.

An important thing to remember, while you are figuring out how to get out from under this guy, is that he is really harrassing you, and you are totally normal to feel uncomfortable and hate it. And your reactions to his bad behavior are rational.

Good luck.


In reading my post, I’m not even sure my situation is sexual harassment. I didn’t think it was until the comment the other day. At that point, I felt my work environment became hostile. I feel a sense of dread in coming to the office and seeing this person. As if it isn’t hard enough to be a full-time military working mother.

What if a boss tried to feel you up (after you repeatedly ask him not to) and you kick him in the groin? Will that get you fired? Seriously, I’m just wondering. If the law won’t help you, is it okay to usual physical self-defence?


It depends who takes it ‘legal’ first. If he complains to HR (assuming he isn’t the top of the food chain), you’re going to need to demonstrate WHY you kicked him. Without a history of your complaints to HR, it’ll be your word against his. Good luck with that.

This article is interesting. I am a male, foreigner, with a different sect of religion and culture than the majority. I have been in US for over 10 years, and in those year I have managed to improve my English accent, just because I faced a lot of harrasment in the beginning due to my foreign accent. There are some people at work who sometimes ask me stupid questions about my religion, culture, and some people just don’t care. But then again there are some who are my friends, understand how I feel, but yet make comments that I don’t believe. The other day, one of my coworkers, who goes to a walk with me everyday, said that it’d be fun to burn your holy book on a bbq grill. I took that personally, but decided not to respond in any way, because I don’t know how to respond.

I have had experiences where people have asked me to tell them funny and strange stories from back home because they think US is the best place to be. Two people have asked me if there is a derogatory term for my kind of people, like the N word for black people, in a joking manner though.

On an outerstate trip with my wife, someone asked me if the trip is business or pleasure, and I said pleasure, then the same friend who thought it would be fun to burn the holy book, said “Oh yeah, take a lot of pictures”, and made clear by laughing what he was talking about.

I agree the HR doesn’t do anything, you have to be able to stand for yourself, and you learn it with time. Now when I get a chance, I bring myself down, and make cheap and dirty comments about the coworkers who harras me as well. People may not laugh at my jokes and comments, but at least they know that I am not a toy anyone can play with. When people ask me for funny/strage stories from back home, I tell them

I used to think that being an foreigner, I represent my culture/religion/country to people that I meet. Totally not the case, you have to bring yourself down to the levels of people who are mean, and be mean to them. However, taking that approach, sometimes you are bound to step on people that haven’t harmed you, or are really nice. But I think this is the best approach. It is almost worthless to show yourself helpful, caring, or nice, you get taken advantage of every single day.

And I think that is how HR thinks, they are there to support the company. If you ever read the employee document when you signed up for the job, you find out that its really not in your favor. At the end of the day, its just a job, you’re being paid for being away from your life, no one said you will enjoy it, in most cases.

So, I wish I would have read this website before I turned my co-worker in for sexual harassment. Talk about a disaster. Of course nothing could be proved, it was he said she said and they were done with it. I attemtped to be assertive and demand some accomodations so I wasnt working with him and ended up being asked to resign with 4 weeks compensation and good references. I said hell no, they arent getting rid of me that easily. But it is so true, unless its severe and one has proof there is really no point. I ended up suffering even more after the fact and the guy is even higher on his horse than he was before. Silly me, always trying to do the right thing.

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