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Reporting sexual harassment is a life-altering and career-altering decision–one that no one should ever be forced to make. Before reporting sexual harassment, do everything you can to protect yourself during the investigative phase of the complaint and beyond.

How to Report Sexual Harassment to Human Resources

If you’re thinking about reporting sexual harassment to HR, you’ve probably already tried to stop the harassment in other ways.

You may have told the harasser directly to stop the harassment. Or you may have avoided the harasser as much as possible.

But these responses are hard when the harasser is your supervisor. He can change your schedule, freeze you out of important projects, or otherwise make your work life miserable. Or he can just fire you.

You may have concluded that the safest course of action is to tolerate the harassment while looking for another job. No one can fault you for taking any of these actions.

You are right to be concerned about retaliation, and about how that retaliation will affect not only your current workplace situation, but also your future career options.

However, if you’re reading this article, you have probably reached a breaking point and have decided that you must report your harasser to a supervisor or to Human Resources.

Even if you don’t plan to stay with this employer for much longer. Even though you know that retaliation is likely.

This article is designed to arm you with knowledge and specific strategies that you can use before reporting and while actually reporting your harasser. These strategies are designed to put you in the best position to avoid retaliation. If your employer insists on retaliating against you, these strategies will help you put yourself in the best position to fight back against that retaliation and prepare for life after reporting the harassment.

Remember that Human Resources Protects the Company, Not the Employees.

Before you decide to report harassment to HR, remember that HR exists to protect the company, not to protect employees.

No matter how friendly or sympathetic your company’s HR representative may be, always remember that their job is to protect the company.

Not you.

Here are three ways to put that knowledge into action when reporting sexual harassment.

1. Read the Employee Handbook and Follow the Reporting Requirements.

If your harasser is a supervisor or other member of management, the company can be held responsible for that person’s harassment of you.

However, if your harasser is a co-worker with no supervisory duties, your employer cannot be held liable for the harassment unless and until you put your employer on notice and demand that it stop the harassment.

Your employee handbook should set out the specific ways you can report sexual harassment, and one of those methods typically includes reporting the harassment to HR.

If you have no employee handbook, or the handbook tells you to report to your direct supervisor (who may be the harasser), just report in writing to the person who supervises the harasser.

2. Document Everything in Writing.

HR representatives try to avoid written communication. When you email them, they respond with a phone call.

Defeat this practice by immediately emailing the HR rep a summary of your conversation.

End your email by asking HR to reply if they think your summary is inaccurate or incomplete.

It is incredibly important that you submit your complaint and subsequent communications in writing.

Your company may have a telephone number you can call to report harassment anonymously. While it is undoubtedly tempting to try to remain anonymous, you realistically will not be able to do so. Use the telephone hotline to report harassment if your employer offers such a service, but identify yourself and provide contact information when submitting your complaint. And follow up this telephone complaint with an email to HR as described above.

3. Don’t Be Shy About Calling the Conduct “Sexual Harassment.”

If you’re thinking about reporting sexual harassment, you are right to fear retaliation. But don’t let this fear stop you from being clear in your communications to HR.

If your employer is going to retaliate against you for reporting harassment, they’ll retaliate no matter what words you use. So protect yourself by stating exactly what you think happened.

It’s not enough to tell HR that you are being “harassed” or being subjected to a “hostile work environment.”

Or that someone is “behaving inappropriately.”

These statements may be true, but they are not specific enough. They give an employer an excuse to claim that they thought your colleague was simply being rude.

Use the words! “My supervisor is sexually harassing me by…”

Describe in detail your harasser’s conduct, explain how it is affecting you, and state openly that you believe this is sexual harassment.

Make Sure Potential Decisionmakers Know About Your Complaint.

Reporting discrimination or harassment in the workplace is scary. You want the offensive conduct to end, but you worry that your employer will retaliate against you.

Targets of harassment often believe they can avoid retaliation by limiting the number of people in management who learn about their complaint.

This often backfires. The best approach is to make sure that anyone in management who may be in a position to make a decision about your employment status receives a copy of your written complaint.

1. Don’t Hide the Fact That You Filed a Complaint.

Most employees want to hide the fact that they complained to HR.

But to establish a retaliation claim, you must prove that the supervisor who made the decision to fire you knew at the time of the firing decision that you had filed the complaint.

You are the only one who can ensure that your entire supervisory chain knows about your HR complaint. Even when your harasser is part of your supervisory chain.

Please note–I am not suggesting that you send an all-staff email to the entire company. Do not do that! A reasonable juror would question the credibility of an employee who sends an email blast to the entire company.

But make sure you eliminate deniability for anyone who the company may claim is the “decision maker” for your retaliatory firing.

2. Document Even Minor Retaliation Every Day.

Once you file an HR complaint, you need to be prepared to document any retaliatory actions by your supervisors or colleagues.

Retaliation does not always take the form of firing. Are you suddenly excluded from meetings and opportunities? Are your harasser’s friends refusing to speak to you and making it impossible to do your job?

Document these small but significant events the day they happen by sending an email to yourself using your personal email account (not your work email account) that your employer cannot access.

Build a timeline that you can later use to support your claim of illegal retaliation.

Documenting these events as they happen is incredibly helpful, and will allow you to see retaliatory patterns of behavior you might have otherwise missed.

Be Prepared for HR to not Support Your Complaint. Or Worse.

Complaining to HR about a workplace issue is nerve-racking enough on its own.

It’s even worse when HR takes no meaningful action. Days and weeks pass, and HR assures you they’re “looking into it” or “taking your complaint seriously.” But nothing happens.

When you report sexual harassment to HR, you must be prepared for HR to subject you to one of the favorite tricks that HR uses to avoid taking any meaningful action on your complaint.

1. HR May Drag Out an Investigation.

HR and management knows that if you’re really unhappy, you might just quit.

Don’t let HR run out the clock by slow-rolling the investigation of your complaint.

Bug them in writing every two or three days for an update on the investigation until you get an answer. It may not be the answer you want, but at least you’ll have clarity.

Only you can ensure that HR’s action (or inaction) is documented, and you do that by emailing HR regularly (not daily, but more than once per week) to get an update on the status of their investigation into your sexual harassment complaint.

Your employer’s HR reps may have tried to investigate your complaint but were stonewalled by management. Whatever the reason for the delays in the investigation, do what you can to document the lack of action by your employer.

2. HR May Intentionally Downplay Your Complaint.

You finally gather up the nerve to report that skeevy supervisor who won’t stop staring at your body.

But you want to be non-confrontational, so you don’t call what he’s doing “sexual harassment.” You call his actions “inappropriate” or “unprofessional.”

HR may use your tact and diplomacy against you. They’ll claim they did not understand that you were complaining about sex harassment, and that’s why they didn’t conduct an investigation or respond at all to your complaint.

Don’t mince words. Complain in writing and call it “sexual harassment” or whatever the offensive conduct really is.

3. HR May Accuse You of Misconduct.

You know you work for a garbage company when HR takes your complaint as an opportunity to accuse you of some unrelated misconduct.

These types of accusations can often support a legal claim against the company for illegal retaliation.

But more importantly, they are a red flag that it’s time to find a new job (and seek legal advice about how to go after your employer!).

Prepare for Life After the Complaint.

Even if your employer handles your sexual harassment complaint as well as you could have hoped for, you still may be ready to leave that employer and find a fresh start.

Or perhaps your harasser has left the company, but was allowed to resign quietly, and you received no closure and no information about how your complaint was investigated and resolved.

An important part of the reporting process is preparing for the next phase. Do you want to stay with your current employer? Do you want to seek severance so that you are financially secure while searching for your next position?

Reporting sexual harassment is a life-altering and career-altering decision–one that no one should ever be forced to make.

Before reporting sexual harassment, do everything you can to protect yourself during the investigative phase of the complaint and beyond.

CONTACT US at District Employment Law if you want more information or guidance before reporting sexual harassment to HR.

This blog post has been prepared for informational purposes only. This blog post is not intended, and should not be construed, as legal advice. The information contained in this blog post is not intended to create an attorney-client relationship, and the receipt of this information does not constitute attorney-client privileged legal advice.