What to Do if You're Sexually Harassed at Your Law Firm
In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, women and men from nearly industry are speaking up and sharing their stories of sexual harassment. As we’ve reported, the legal industry is certainly not immune.
However, what do you do if you are being pressured or sexually harassed in any way by a superior in a law firm? As part of our three-part series on the subject, we asked leading experts for their advice.
Here’s what they suggest:
Keep track of details.
It’s critical to keep track of every detail of the harassment. “Document the date and the extent of each occurrence,” says Daren H. Lipinsky, an employment lawyer in California. “Although it may be embarrassing, try to make the report as detailed as possible and include any potential witnesses who may have seen or heard the harassment.”
Also, save all emails, texts, and voicemails related to the harassment. “Print out whatever you can and bring it home, and forward any emails to a private account that you don’t check at work,” suggests Carlota Zimmerman, J.D., a career strategist. “At some smaller companies, management might retaliate [to your speaking up] by immediately locking you out of your email. If that happens, there goes your evidence.” You might want to record the harassment if possible; however, only do so if it’s legal in your state.
Understand your firm’s policy.
Take a look at your company’s specific policy and read the fine print. “Actively look for clauses of certain actions and/or words that the firm condemns so you can start building your case,” says Jennifer Magas, who has served as an employment law attorney and handled employee relations (including all sexual harassment cases) for 9,600 employees at an international trading firm. “Write down dates, names, phrases used, locations, and other details of your harassment and match them up to your company’s policy so you can argue the case that this behavior [of the person who harassed you] is without a doubt inappropriate and worthy of punishment.”
Finding others in you firm who have experienced harassment can help you in many ways. “Coworkers may have experienced what you did and might be willing to talk,” says J. Bryan Wood, an employment lawyer in Chicago. “Choose wisely and think strategically. Find people with power who can help.”
Of course, only talk of the harassment to select people. “Don’t become the topic of office gossip, don’t tout your plan to your harasser, and don’t be loose-lipped,” says Magas. “If you need witnesses, be careful about whom you choose. Make sure those you confide in are loyal to you and won’t tip off anybody about the case you’re building. You want this to be a clear-cut case of ‘My rights were violated, here’s how,’ and not ‘I ruined so-and-so’s reputation by spreading rumors of harassment.’ Be smart and protect yourself as best you can.”
Go through proper channels.
When reviewing your firm’s policy, find out to whom you’re supposed to report any case of sexual harassment. Often this is the firm’s human resource director. “The firm’s handbook or policy will provide the proper channel for any complaint that you submit,” explains Matthew J.P. Coffman, an employment attorney in Columbus, Ohio. “After determining what that is, the employee should submit a complaint which is crucial because courts have found that employers are not vicariously liable for actions of their employees unless the harasser is a supervisor or unless the sexual harassment has been reported.”
Another option: “The employee also can file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or similar state agency,” says Steven Adler, who has practiced employment law for 35 years and is co-chair of his firm’s labor and employment law practice group in New Jersey. “There are anti-retaliation provisions in federal and state employment laws to protect victims who come forward in any of those ways.”
Of course, if you are a victim of sexual assault—defined as unwanted sexual touching—that’s a crime that should be reported to the police, adds Adler.
Know your risks.
“Speaking out is risky and starts a process that frequently ends with a job change,” explains Wood. “Understanding that likely outcome and being prepared for it is key. Of course, having a shiny new job offer in your pocket is leverage that can make reporting harassment more tolerable.”
Another consideration: If you report sexual harassment, think about how that will affect your ability to land other jobs in the future. “It’s difficult to control what information a law firm may disclose to a prospective employer should the victim leave the firm,” says Adler. “Always consider confidentiality clauses in separation agreements and language concerning what information the firm can, and cannot, disclose. Do firms abide by such agreements? Not always.” However, Adler has a helpful suggestion: “Some people retain investigators to make pretext phone calls to former employers acting as if they are considering hiring the victim to find out what the law firm really is saying about them.”
Lastly, don’t assume that your firm will fire your harasser. “Once the employer receives notice of the sexual harassment, it has duty to investigate and take action as necessary depending upon its findings,” explains Coffman. “However, the employer is not required to terminate the harasser and it may choose to
take other action, such as transferring the harasser away from the harassed employee.”
Consider legal action.
If you follow the proper channels and report the harassment, your employer should take action. If they don’t, you might want to consider at least speaking with an employment lawyer. “If the employer fails to take immediate and effective investigative and corrective action, or terminates the complaining associate without an independent and legitimate good faith reason, then the associate should seek advice from an experienced employment law litigator,” suggests Lipinsky.
Also, choose a lawyer wisely. “If you consult a lawyer, find one committed to helping you achieve your goals, not theirs,” suggests Wood. “That may require the lawyer to operate behind the scenes, not in the spotlight, and may mean delaying agency or court filings until absolutely necessary. But that’s probably what’s best for your career.”
Remember, it’s your choice.
Of course, whether or not you come forward is a very personal decision. “When it comes to reporting sexual harassment, disgusting as it is, you’re going to have to choose between different levels of embarrassment: Do you continue to let your predator embarrass and humiliate and hurt you at work…or do you tackle all those feelings and report him or her?” says Zimmerman. “Each person has to make this decision for him or herself, but the sooner you do, the better.” Adds Wood: “Harassment in any form is unacceptable, but there’s no shame in doing what’s best for you or your family given the ramifications of reporting harassment at work.” Bottom line: Know your risks and know your rights. Then make the decision that’s right for you.