Here’s how to defend yourself if you’re being sexually harassed at work, according to experts

A nationwide survey conducted by CNBC late last year found that nearly 1 in 5 American adults have been sexually harassed at work. To no one’s surprise, women were significantly more likely to say they’ve been victims of workplace sexual harassment than men. The reality is, sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new. But thanks to the Time’s Up campaign and the #MeToo movement, it’s finally get its much-needed share of attention. 

Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it’s important to be aware of what harassment looks like so you can take the necessary steps to make your workplace a safe place for you. 

As Deb Muller, founder and CEO of HR Acuity, tells HelloGiggles, “Legally speaking, sexual harassment occurs when sexual misconduct is made either explicitly or implicitly as a term or condition of employment, or an employment decision is based on whether you submit or reject such conduct.” 

Typically you’ll hear about workplace sexual harassment falling into two categories: hostile work environment, or quid pro quo. According to Muller, the former happens when sexual misconduct is “severe or pervasive” enough to interfere with your performance or creates an intimidating work environment. The latter is a this-for-that type of harassment, which occurs when an employee is forced to choose between giving into sexual demands or forfeiting an economic benefit.

“Most companies will have an ‘Anti-Harassment’ or ‘Respect in the Workplace’ policy that will typically go above and beyond what is legally required. Use those guidelines as your standard of acceptable behavior at work, she says. “But if you feel uncomfortable at work based on a comment or joke that is told, let someone know or speak up. It may not legally be sexual harassment, it may not even truly be a violation of policy, but if it makes you uncomfortable – or unsafe – make it stop!

For a lot of people, that’s easier said than done. When it comes to navigating sexual harassment at work, it can be pretty challenging. Fortunately, experts told us how you can defend yourself.

1 Find allies

“If it’s happening to you, it’s likely happening to someone else,” Jodi Lasky, CEO and founder of The Pride, tells HelloGiggles. “Support each other.”

At the same time, if you witness someone being sexually harassed, do something. For instance, if a coworker makes a lewd joke about another coworker and it makes them uncomfortable, call it out. Don’t laugh it off even if everyone else is. Don’t be a part of the problem. 

2 Keep detailed notes of the sexual harassment

Sexual harassment can sometimes start off very innocently. But once a harasser feels more comfortable, things can get worse very quickly. So it’s important to document offensive statements made, even ones that seem fairly innocuous.

“These statements are sometimes made so people can check the boundaries of what they can get away with without getting into any trouble,” Jon Street of the Employment Law Group tells HelloGiggles. “If you find yourself documenting a lot of these types of statements, or the statements are getting progressively worse, this will be good evidence for you to use when you take your claim to the HR department or supervisor at your company.” 

In addition to comments, you should also keep detailed notes on any inappropriate contact or touching. Be sure to stick to the facts. Write down who did it, what they did, the date, time, and location of the incident, and any potential witnesses. Also, it goes without saying, but make sure to keep any copies of e-mails, memos, texts, and photos that you can use to back up your claims. 

3 File a formal complaint ASAP

“I always recommend the very first thing you should do if you are victim of sexual harassment in your workplace is to make a formal complaint to your supervisor or human resources,” Ryan Mahoney, a sexual harassment attorney with Cates Mahoney, LLC, tells HelloGiggles. If you’re being harassed by your supervisor or the owner of the company you work for, you should inform another person in a management position.

Many companies have sexual harassment hotlines that you can call to make a complaint or obtain more information. So be sure to use that if it’s available. Regardless of how you make a complaint, be sure to follow all procedures outlined by your employer’s work policies. From there, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with your state’s human rights agency, and lastly, launch a lawsuit. 

“Sexual harassment claims are serious, and it’s important to get help immediately,” Mahoney says. “Remember that these types of cases have time limits to file — often 180 days from the incident, so don’t hesitate to start the process.” 

4 Keep following up

If your employer won’t do anything about it, or if you find that their handling of the situation is not satisfactory, Nate Masterson, HR manager for Maple Holistics, tells HelloGiggles there are external organizations you can turn to. An example would be the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  

“Do feel free to file a complaint with them, if your employer has not made a sufficient move,” he says. “Keep following up regardless of where you file your complaint, and don’t let it get swept under any bureaucratic rugs.” 

5 Use your body language to show you’re uncomfortable

When someone makes you uncomfortable, especially someone in a position of power, it’s not uncommon to smile politely and try to brush it off. But as Tephra Miriam, HR expert and activist, tells HelloGiggles, that’s the last thing you should do.

If you don’t feel comfortable enough to say something directly, use your body language. “Don’t shrug it off and keep smiling,” she says. “Show that you’re upset and give yourself permission to remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible.”

6 Be direct and confront your harasser as it happens

“Bullies thrive on putting others down so they can remain in control and hold power,” HR expert and consultant Laura MacLeod tells HelloGiggles “Workers need to find ways to take the power away from the bully. This may not be easy, but direct confrontation is key.” 

If someone invades your personal space or touches you in a way that’s uncomfortable, let them know in a calm and collected way. Use your body language and maintain eye contact. A direct approach sets the boundaries and lets the harasser know immediately that advances are not welcome, she says.

It might even be helpful to have one or two key phrases you can use in these types of situations like, “I’m not comfortable with that, let’s focus on work.” 

7 Don’t let it slide

As difficult as it may be, have the courage to speak up. Don’t let harassment slide.

“Some victims allow themselves to be victimized again and again because they feel powerless in these situations,” Jesse Harrison, founder and CEO of the Employee Justice Legal Team, tells HelloGiggles.

“Don’t keep the harassment to yourself and let the abuser win. Doing so will potentially put others in danger of suffering the same abuse. Don’t quit your job in a fit of rage or helplessness. You have the power to do something, and you should exercise it.

It’s beyond unfortunate that sexual harassment at work happens at all. Everyone has a right to be comfortable at their place of work. There are no exceptions. Although April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, it’s important to “embrace your voice” every single day of the year. Things can’t change unless you speak up. So we hope this list helps you have the courage to do so.