If you think you or someone else is being harassed or discriminated against, even if you’re not sure, you probably have more options than you think.
The key is to make that first confidential phone call right away to the EEOC, before time runs out, according to Charlotte Burrows Commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Even if you don’t want to file under your own name, they can help with that. EEOC can also take action against your employer to protect you from retaliation for reporting.
The EEOC is “the primary (government) agency that deals with combatting employment discrimination,” as Burrows defined it, and their website states that “most employers with more than 15 employees are covered by EEOC laws.”
From your co-workers or friends who saw a change in your behavior after an incident, to someone you confided in at the time, or other people who have experienced similar treatment from this person, typically there is some kind of trail. Hence the hashtag “#MeToo,” used by scores of women following those who came forward with their harrowing tales of abuse and harassment from Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and comedy legend Bill Cosby.
Women are getting the message. The EEOC filed 50% more suits alleging sexual harassment in FY2018 (ended September 30th) than in 2017 and recovered nearly $70 million in compensation for victims, up from $47.5 million in 2017. The EEOC received over 554,000 calls and emails and raising a number of EEOC-related questions, plus 200,000+ inquiries, a preliminary step to fling a formal charge. That’s a 30% increase over 2017.
“People have seen …that reporting can actually change things….America has watched a report lead to some kind of real action by the employer,” is how Burrows explained the increases, and there is action taken by the legal system. Though there’s still concern that it will destroy your career if you report it, people now feel there is some protection from retaliation too.
Here are tips from Commissioner Burrows:
- Tell someone and contact the EEOC ASAP: If someone in the workplace made you feel uncomfortable, tell someone you trust and contact the EEOC immediately, even if you aren’t sure, because time is of the essence. For example, if they touched you inappropriately, said something suggestive, or overtly abused you, the EEOC will give you options and guidance.
Timing matters, because if you do have a claim, you need to file before the statute of limitations expires. Filing a charge is easier than you think, including with their new Public Portal or online inquiry and appointment system. Subcontractors have rights too.
- Make notes, keep records: Jot down who, what, when and where, as detailed as you possibly can right away. Every detail you can remember matters. Save any emails, texts and voicemails, and any other relevant records.
- Don’t let “he said, she said” stop you: The EEOC has ways to assess and prove discrimination or harassment, even if no one else was present. This is especially an issue in STEM fields, where women are often working alone or with one other person in a lab, in the field, or in a similar non-office environment. Burrows says there’s usually a pattern of behavior they can trace.
- Don’t let fear of retaliation stop you: Federal laws prohibit retaliation, according to the EEOC, and they may be able to secure compensation for you, if you are retaliated against. They secured tens of millions of dollars for victims in 2018 alone.
- Speak out about pay gaps ASAP: If you think you’re being paid less than a colleague at your level, contact the EEOC right away, because there are statutes of limitations on those too.
- If you see something, say something: This applies to the workplace as much as it does to potential threats of violence. If you see someone being treated inappropriately or unfairly – verbally, physically or in terms of compensation, how assignments or promotions are given, for example – you may be able to deflate the situation or otherwise intervene professionally. You might make a positive impact as a bystander.
If, for example, you hear an inappropriate joke, say you think it was inappropriate and/or notice if the leader says so, or laughs. If someone gets interrupted, Burrows suggested to, “go back to that person and ask them what they wanted to say.” If you think it’s a pattern of harassment, you can contact the EEOC about it.
- Share tips for creating a “Respectful Workplace” with your colleagues: The EEOC developed a program called “Respectful Workplaces” that provides trainings and tools to create positive working environments and prevent discrimination and harassment.
The idea is to “put respect and anti-discrimination in the same box as everything else that is important to the profit and loss of the business, important to the success of the business,” Burrows emphasized.
The foundation of the EEOC training is two parts: “First, the head of the organization really has to make it clear both in statements and in his or her own behavior that this is a priority…that this is in fact a value of the organization.” Second, the staff needs to know what is not tolerated, how to prevent bad behavior and what to do if they see or experience it.
I would add that, If they get away with small transgressions, the behavior could escalate. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies here too.
When in doubt, reach out.