People often ask why it is that women don’t speak up when they suffer sexual harassment in the workplace. There are several main reasons. Many fear they have no power to change the situation. Others worry that complaining about a hostile work environment would not reflect well on them professionally. Many, however, don’t report the problem because they fear direct retaliation from the perpetrator or their employer.
Far too often, employers punish the messenger when they don’t like the message. They ignore, demote, reassign or even fire people who make workplace complaints — even though this retaliation is illegal. More subtly, employers and supervisors may punish complainers by refusing to act favorably toward them when warranted, such as by denying choice assignments or withholding raises and promotions.
In 2018, researchers analyzed over 46,000 charges of sexual harassment filed with the EEOC. They found that 65% of women who had filed complaints were subsequently fired. But is retaliation still happening?
Retaliation is still going on despite #MeToo
The #MeToo movement encourages women to be open about their experiences with sexual harassment, in part so that the world can see how pervasive it is in our society. After the movement’s popularity exploded, we might hope that there would be some visible improvement in the way sexual harassment complaints are handled. Newly enlightened, would people still retaliate against victims?
They very well might. A Stanford University doctoral student ran an experiment in late 2017 and early 2018 to gauge whether the average person would be willing to promote a woman who had reported sexual harassment at work.
About 200 people were asked to pretend to be a manager who was considering whether “Sarah,” a fictional sales associate, should be promoted. The people were divided into five groups, each of which received a different version of Sarah’s file.
Four of the groups were told that Sarah had been sexually harassed by a male colleague. The fifth group was not told of the harassment. Among the four groups that were told of it, some were told that Sarah had reported the harassment herself, while others were told that a co-worker had reported it.
Overall, the participants who were told of the sexual harassment were less likely to promote Sarah than those who were not. Those who were told that Sarah self-reported the harassment were significantly less likely to promote her than those who were told a co-worker reported it.
If you are facing sexual harassment, discuss your situation with an experienced employment law attorney before taking any concrete steps. This can help you present a strong claim and limit the possibility of unlawful retaliation.