It seems as if high-profile claims of workplace sexual harassment are cropping up daily. From Hollywood to Washington, D.C., to newsrooms across the nation, harassers ― all male, in these cases ― have been fired or publicly shamed for a range of sexual misconduct, with some instances having occurred decades ago.
While sexual harassment can include physical incidents, such as rape and groping, it can also include unwanted advances, sexual requests and “creating a hostile environment, pervasive jokes/comments, looks and body language that makes an individual feel harassed,” explained Emily Austin, a director at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, to Self magazine last month.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that one in four women face workplace harassment, while a 2015 Cosmopolitan survey concluded one in three women have been harassed at work at some point in their lives. That same survey found 71 percent of women didn’t report the issue, while the EEOC estimate is even higher, 75 percent. Shame, denial and fear of losing a job are just a few reasons victims tend to avoid coming forward right away, according to Psychology Today.
When they do come forward, it’s sometimes years after the fact, and that can make a difference in how a case is handled by both law enforcement and human resources departments.
Employees are often told how to report current episodes of harassment. But what about old ones? What if you were harassed at a previous job or the perpetrator no longer works at the same company you do? What if both of you have moved on to new jobs? It’s fair ― and responsible ― to want to warn the women or men who now work with your harasser. Unfortunately, the system doesn’t favor someone who brings forward an older case. Legal experts shared some advice about what you need to know.
In most cases, you can’t file a legal complaint or a lawsuit.
The statute of limitations refers to the amount of time you have to file a legal complaint or lawsuit against someone else. In most cases, the statute of limitations for workplace sexual harassment is either six or 10 months from the last incident, said Donna Ballman, an employment attorney in Florida who specializes in employee self-defense. So if you were harassed more than 10 months ago, you likely can’t take legal action against your harasser under federal law. However, it’s important to check your state’s timeframes for filing state and local civil rights claims, said Sunu Chandy, legal director at the National Women’s Law Center.
“Some states extend the statute of limitations under certain circumstances, usually dealing with minors,” Ballman told HuffPost. But if your case “is older than [10 months], you’re probably out of luck for a [federal] lawsuit.”
Even though you likely won’t get legal or financial recompense for being harassed in this case, it’s still worth alerting your harasser’s current employer in order to protect the women he works with now, Chandy said.
“The question is, what’s the purpose of coming forward? If the reason is to alert other individuals to this problem, then it doesn’t matter how long has gone by,” she told HuffPost.
“You may or may not get [justice]. But if you don’t come forward, you definitely won’t get it,” Chandy added.
Gather any evidence you can...
Before you alert your harasser’s current employer, gather evidence such as emails, voicemails or text message screenshots that can prove you were harassed, said David Ring, a personal injury attorney based in Los Angeles.
“Everyone’s always looking for corroboration ― like [text messages], witnesses or a paper trail ― and if there isn’t, then employers are probably going to say there’s not much they can do, because [the harassment] didn’t happen on their turf,” he told HuffPost.
Of course, gathering evidence is difficult if you were harassed years ago or the harassment occurred in passing, like brief touching or groping. If you were harassed along with other women, see if they’ll speak out with you, Ballman said.
“If a group of you came forward and said, ‘We want to put [the harasser] on notice,’ that’s stronger,” she said. “If I’m his lawyer, I’d be looking at, ‘Can I discredit two, three or 10 people?’ The more that come forward, the better.”
...and tell his current employer.
Ring suggests simply picking up the phone and calling the human resources director at your harasser’s current workplace. It’s unlikely they have any legal obligation to punish the harasser, he said, but your report could at least put them on the lookout for fishy behavior.
“Get HR on the phone, and tell your story,” Ring said. “Tell them, ‘If you ever need me in the future, I’m telling you he did this to me.’ Then the employer can either do nothing or look into it.”
Ballman recommends speaking with an employment lawyer beforehand to ensure you deliver your message in a way that won’t invite a lawsuit.
Yes, your harasser can sue you for speaking up.
While victims usually can’t collect legal damages for harassment that occurred more than 10 months ago, harassers can indeed sue victims for speaking up after the fact, Ballman said. Your harasser could file suit for defamation (harming his reputation via false information) or tortious interference (hurting his relationship with his employer).
“It’s an unfair system,” she said. “It’s why we have such a culture of sexual harassment in this country. We have a system where the women are disbelieved, where the victims are punished.”
However, you can usually rest easy if your story is true, Chandy pointed out. Defamation lawsuits argue that false information was provided against your harasser, which means that unless a jury is convinced that your true story is in fact false, you will prevail.
″[Your harasser] can bring whatever suit they want, but if the information you’re providing is true, then that person won’t be successful,” Chandy said. “Your word is evidence, and it often comes down to credibility assessments.”
Ring has a similar assessment.
“I don’t think it’s risky at all for a person who was harassed to make a complaint,” he said. “If what they’re reporting is true, then I don’t think they have much to worry about.”
Just don’t be surprised if nothing happens at all.
Your harasser’s current employer most likely won’t take any action if the incident occurred while you both worked elsewhere, according to Ring.
“They’re getting a complaint from someone they don’t know and who wasn’t under their rules, so they have no obligation to investigate,” he said. “And there could be monumental backlash if they discipline an employee for something that happened years ago under different employer. [The company] might not ignore [your report], but they’d be very cautious in how they looked into it.”
“If [the current employer] has had no complaints internally, they may look at [your report] as odd,” she said. “The first person who reports harassment is frequently met with skepticism.”
As an alternative, Ballman recommends anonymously posting your story on job review sites, such as Glassdoor, to warn future colleagues of your harasser’s behavior. There are also harassment reporting apps that let you anonymously submit your story for a manager at your harasser’s company to review.
Ultimately, Ring says, there’s no substitute for reporting right away.
With stories of long-term Hollywood harassment running rampant, “now you see the importance of reporting it in a timely fashion, because that’s when something can really be done. It’s really tough to do something 10 years after the fact. It’s not impossible, but it’s tough.”