Three Lessons Women Can Learn From Donald Trump's Accusers

One of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's chief defenses against charges that he inappropriately touched women over the years has been deceptively straightforward: If this really happened, why didn't they speak up at the time?

As an attorney who regularly works with women fighting sexual harassment on the job, these women's reticence to come forward rings true to me, however.

Many women who have faced this kind of behavior worry that speaking up will cost them their job and reputation. They fear that no one will believe them and their career will be damaged. They second-guess themselves, thinking that they may have brought it on themselves somehow.

But, like Trump's accusers, they also come to regret not speaking up earlier.

Natasha Stoynoff, a journalist with People magazine who wrote about the allegedly sexually predatory behavior by Donald Trump, said that after seeing the Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging about "grabbing" women she felt she should have done something sooner.

"I felt deep regret for not speaking out at the time," she wrote. "What if he had done worse to other female reporters at the magazine since then because I hadn't warned them?"

So what can you learn from this? Here are three major lessons for women who've experienced unwanted attention in the workplace.

1. Don't think that your choice is between doing nothing or becoming a public piñata.

Many women fear taking action because they see women in high-profile sexual harassment cases having their personal lives being dragged through the mud.

But the choice is not that dire. There is a third option: report the conduct to human resources (or the entity designated in your company's handbook). Then negotiate a severance so you can leave the company to find another place where management respects women.

If your company has 15 or more employees, reporting any incidents to human resources will make it illegal for your company to take action against you for reporting the harassment, which is called retaliation. It gives you two potential claims instead of one. Some states, such as the District of Columbia, have laws that cover even smaller companies.

Why ask for a severance? There are two reasons: First, the company now has some legal exposure in the form of a potential sexual harassment claim. It would like that claim to go away, and the way to do that is to offer you a severance in exchange for releasing those claims. This gives you a nest egg to use as you move on to find another job. Second, you can also require that your company give you a positive reference if contacted by any prospective future employers.

2. Understand that this is not justice, it's business.

There are some things to keep in mind if you report the incident(s) to human resources. First, understand that HR is not likely to help you. Your human resources officer's job at the end of the day is to protect the company. Chances are that if you report harassment, your future at the company is over. That means that when you report to HR -- best to do it in writing -- you are doing it not because you really expect help. You're doing it to maximize your leverage against the company.

Another reason to report the harassment is that in some instances the law requires that you report a claim if you later have to go to court. If you fail to report, even if your company's policy is bogus, you might lose your right to sue later on. Of course, if it turns out that your company really will do the right thing, then all the better.

3. Remember, it's not just your word against his.

Many women don't come forward because they fear it will be their word against their assailant's. But testimony from a witness is more compelling than you might believe.

I represented a woman who confronted her boss about his harassment. His response: "What are you going to do about it? It will just be your word against mine," implying that she didn't have enough to make a case against him. But she did.   Remember that testimony from a witness -- in this case the woman subject to harassment -- is enough evidence to win a case. When I was a prosecutor I obtained criminal convictions based on nothing more than witness testimony. I didn't have video tapes, emails or a CSI-type bag of tricks. 

Also remember that voice recordings can be evidence. Many states are what is called one-party consent state, like Virginia and the District of Columbia. Want to find out about the law in your state? Do a Google search "Is [insert your state here] a one-party consent state?" If it is, it means it is perfectly legal to record a conversation as long as one person participating knows about the recording.   But even in cases where you may believe it is your word against his, that doesn't necessarily mean that you will have only your testimony. As with what is happening to Donald Trump, one allegation can open the floodgates to similar stories that can be used as evidence to support yours.

Sexual harassment and assault remains a serious issue. For too long women have endured it in silence feeling it's just the cost of being a woman in the workplace. It's not. Fighting back does not require a trip to the courthouse and knowing your options is the first step in gaining control and protecting your legal rights to not be harassed.

Click here to access the Spiggle Law Firm's free Employee's Guide to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.   Tom Spiggle is author of the book "You're Pregnant? You're Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace."He is founder of the Spiggle Law Firm, which has offices in Arlington, Va., and Nashville, Tenn., where he focuses on workplace law helping protect the rights of clients facing sexual harassment in the workplace and wrongful termination. To learn more, visit: www.spigglelaw.com