Do You Fight the Odds? Are You Up Against a Bill Cosby?

Question:

I work for a highly profitable company, run by a ruthless man, who operates it like his personal fiefdom. He has sexually harassed me for three months. If I try to sue, I’ll not only lose my job but won’t be employable in Anchorage. I like my job, make a good salary and there aren’t many companies in Anchorage that employ those with my skill set. The ones that could aren’t hiring given the drop in oil prices.

He began with suggestive comments. At first, I thought I read too much into his innuendos as his language is rough. Even after he brushed his hands across my breasts, I still thought I could handle the situation. But one day he grabbed me.

I went to the HR manager; he said he couldn’t help me as I didn’t have proof. I know I’m not the only woman who’s talked to him and thought he’d be willing to give me some advice, but he wants to keep his job too. I’ve considered going to the Human Rights Commission and have asked two other women to join with me on this. Both begged me not to drag them into it. I’ve heard some women have left the company to get away from this guy, but without HR’s help, I don’t know how to contact them.

I just left the CEO’s office. He’d learned I’d been to the HR manager and didn’t like it. He warned me he had an attorney on retainer and if I tried anything, he’d take me to the mat, make it clear I’d come on to him. He said what his attorney could do to me wouldn’t be as much fun as another mat.

I’m out of options and don’t have any money. Is my only option quitting?

Answer:

Occasionally, an individual with both power and money uses it. Powerful jerks can, however, be brought down. Twenty-eight women over the years feared the repercussions they’d face if they challenged television legend Bill Cosby’s alleged actions. The studio, ABC News, People magazine and the viewing world shielded Cosby from damage. Fast forward, however, to November of 2014. When multiple women added their stories together, Cosby vanished from the airwaves in disgrace. Turnabouts can happen.

“Sexually harassed employees often feel confined to two options, putting up with the harassment or quitting,” says attorney Tom Owens III. “But you have a third option — you can assert your legal right to a harassment-free workplace.” Owens suggests that employees consider making full use of every internal mechanism available to address their complaint. “Give the employer a chance to investigate the concern and take appropriate remedial action. If an internal resolution is not a realistic option, the employee can consult an attorney or one of the agency commissions at the local, state and federal levels that investigate these types of concerns.”

Owens explains that sexual harassment constitutes unlawful discrimination under both federal and state law. “An employer has an obligation to remedy harassment of which it is aware, or reasonably should be aware, and can be held legally liable for failing to do so. Even if the employer is not aware of the conduct, it can be held automatically liable for harassment by someone with supervisory authority.”

Owens is quick to add that there is no guarantee that standing up for yourself will be pain free. “It is true, unfortunately, that some employers respond to complaints of harassment by firing or otherwise punishing the person complaining. But it is important to understand that such retaliation is itself considered unlawful discrimination and could result in a sizeable damage award against the employer. It is in the employer’s interest to take these complaints seriously and handle them responsibly.”

Finally, Owens notes that the option of asserting your right to a harassment-free workplace does not require a group of other employees all making the same complaint. “Employees have a right not to be harassed even if no one else will come forward. At some point, one person needs to stand up and be counted. In doing so, that person may find they are not so alone after all.” In other words, if you take a stand, others may come forward. And even if they don’t, your employer’s retaliation could be painful — for your employer.

© Dr. Lynne Curry is author of ”Beating the Workplace Bully” and ”Solutions” as well as owner of the management/HR consulting/training firm The Growth Company Inc. Follow her on Twitter @lynnecury10 or at www.bullywhisperer.com.

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