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Career and Interview Tips

Tips For Dealing With Workplace Harassment, Even When You Don’t Know If A Line Has Been Crossed

This presidential election has brought the harsh reality of sexual harassment in the workplace to the forefront of the news cycle. At PowerToFly we’re a company on a mission to increase employment opportunities for women with businesses that practice diversity and inclusion. So we’re glad this conversation is happening across our social feeds, amongst our friends and on our favorite news shows. In the last few weeks, millions of women have come forward with stories about harassment at the office, on the street and in their own homes.

Of the 100,000 women on the PowerToFly platform, we can estimate that 33,000 to 50,000 of them have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, based on two surveys we conducted from 2015 and 2016, respectively. A separate survey by the Guardian estimates that only 25% of women experiencing sexual harassment have reported their harassers.

One thing we talk about at PowerToFly is “where do you draw the line?” Over the last few weeks politicians, our friends, our family members have all had different opinions on what constitutes as language condoning sexual assault. And that’s a major problem with sexual harassment in the workplace. Women often rationalize that a line might not have been crossed not because the line wasn’t crossed, but because they’re wary of reporting cases that society has dismissed time and time again. Overt sexual harassment is clear, but it’s the comment you might get once a month from a coworker about your outfit or feedback in a meeting that starts to make you realize you’re being discriminated against because of your sex.

What Do We Do?

The first step to pushing back at work is awareness. PowerToFly’s Cofounder and President, Katharine Zaleski recently told

“One of the things that women struggle with most at work is that they don’t have other people recognizing what’s happened to them. Your boss says something very creepy to you and you look around the room and everybody pretends it never happened. That was what was happening in the Donald Trump situation but now you have millions of women who are coming out and saying “Hey, we’re pretty sure this happened but the reason we’re pretty sure this happened is because it happened to us.” That’s what’s happening here.”

Katharine recently discussed the importance of being aware for your colleagues while interviewing Maxine Williams, the Head of Global Diversity at Facebook. Maxine talked about how every Monday she meets with new Facebook hires to teach them how transparency and awareness is the first step to building an inclusive environment where pervasive issues like sexual harassment can be tackled immediately. Maxine also discussed how people find allies at Facebook individually or through “circles” which she says are “groups of pairs supporting each other.” Watch in minute fourteen to hear the discussion.

OK, But I’m Not At Facebook…Or A Big Company

We’ve worked in startups and know what it’s like to not have an HR department. We also know of situations where your harasser is your boss. Here are some tips:

If you can safely confront the harasser:

Tell them to stop. Tell them what they’re doing is harassment and making you feel uncomfortable. Do it in front of other people if that makes you feel more comfortable.

We know this is an incredibly difficult conversation to have, and being confrontational about this kind of inappropriate behavior is as scary as the harassment. Again, if you feel safe doing so, here is some language you can use:

“It makes me uncomfortable when you discuss my appearance. Please stop making these kinds of comments.”

“Your comments about my sex life are inappropriate and unprofessional. This is not up for discussion, so stop raising it.”

If you feel unsafe, and physically or verbally under threat:

Go to the police immediately. You can file a police report, and even request a temporary restraining order.

Language you could use:

“I’m being harassed by a coworker and feel unsafe. I want to file a police report and learn about options to keep me safe from their behavior.”

If you do have an HR department:

Report it immediately. Bring documentation of any kind — emails, eyewitnesses, dates and times of specific incidents.

Language you could use:

“[Coworker] has made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe working here with their behavior and actions towards me. I want to report the harassment I’ve been subjected to by them.”

If you don’t have an HR department:

Tell your supervisor (if they are not your harasser), the CEO, anyone in a position of power. Tell a trusted coworker and ask them to come with you when you report it. Whoever makes key decisions in the company is a good point of contact to make a complaint.

Language you could use:

“Because we don’t have an HR department, I want to report to you that I’m being harassed by [coworker] and I feel uncomfortable and unsafe working with him/her. I need your help as well as the company’s.”

If your harasser is your boss:

Tell their boss (if there is one). Tell anyone in a position of power at the company — even a subordinate to a boss can have a position of power within the framework of a company.

Language you could use:

“Because [boss] is my boss, I’m reporting his/her harassment of me to you. I need your help navigating next steps and how to report them.”

If you have to continue working with your harasser:

Tell them (if you feel you safely can) you will only discuss work matters with them. Ask HR what safety and comfort measures they can put in place for you. If you don’t have HR, ask a trusted coworker if they can be your safety contact and accompany you when you need to interact with your harasser. This is the harsh reality of working with a harasser: often times, women will need to continue working with them for a variety of reasons.

Language you could use:

To HR: “Because this investigation is ongoing and we are both working here, I need measures put in place to ensure my safety. Can you move their work station/can they be taken off this shared project/other specific request? How is [company] prepared to help me feel safe here while we are both still working here every day?”

To trusted coworker: “I’ve filed a harassment complaint about [harasser], but we are both working here while the incidents are being reviewed. Can you be my safety contact and help me so I don’t have to interact with with [harasser]?”

To harasser: “While we are still working alongside each other, I must insist any contact we have be solely about work.”

We hope this helps and we’re always available at PowerToFly to hear about your experiences and to give feedback. We’ve dedicated ourselves to placing women with supportive, inclusive companies and hope you can also share whether you’re currently at an organization that exhibits that. We like positive stories we can all learn from!

At PowerToFly we look for businesses that have women in senior management; whose parental leave policies provide a realistic timeline for welcoming a woman back to work; where hiring managers have written their own inclusion policies and include them in their job descriptions; where sexual harassment policies are in place, stringent, and taken seriously. We place our community members in positions where there is a system of support, a visible career trajectory to upper management, and where being a woman doesn’t make them feel like the “other.” Your career is a huge part of your life and your life is a huge part of your career. You deserve to be in an environment where you never have to question if a line is being crossed.


Additional reporting by Marie Elizabeth Oliver and Katharine Zaleski


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