“Although this was a difficult step to take, I had to stand up for myself and speak out for all women and the next generation of women in the workplace.”
-Gretchen Carlson, New York Times Interview (7/12/2016)
On July 6, 2016, newscaster Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit, alleging that she had been a victim of sexual harassment while working for Fox News. Ms. Carlson’s complaint asserts that Roger Ailes, the network’s chief, had made sexual advances and threatened adverse employment actions if she refused. She also claims that a 2013 pay cut and demotion were linked to rejected sexual advances.
Soon after Ms. Carlson’s filing, approximately another dozen women claimed they had been victims of Mr. Ailes’ sexual harassment. Mr. Ailes strongly denies any wrongdoing.
Subsequently, Mr. Ailes stepped down from his position at Fox News. (The network has indicated that Mr. Ailes’ departure is not related to the sexual harassment claims.) However, both he and Fox News may now face sexual harassment and employment discrimination claims from female employees. The related litigation may be extended, considering the number of potential plaintiffs.
Unfortunately, powerful individuals can use their reputation, influence, and celebrity to silence victims of sexual harassment. While we do not know all of the facts in the Fox News cases, there are some important lessons to be learned from the allegations.
Sexual Harassment Can Happen Anywhere and To Anyone
There are two kinds of sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo harassment, which involves offers of professional advancement (or threats of demotion or termination) in exchange for sexual favors, and
- Hostile work environment, where there is pervasive sexual hostility or misogyny in the workplace.
Both forms of harassment are illegal under state and federal law. The claims against Mr. Ailes primarily are of quid pro quo harassment.
While women are the most frequent victims of sexual harassment, men also may have valid claims. The perpetrators of sexual harassment can be either a man or woman—and same-sex harassment also occurs. Sexual harassment is present at a wide variety of workplaces—from factory floors to executive offices. As Ms. Carlson’s claims demonstrate, even high profile employees may become victims.
Understand the Statute of Limitations in Sexual Harassment Claims
Before you file a federal lawsuit, you must first file an EEOC complaint. EEOC complaints must be filed within 180 or 300 days of the discrimination, depending on the circumstances. The EEOC will investigate your claims and may issue a “right to sue” letter. You must file a federal lawsuit within 90 days of receiving this letter.
You may also have claims under state law. Statutes of limitations vary from state-to-state. You may have to file a complaint with your state’s anti-discrimination agency before filing your lawsuit.
Statutes of limitations are unforgiving. If you do not file a sexual harassment lawsuit within the correct deadlines, your claim will be dismissed. Because sexual harassment lawsuits involve strict filing procedures and deadlines, it may be in your best interest to speak with an experienced discrimination lawyer early on.
What Can Women Do to Get Their Stories Out Sooner?
It is understandable why many women stay quiet about sexual harassment. Complaints may result in workplace tension, retaliation, and emotional distress. Some victims decide simply to quit their jobs and move on.
However, it is important that women (and male victims) enforce their rights. We need to actively combat the stigma surrounding reporting harassment. And, victims of sexual harassment may be entitled to a variety of damages, including compensation for lost wages, pain and suffering, and even job reinstatement.
Gender bias and harassment are a part of many workplaces—the increase in caregiver discrimination and the EEOC’s steady volume of gender-based claims are evidence of this. Filing a sexual harassment complaint can be emotionally difficult. You may face retaliation and public scrutiny. Unfortunately, silence will not fix the problem.
It may be tempting to ignore harassment—or laugh it off as friendly horseplay. However, sexual harassment is illegal and harmful. It can permeate a workplace and result in poor work performance, low employee retention, and homogeneity. (Studies have shown that diverse workplaces are more productive and agile.)
As a culture, we need to combat and discourage sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. A lawsuit can force a business to evaluate and change its practices and workplace policies.
Document the Harassment and Subsequent Retaliation
In order to win a sexual harassment claim, you need evidence. Keep copies of any emails, text messages, or other harassing communications. You also should keep copies of any complaints you made to Human Resources (as well as HR’s responses). This documentation will help support your claim and give you a better chance of winning.
Seek Counseling and Emotional Support
Again, sexual harassment litigation can be difficult. Because many claims are “he said, she said,” your credibility may be scrutinized. You may face retaliation or hostility at work. Nonetheless, it is important that we take a stand against sexual harassment and discrimination. By reporting harassment, you may protect other potential victims, change workplace policy, and recover damages.
A counselor or support group may provide the emotional help you need during a harassment investigation and lawsuit. Consider career or vocational counseling to help rebuild your resume and restore confidence.
Hire a Sexual Harassment Lawyer
A sexual harassment lawyer can also provide important support and guidance. A lawyer can assure that you meet filing deadlines, prepare you for an investigation and lawsuit, and help you change your workplace’s culture and behaviors. Additionally, legal representation can help you secure fair compensation for your damages.