Chelsea Jones* thought she’d feel relieved.
In the spring, Jones’ employer agreed to settle her claims that she was sexually harassed by her manager. The matter was handled out of court, and Jones is not allowed to discuss the terms of the settlement. She agreed to share her story with MagnifyMoney under the condition of anonymity. We have changed her name and other identifying details in this story.
Soon after her settlement was finalized, Jones tendered her resignation. It was the end of a months-long battle to convince her employer that her manager’s unrelenting advances — offers to rub her back, late night texts and weekend phone calls — were worthy of of retribution.
But it was hardly a victory. Six months later, Jones, a single mother of a young daughter, is cashing unemployment checks and struggling to find a new job. As far as she knows, her former boss is right where she left him.
“The worst part is that I second-guess myself now,” said Jones, reflecting on the harassment, which she said began after she received a promotion last year. “I’m a hard worker, and I feel like I do a good job. But what if I’m not? Was I really good, or was it always about something else?”
Whether the employee is a famous news anchor or an office assistant, reporting sexual harassment at work is never an easy battle to wage alone. It’s arguably more difficult for the average worker, who may not feel they have the professional clout or the financial means to take action. Workers filed roughly 6,800 sexual harassment charges through the Equal Employment Opportunity Office in 2015, down 14% since 2010.
For Jones, speaking up was only the first of many challenges she faced. While her attorney squared off against her company’s legal team behind closed doors, she continued coming to work each day, where she said she was subjected to an increasingly hostile environment.
Even filing a simple human resources complaint can be rife with complications, exposing workers to forms of retaliation that, while illegal, can make it difficult to muster the willpower to keep fighting.
“[Workers] can be fired or suffer other consequences,” said Gary Young, an attorney who specializes in workplace harassment issues at the business law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck. “Even if you have your day in court and are vindicated, it can be a long road and it’s tough to go through the process.”
No one understands that process better than Jones.
Jones was in her late 20s when she started working for the Boston-area firm in 2013. For Jones, it was something of a professional comeback. She had recently ended a marriage and went back to school to earn her Associate’s Degree. She was thrilled to be hired and eagerly accepted a promotion a couple of years later.
The new title came with a higher salary and, she soon discovered, an increasing amount of unwanted attention from her boss.
“We were at a conference together, and he was offering to give me a back massage, to put his arms around my shoulders,” said Jones, now 30. The advances continued for months. According to Jones, her manager insisted on buying her gifts on her birthday and began texting her late at night and on weekends. She asked her manager to stop his advances, to no avail.
Worried that her coworkers would get the wrong impression about their relationship, Jones decided to report his behavior to her human resources manager.
“I was hoping to resolve the issue [through HR], and change my position so I was no longer sitting outside of his office,” Jones told MagnifyMoney. “My goal wasn’t to file a lawsuit.”
Dead-ends and demotions
HR proved to be a dead end. As a solution, her HR manager offered to put Jones in an administrative role in another part of the company. The new job would have moved her out from under her manager’s purview, but it was effectively a demotion.
She turned the offer down. In the ensuing weeks, her boss increasingly began cutting back her job duties, she said. He yanked her budget for a previously approved work project. She was told she could no longer use support staff to see the project through.
At a loss for what to do, Jones posted a message on a Facebook support group for single working moms. A member referred her to an employment attorney in her area, who offered her a free consultation.
“He said I’m young and if I file a lawsuit it will become public record and it could hurt my future employment,” Jones said. She agreed to give it another try with HR.
When she submitted another complaint, Jones said she received a warning: HR had noticed her performance was slipping and her colleagues were complaining. It was clear she was getting nowhere.
Jones went back to the attorney, who agreed to take her case. The attorney compiled all of Jones’ allegations — she had documented every unwanted advance, phone call and text message from her manager over the years — and sent a letter to her company informing them of the pending lawsuit.
“Once [my boss] got the letter, obviously it made everything way more hostile,” she said. “He didn’t speak a single word to me. I was going [to work each day] having no work to do. Then they started putting me on odds and end jobs not even related to what I was supposed to do there.”
She considered quitting, but Jones’ attorney encouraged her to hang tight.
It can in some cases help workers in sexual harassment cases if they keep working, said Paula Brantner, an attorney with Workplace Fairness, a non-profit that promotes employee rights, says . “First of all, you are required to give the company a chance to rectify the problem,” Bratner said. Quitting before a complaint is resolved can also remove some of the bargaining power in settlement negotiations. Companies are often eager to keep matters like sexual harassment under wraps.
Staying on the job can also give workers the opportunity to keep track of any retaliatory behavior. Workplace harassment lawsuits are often stronger if workers can prove their employer retaliated against them after they took matters to human resources. In Jones’ case, she was offered a demotion and her job duties shrank.
“Even if the initial harassment claim fails, the retaliation claim can subject the employer to as much or more liability as the underlying harassment claim,” said Brantner. “Judges and juries don’t like to see people [follow proper protocol], only to be subjected to more injustice.”
When her attorney reached a settlement with her employer, Jones decided to accept.
“One of the reasons I accepted a settlement instead of going to trial is that I didn’t want to be publicly seen as a woman who files these claims,” she said.
Her allegations will never be made public, but the ordeal has effectively stymied the beginning of what was a promising new career. Jones is still looking for a new job. She worries about using her former employer as a professional reference, despite the fact that it was her first significant job in her chosen profession. While she continues her job search, Jones is studying part-time to complete her Bachelor’s degree. Under the terms of her settlement, she was entitled to collect unemployment benefits, which has given her a bit of a financial cushion. Her settlement award remains in a savings account, untouched.
“My goal with the settlement wasn’t just to get some payday,” she said. “I’d like to think it was enough to make him stop [doing this to other women].”
Handling harassment at work
We’ve spoken with legal experts and put together some tips for workers who feel they are facing harassment at work.
Identify the unwelcome behavior. Brantner, who has represented workers in harassment lawsuits, says the first thing to do is to recognize when you are being sexually harassed. She says sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances or verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is made explicitly or implicitly a term of your employment. It can also be conduct that interferes with your work or creates a hostile work environment.
Report the behavior to your human resources department or other supervisor. When you’ve identified the unwelcome behavior, Brantner says the next step is to report it and ask that it stop. “If the behavior continues after you have clearly communicated that you wish it to stop, you need to decide if you wish to take further action,” she says.
Document everything. If you want to bolster your case, Young suggests documenting any evidence of harassment. Keep a log that includes dates and times, as well as descriptions of the offensive behavior. Note your attempts to speak with human resources and the outcomes. Save emails and written notes to back you up. In some states it is illegal to record conversations without the other person’s knowledge, so check your state’s laws or consult an attorney before you take that route.
Be on alert for any form of retaliation. Speaking up about harassment in the workplace can trigger retaliatory behavior from colleagues. It’s important to keep close track of anything your colleagues may do in order to undermine your position after you have spoken up about harassment. The person you are accusing of harassment might try to make it difficult for you to do your job, or, in Jones’ case, demote you or remove your job duties. Document these instances carefully in order to support your case.
If your employer doesn’t act, contact a lawyer or the EEOC. If you aren’t getting results with your employer, Young recommends visiting the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website to learn about filing a charge. You can use the EEOC’s assessment tool to get a better idea of what to expect. It takes about five minutes to use the tool, and you will be directed as to your next course of action. Some states have rules on how much time can go by before harassment suits are filed. The EEOC can help you expedite the process if needed.
Money doesn’t have to mean everything. Even if you don’t have unlimited financial resources to hire a legal team, you still have options. Many lawyers will take on workplace harassment cases on a contingency basis, which means they are paid once you have a settlement or win the lawsuit. For example, Jones’ attorney accepted a percentage of her settlement earnings as payment and collected no other fees. If you file with the EEOC or the Department of Labor, or with the appropriate office in your state, the government will investigate if there is probable cause to pursue a lawsuit.
Edited by Mandi Woodruff
Illustrations by Kelsey Wroten
*Names, dates and locations have been changed.