Not only has sexual harassment gotten a lot of media attention this year; it’s spurred a lot of action, too. As more employers re-evaluate their HR systems and internal training, new channels for reporting harassment are popping up. Victims have more opportunities to report harassment episodes than ever before. However, before they file a complaint or sit down with HR, they must face a crushing amount of soul-searching and decision-making—because in the end, it’s their work and career on the line.

Harassment in the Tech Workspace

We’ve become inured to hearing about harassment in the entertainment industry. Is it as widespread a problem in tech? “Tech has grown up really fast and furious,” observed Deb Muller, founder and CEO of HR Acuity, which works with many tech companies on harassment. “These are incredibly smart people. But engineers, as brilliant as they are, aren’t always equipped to manage people.” Part of the reason why tech is experiencing so many problems, she added, is that, in the rush to build products, HR best practices (such as processes and education) haven’t been put in place at many firms. “The good news,” Muller said, “is that, as fast as tech has grown up, it’s also very nimble. Because tech is so new, companies don’t have legacy practices or a culture that’s unwilling to change, like [in] the entertainment industry.” In her work with tech companies, Muller has seen a willingness to try creative solutions: “These companies are open by design and they manage by transparency. They are open to data, too. They understand that engaged employees get the best productivity and they can measure it.” Although harassment is widespread throughout the working world, the situation only gets worse when big gender gaps come into play, according to Rita Friedman, a certified career coach in Philadelphia. “Any time there’s a gap in representation, there will be a gap in understanding. So in tech, where women are only 20 to 30 percent of the workforce, it can be worse.” The bottom line is that, even when companies try to address the issue, sexual and gender harassment are a part of the tech world’s work environment. So if you experience harassment, what can you do? (We shouldn’t have to say harassment is wrong, but we will. And since we have, we’ll also point out its business and human consequences. For example, it interferes with productivity and diverts energy from work. Why go through the trouble of hiring exceptional employees if you’re going to subject them to the worst possible working environment?)

Taking Back Control

Every day, victims have to ask themselves: “What will happen today? When will it happen? How should I respond? Should I leave? Should I tell someone?” At the heart of harassment is a person who feels their life is being impacted in ways outside their control. The key to solving it, Friedman suggests, is to gain power back. Too often, victims brush aside the first yellow flags, fearful of the consequences they’ll face by confronting the situation. However, as things worsen, emotions intensify, and you can easily begin to feel like you have no options. Before you reach that point, take control with these steps: Document. Make contemporaneous, detailed notes of what’s happening, how you feel, who else was present, who said what, behaviors, emails, etc. Start writing these things down as soon as you start feeling worried. It will give you a record if things get worse. And don’t invalidate your feelings; you may be more sensitive to the signs before others observe it. Confer. Maybe you’re not ready to go to HR or your manager. Find a colleague who you feel safe talking to and ask for validation. Has she experienced this? How has she dealt with these issues? Ask for confidentiality first. Envision options. Once you start to feel your environment’s not safe, start thinking about your exit plan. Do you want to leave the department? The company? Don’t decide to jump ship until you’ve explored what can be done within the organization to resolve the situation. Seek professional help. Consider meeting with a counselor to share your feelings. It’s nice to have friends to hash things out with, but any time you’re the victim of a crime, it’s good to have a safe and impartial place to go. It doesn’t have to be long-term (and you can always go back if you need to). Keep it confidential. Be careful when sharing with others—be they friends, colleagues or family. And that includes social media. As comforting as it might be to join with others, sharing your present experiences could backfire, hurting your job and relationships. The key is to keep control of your situation. If and when you decide to contact HR or management, here’s what you should expect, and what you’re entitled to:
  • A neutral person conducting the investigation.
  • A fair and transparent process.
  • Be kept up-to-date on the progress of the investigation. But there’s a caveat: HR is required protect the confidentiality of all parties involved.
  • To be treated with dignity and respect.
  • The offending behaviors to stop.
“The key is to regain control in a situation that is not totally within your control,” Friedman said. “The real psychological damage is the lack of power. Jobs come and go, but this can damage you for a long time. You can get another job, but you can't get another brain.” Lynne Goldman contributed reporting to this article.