Among the many feelings stirred up by the current #MeToo moment is the guilt associated with the bosses we didn’t report. It seems like just about every woman I know has encountered abuse or harassment in the workplace and has been thinking about the way she handled it at the time. If you didn’t report a former boss, is it worth doing so months or even years after the fact? How do you balance the potential for retaliation with the feeling of obligation to other women? Many of us feel like we don’t have the tools to evaluate our options. To find out more, I turned to experts, asking career coaches, human-resources experts, attorneys, and even a priest about deciding whether to report a former boss for harassment.
1. Start by deciding what you want.
Reporting bad behavior is not an end in itself, so first you need to figure out your goal, says Dee Poku, a former film-industry executive who runs Women Inspiration & Enterprise, a leadership network and training program for women in business. “The question is, what are you hoping to gain or change?” Poku says. The most common desired outcomes, according to several experts, are winning financial remuneration, drawing attention to a company’s culture, punishing the offender through firing or criminal charges, protecting other women, or simply recovering from the trauma. “It may be that it’s something you’ve never talked about and now you choose to share it with friends and colleagues, and maybe that’s enough,” Poku adds. My mom, Gail Greenwell, an Episcopal priest who often counsels people trying to cope with traumatic events, recommends making a flowchart to figure out your desired outcome. Because not all options are going to be possible, she says it’s important to ask, “Where’s the cutoff line where it isn’t going to feel worth it to you?”
2. Mitigate the complicating factors.
The post-Weinstein era has exposed myriad ways companies have to dismiss or avoid responsibility for workplace harassment. Janine Truitt, who runs a management-consulting firm and an academy for women looking to reenter the workforce, switched careers after a decade in corporate HR because “in a lot of ways,” she felt, “HR aids and abets the things we’re seeing right now,” by finding any excuse to dismiss legitimate issues.
Creating a paper trail can help force an HR department to take you seriously, Truitt says. If you have any documents that corroborate your story — which may mean something as simple as Gchat transcripts from the time — save them so you can present them if asked for evidence. If the company has an employee handbook specifying how complaints should be registered, make sure to follow every step. But it’s also understandable to weigh whether you’re in a position to take on the risks associated with reporting: namely, retaliation that many people fear could result in a blow to their reputations or even losing their jobs, in addition to the more basic sacrificing of their privacy. “My inclination is always to say speak up, but there is no shame in deciding you can’t afford the consequences right now,” Truitt says.
3. Assemble your allies.
The risk of retaliation is all too real, but the harm can be lessened by having a strong support system. If you know other women who were harmed by the same person, talk to them about the possibility of coming forward as a group. But even if you don’t, lining up people who will confirm your story if questioned and stand up for you on social media can be helpful — and don’t think just about women. “If you can find male allies, that can be the best of all,” Poku says, “because, sadly, those in positions of power are generally more inclined to believe other men.” Experts agree that women of color and those who are queer or trans face special risks, so they may consider seeking the support of an organization that represents diversity in their industry, like Women in Film for Poku’s former industry, or Ellen Pao’s tech nonprofit Project Include. “When you look at the majority of the women who have come forward, they’re white cis women, and that’s no accident,” Poku says. “You don’t want to go into freefall out by yourself, so the bottom line is: Do not do this alone.”
4. Talk to a lawyer.
Even if you don’t plan to pursue legal action, an attorney can help you consider all your options, says Martha McBrayer of McBrayer Law, who specializes in sexual-harassment cases and has won several multimillion-dollar verdicts for her clients. Many sexual-harassment attorneys, including McBrayer, work on contingency, meaning you wouldn’t have to pay them unless you won a monetary reward. “Where perpetrators are not held accountable, they will repeat that behavior,” she says. “It can be useful to get the story out, but that doesn’t compensate someone for what they went through.” A lawyer can also help make sure you’ve followed the company’s protocol exactly, which strengthens your case. “You should play them at their own game. Do everything the way they say you should,” Truitt says. “And then if they’ve done nothing, now you’ve got a paper trail, so you can go the legal route or go to the press.”
5. Make peace with your decision.
Whether you decide to report or not, your own emotional health is paramount. If you’re having trouble moving on from a past event, research-based strategies include finding a therapist, opening up to your friends and family, and taking up a mindfulness practice like meditation or yoga. Making peace can also mean taking a more active role in the fight against toxic work cultures. Truitt recommends developing a plan for taking action the next time you encounter someone being harassed or abused: speaking up in the moment, reporting it to a superior, and/or making the victim feel supported. “Letting your experiences inform your future choices is some small way you can give back and stand up for your fellow sister,” she says.