Our education system fails to prepare women to confront the harshest realities of entering the workforce. This is despite the fact that numerous studies demonstrate that women continue to experience high rates of sexual harassment in the workplace. In a 2018 study, the Center for Talent Innovation found that one out of every three women had experienced sexual harassment at work. Two years earlier, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Select Taskforce Study found that number to be 25 percent to 85 percent. Additionally, according to a survey conducted by Essence magazine, 45 percent of Black women report experiencing racism most frequently in the workplace.
I’m one of those women. I experienced racial discrimination and sexual harassment at Amazon, but after years of suffering in silence, I chose to stand up for myself and other employees. In March, I sued the company.
Through the process of filing a formal internal complaint, identifying legal representation, and publicly filing suit, I have learned four critical lessons about dealing with harassment and discrimination at work. Had I been given more direction and guidance from the start, I certainly would have been able to deal with workplace harassment and racial discrimination with greater savvy. I hope that by sharing my experiences, other women will be better equipped to navigate and overcome hostile work environments.
1. Negotiate everything
The terms of your employment are often set before you officially join. Now, many career counselors and online tools like InHerSight help women understand that negotiating pay is critical. However, other aspects of employment agreements are little understood and often overlooked. Confidentiality and noncompete agreements can be a standard part of your employment agreement. In the excitement of receiving an offer for a new role, it’s easy to gloss over a noncompete. However, should you need to leave your employer because of concerns like sexual harassment, you may quickly find your employment options are extremely limited. I learned this the hard way. After I reported the ongoing sexual harassment to which I was subjected, I asked for relief from my noncompete. My employer refused. If I leave Amazon, which I haven’t, I will face 18 months of being virtually locked out of the job market. That is why you must try to negotiate every aspect of your employment.
2. Document, document, document
If nothing else, remember to document your experiences. This will help preserve the facts of what happened and make them easier to recall later. After I reported being sexually harassed and discriminated against, I was asked very specific and pointed questions, including details about meals and the names of individuals who were present during certain incidents. To ensure you capture your experiences in real time, you can keep a journal or send periodic emails to yourself or a loved one.
Documentation can take many forms. However, how you capture your experiences matters. Should you choose to journal or take written notes, be as specific as you can about each incident, including the people directly involved and any witnesses who might be present. Also, note the location and time of day. And, if you can, try and include details that will help you remember each incident. Also, before you decide to capture audio or video recordings, be sure to check company policy and the legality of this step by referencing the applicable state law.
3. Know your rights
It is crucial that you know your rights. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects you from employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The pain of sexual harassment can last a lifetime. However, under Title VII, you have less than one year—300 days—from the date of the last incident to file a complaint with the EEOC to seek legal redress. State laws and other federal laws may provide additional protection if they are applicable to your situation, but keeping the more conservative federal time limit in mind will serve you well. For example, for workplace discrimination involving race, you may have four years to file a complaint under Section 1981 (a post–Civil War law), but do not assume that and explore and get information on your legal options and rights early on. Understanding the legal protections that I had crystallized my decision to report harassment and discrimination at work.
Do not hesitate to seek input from counsel if you have questions about your rights. Word of mouth can help you identify an employment lawyer. However, if you do not feel comfortable asking your network, you can likely obtain a referral from your state’s bar association. Develop a short list of three to five firms to start and talk to as many attorneys as you can before making a decision. You should also understand that law firms often have a managing partner or a committee of partners that decides which cases the firm takes. If a firm passes on your case, this may in no way reflect on the legitimacy of your claims or the strength of your case.
4. We are all capable of acts of bravery at work
Before I filed my lawsuit on March 1, 2021, I was afraid about how I might be judged. We all know survivors of sexual harassment and racial discrimination are often discredited. I feared that this would happen to me. I worried about appearing weak and derailing my career. Fearing the worst, I suffered in silence for far too long. I now know that there is incredible strength in speaking our truth and using our voices for common good. I feel more whole confronting events that I was ashamed of than I ever did while I remained silent.
Taking the above steps might initially seem like a Herculean lift. However, know that you are already brave enough to overcome any fear. May you never confront what I have. But, should you need these tips, know that you have what you need inside of you to seek justice and hold others accountable.
Countless women have contacted me to share that upon hearing my story, they were galvanized to share their own or stand up for themselves. Some decided to challenge being down-leveled or receiving negative job ratings. Other women reported sexual harassment and racial discrimination. These acts of bravery resulted from learning more information about their rights and using their voice. Imagine the collective power if every woman understood her rights at work and recognized that she was already brave enough to speak up.