To Report or To Not Report; That is the Question

This week the New York Times published an article regarding the (in)effectiveness of going to H.R. to report sexual harassment. The article focuses on a woman, Emery Lindsley, who works in the hospitality industry and went to Human Resources (H.R.) at her former employer with a complaint of harassment. The H.R. person ignored Ms. Lindsley’s complaint. How did Ms. Lindsley know that? The H.R. person didn’t even write it down. The Times article aptly summarizes the dilemma women in the workplace face: “Women are hesitant to approach human resources departments, and those departments cite the absence of complaints as proof of a respectful workplace.”

We see this all the time in our practice. Women come to us feeling shocked that H.R. did nothing to protect them, surprised to learn that H.R. seemed more interested in protecting the company than its employees. With the rise of workplace discrimination and harassment training, workers are lulled into comfortably believing that H.R. is there to protect them. Most times, they are not. At the end of the day, every H.R. representative works for the employer, and most are not willing to risk their own job to go to bat for an employee who makes a complaint.

The other issue the article addresses is the fact that women fear they will be punished and otherwise retaliated against if they complain. A woman named Kamee Vergrager—an employment lawyer!—filed a complaint against her law firm alleging she was treated differently after she returned from maternity leave. She was later demoted and fired. We wish we could tell women that their fears are baseless. They are not, and Ms. Vergrager is a perfect example. Even though state and federal employment laws prohibit retaliation against women who complain, I can’t count of the number of times I have said to a client, “just because they can’t, doesn’t mean they won’t.”

We can understand and appreciate the difficult position of H.R., but that means employees like Ms. Lindsley and Ms. Vergrager need to protect themselves and not rely on H.R. for protection. Standing up takes bravery. It takes courage. It takes a willingness to be a risktaker, to put a job or a career on the line. That is a tall order. The #MeToo movement is making a difference. It is making women braver. It is giving more women courage. It is, we hope, making the risk a little less severe. And for the women who wish to take the next step and take legal action, we stand with you and we are here to help.

As a final note, the Times article indicates that Ms. Lindsley now works for a hotel chain in Des Moines. Ms. Lindsley, we’re glad you’re here.

Katie Ervin Carlson is an employment law attorney in the Johnston office of Fiedler & Timmer, P.L.L.C.