What to Do If You’ve Been Harassed in the Workplace

An IEEE senior member and her lawyer talk about steps to take

31 October 2017

After working as an engineer for 30 years, IEEE Senior Member Nathalie Gosset lost her job in 2015 at the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. She says she believes she was fired because she reported her boss to human resources, accusing him of making lewd and inappropriate comments to her. Gosset’s experience has been covered by CBS News and other outlets. She has been unable to secure another job in the field.

In this interview with The Institute, she discusses her case in pressing sexual harassment and retaliation charges against her former employer. We also interviewed her attorney, Lisa Bloom, about what others who find themselves in a similar situation can do.

The media has been covering several recent incidents of sexual harassment in the tech industry. Is tech unique, or is the problem more widespread?

Bloom: I’ve been working on sexual harassment and discrimination cases for many years. These are widespread issues in many industries—and none are exempt. However, I think the problem is more prevalent in male-dominated ones. When there’s only one or two women in a meeting, or on a team, the harassment can be heightened. Women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers, like Nathalie, suffer because of it.

Gosset: I agree. Even within engineering, there are some disciplines, such as electrical engineering, which have a lower percentage of female engineers than the average. I have often been the only woman engineer on a team. While working at the Alfred E. Mann Institute, my boss would openly talk about his sex life at meetings and make lewd comments. It was very uncomfortable.

After 30 years as an engineer, I asked myself, Why should I have to deal with a boss who is harassing me; who is using sexual language to intimidate me? There is a power struggle in the tech industry in which some men in power try to keep women down. Women who work in tech, however, often have the courage to speak up and not accept this type of treatment.

Why then, if women are willing to speak up about harassment in the tech industry, would anyone risk their job by harassing them?

Gosset: There is a sense of comfort for harassers that they’ll get away with it. When I signed my new-hire paperwork on the first day of the job, I also signed the mandated arbitration agreement. The agreement means I don’t have the right to a jury trial in case I have a dispute against the employer or unfair treatment in the workplace. The arbitration process occurs in total secrecy and often favors the employer. Abusers know the agreement will protect them. My boss’s behavior only got worse when I asked him to stop.

Bloom: Those who are doing the harassing often are on a power trip. It’s narcissism. They get a thrill from breaking the rules—that feeling of getting away with something.

Companies say they have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, but when it comes to enforcing it, they often fall flat. Nathalie did what we want all employees to do—which is to address her concerns internally and get them taken care of by human resources. The company did nothing but drive her out.

Based on this case, it seems the company was protecting its reputation instead of the employee. Is that true?

Bloom: When companies handle these cases correctly, they follow the law, which requires them to do a prompt, thorough investigation after a complaint is made. They then reach a conclusion. If they conclude the complaint is valid, they punish the perpetrator and protect the victim. In Nathalie’s case, none of that happened. Unfortunately, by the time someone hires me, something has gone terribly wrong. Not only did the person report an incident and it did not get fairly investigated, but the employee also got fired. So then we have to claim retaliation as well as sexual harassment.

Employees have the right to have their job protected when they make a complaint. Instead, many employers feel they have a complainer on their hands and have to get rid of the employee, especially if the person being accused is a top leader of the company.

What are employees’ options then? It seems that it’s either speak up and risk their job or stay quiet.

Bloom: There are risks. I advise people to contact a lawyer first and find out what their rights are. Then they can make a decision about what’s best for them. I also recommend submitting a formal written complaint to human resources with just the facts—date, time, who was there, and what happened—and keep a copy. Give the company one chance to do the right thing. If it doesn’t, get a lawyer involved. That can sometimes wake up the company.

How can those who have been harassed get support from others?

Bloom: I’ve discovered in every case that no one wants to help: They don’t want be a witness, don’t remember the situation, and never saw anything happen. They have the same fear as the client—which is that they’ll get fired and never work again. But before it even gets to that point, if you’re aware of what’s going on to a coworker, shut the door and tell the harasser to knock it off. The excuse is that they’re just joking around, but in the workplace, employees are expected to act professionally.

Gosset: Men may not have experienced sexual harassment, but they do understand hostile environments. They have been talked down to by a higher-up, not listened to, or mistreated due to age discrimination. They understand these issues. If we find these common grounds, we can work together to prevent someone from being terminated unfairly.

Many women choose engineering as a career, but they are not protected. They are leaving en masse due to feeling unwelcome or unsafe.

Nathalie, how has this case impacted your career?

Gosset: I feel derailed. When I went public with my story, I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. I don’t know if I will be able to return to my industry. I want to work. I have much to offer. How should I deal with the unwanted perception that I may be a troublemaker, a label so far removed from my professional trajectory? How does someone in my shoes recover from doing the right thing and be seen as an asset to be hired again in her field?

What can be done to improve how companies handle harassment claims?

Bloom: Forcing employees to agree to confidential settlements or go through the arbitration process requires them to keep quiet about their case. You’re supposed to have the constitutional right to a trial by jury. But most employees don’t get that opportunity, because they’ve signed an arbitration agreement. Juries tend to be composed of employees who are more sympathetic to workers.

Television commentator Gretchen Carlson, who received a confidential settlement agreement from Fox News after her allegations against Bill O’Reilly, is pushing for legislation that would curtail forced arbitration agreements in employment contracts.

Gosset: The technical workforce is more diverse now, and companies have not adapted to it. Three hours of diversity training is not enough. Academia has had its share of negative publicity. Some institutions have been guilty of covering up sexual harassment scandals because universities are concerned about losing grants. There needs to be a system-wide shift to help ensure employees are protected.

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