NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Harassment and discrimination issues in the workplace are almost never clear cut. While there are definite steps one can take to put an end to problems, the recent Kleiner, Perkins verdict involving Ellen Pao showed that there are often no clear winners when lawsuits are filed, and the burden of proof is indeed a serious one.
Pao, now interim chief executive of Reddit, complained of sexism and discrimination when she was junior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, but she lost on all four counts.
Most people know one of the first steps toward ending harassment or discrimination is filing a report with an employer's human resources department, but what about the steps you shouldn't take? Experts weigh in on five things to think about when facing these issues in the workplace.
Don't forget to keep a record.
"The only way to blow the whistle is to have a detailed record of dates, situations and descriptions of the incidents," says Wendy Walsh, a psychologist and relationship expert.
The Kleiner-Perkins verdict may change the way people think about documenting harassment or discrimination, says Jenny Q. Ta, CEO of tech startup Sqeeqee.com.
"People are going to start keeping documentation even if there's just a hint of something going on," she says. "It wouldn't surprise me if every employee from now on gets recorded, by both the employer and the employee."
Anyone who feels they might be a victim should collect all pertinent emails, notes, voice messages and other evidence immediately, Ta says.
"It's this evidence that's going to make or break you when you present your case to human resources or when you are presenting evidence in court," she explains. "You have to think of this as formal record-keeping, not some casual thing where you can document some of the more serious instances but not all."
Don't fail (or wait) to report the issue.
Once the issue has arisen, the biggest mistake people make is not reporting it, says Christina Stoneburner, a labor and employment attorney with Fox Rothschild.
"The longer you wait, the greater the chances that the harassment will increase in intensity. Also, it can make someone at least initially question, 'If this was happening for this long, why haven't you brought it forward before now?'" Stoneburner says.
If you wait too long to report the issue, people who may have witnessed the harassment may be gone from the company, she explains. Also, many companies have automatic email deletion. If you need to recover incriminating emails that were sent or deleted, there may simply be no record of them if you wait a few months to file your complaint.
Also, the more time that passes, the more positive interactions you're likely to have with person or people responsible for the harassment.
"What sometimes happens is the employee hasn't complained, but they have ongoing cordial communication with the alleged harasser. So when HR goes in to review things, the only thing they are seeing is emails that say, 'Thank you so much for your support,' or 'I really appreciated your help with this project,'" Stoneburner says. "It may be because they are trying to ease a situation, but what it looks like to the employer is, 'You've sat on this for nine months and in the interim you've had nothing but positive interactions with this person, so why would we believe there's an issue?"
Don't hamstring the investigation.
"Some people come forward and say, 'I have been harassed,' but then they don't provide any proof," Stoneburner says. If you're going to file a complaint, you must provide witness names, emails, text messages or other documentation that proves your case.
"People don't want to get their friends and co-workers drug in for questioning," she says. "They don't want the entire office thinking of them differently after details are revealed."
It's essential to provide every ounce of documentation and every detail you have when you present your case to HR.
"If someone made one comment about your religion, that's a lot different than if they made 10 comments in the last month," she says. "Hiding details on the extent of the harassment prevents your employer from deciding on the proper course of action."
And it can lead to thoughts there's a "more calculated reason" for holding back the evidence: "If you truly want things to end, you would disclose everything right upfront so the investigation could be processed and everyone could move on," she says.
Don't demand specific results in an unrealistic time frame.
Employers should be as speedy as possible when conducting an investigation, but with vacations, differing schedules and other possible delays, employees shouldn't expect to file a complaint and hear something the very next day, Stoneburner says.
Also, be reasonable with your expectations for the outcome of the investigation. Terminating an employee is an extreme measure for any company.
"People make mistakes," she says. "For someone to get fired — that's a drastic remedy. Assuming the incident wasn't egregious or it hasn't been ongoing, then there is a whole range of disciplinary action that might occur. The person may get a written warning, they may be transferred or demoted, or they may be temporarily suspended."
In other words, once you file a complaint, don't become fixated on what the solution or punishment "should" be.
"Employers have a lot of tools for dealing with things. You can't get too married to the concept that 'Well this has to happen or I'm never going to be happy.' When all is said and done you have to ask yourself, 'Did the harassment stop?' and if the answer is yes, then your employer did the right thing."
Don't act impulsively.
Tempers may be high when discrimination or harassment are involved, Ta says. Whatever you do, don't say or do anything you're going to regret.
"Your words and actions absolutely will be taken against you. If you don't want to be portrayed as a hot-tempered, rude or aggressive person then you have to be overly calm, cool and collected," she says.
Also, don't quit your job as soon as you file the complaint.
"Don't gather all the evidence, present it to HR and then turn in your notice the next day," she says. "Give them time to conduct the investigation."
With that said, once you file a lawsuit, it's time to leave the company.
"If you couldn't get along or get ahead before your lawsuit, what makes you think you'll be able to after?" Ta asks.
— Written by Kathryn Tuggle for MainStreet
Follow Kathryn on Twitter @KathrynTuggle.