You Left Your Job Because of Sexual Harassment. What Now?

Some victims of workplace sexual harassment are reluctant to report what happened because they fear the effect on their career. For those who leave their job after experiencing harassment or assault, it can be hard to know how to approach a new job search, application, or interview process.

“It’s a challenging issue. It’s a difficult scenario that more and more people are being placed in. The main thing is to remember you’re not to blame and this situation doesn’t define you,” says Pete Church, a member of RAINN’s National Leadership Council and Chief Human Resources Officer at Avangrid, a leading sustainable energy company that operates in 24 states.

What to do during your search

“If your goal is to assess how a potential employer understands and addresses harassment in the work environment, then there’s a lot of helpful research you can do before you’re in an interview,” Church suggests. He also recommends going on Glassdoor and reading reviews of the company. Even if you don’t see specific mentions of sexual harassment in the reviews, you can learn about the company culture.

It can also be helpful to find past employees of a company you’re interested in on LinkedIn. You can reach out for a networking phone call to ask about what their experience was like, about the company culture, and if you feel comfortable doing so, why they left the organization. Approach the situation optimistically and know that most companies promote a harassment-free environment.

How to navigate the interview process

Once you’re in an interview process and asking about the company, you can ask questions that are a little more benign, but still bring you into the core of what you really want to know. These can be things like:

  • Tell me a little bit about the company culture?
  • Why might someone not feel like a good fit at your company?
  • Does your company do an employee survey?
  • How does your company show it cares about employees?

If you feel comfortable doing so during the interview process, Church suggests asking questions that avoid being personal but are still focused on sexual harassment, such as: “Unfortunately we see way too many headlines in the newspapers today about workplace violence and workplace harassment. I’m curious about what your company has in place to protect employees?”

What to say about why you left

The goal is to explain your employment story in a truthful and respectful way that doesn’t raise any red flags for a future employer. Give enough of an explanation so that they aren’t left wondering what happened. But remember, your story is yours. You’re never obligated to tell anyone more than you’re comfortable with. If you signed a non-disclosure agreement with your previous employer, you also need to be careful not to share anything that violates the agreement.

At some point in this process you’re going to be asked why you left. Practice how you want to answer this question ahead of time, either by yourself or with someone you trust, so that you don’t leave any questions or concerns in the mind of the interviewer—but in a way that doesn’t bring back too many difficult memories.

Your answer may be different if you are still employed and are looking for a new job so you can leave versus if you already left your job and are currently unemployed. Either way, it’s important that you rehearse the answer and know exactly what you’re willing and not willing to say during the interview.

“If you’re still employed, it’s best to frame your interest in the job as an opportunity you’re excited about. If you’ve already left your last job, you’ll need to explain the gap on your resume and you should never lie about this,” says Church. Instead, he suggests giving an answer that addresses any questions or concerns the interviewer may have, while not revealing anything personal about what happened. You could say something like, “It was a really difficult decision to leave the company after having been there for x number of years.” However, Church suggests focusing on what excites you about the organization where you are interviewing and how the position aligns with your interests, skills, and career goals.

How much to disclose to a possible employer

The interviewer wants to hear about how your current skills will add value to their organization. A negative experience with a previous employer doesn’t necessarily provide insight into who you are as an employee and the potential you have to add value to a new company. Negative comments about your previous employer, even when warranted, are risky. They may lead some interviewers to think think you are likely to say negative things about your new employer in the future. The safest approach is to avoid saying negative things about your previous employer.

How to deal with reference checks and retaliation

Many people who have experienced harassment or assault in the workplace wonder how this will impact future reference checks. “Though most companies are only required to verify dates of employment and title, if you’re worried about retaliation or malicious behavior, it’s best to proactively provide a list of references you’ve chosen who would be appropriate for a potential employer to call,” says Church.

If you feel that everyone at your previous company could be a liability as a reference, then you don’t have to list them. You can give a list of references including past mentors, organizations you’ve volunteered with, etc. If asked why you cannot give your previous employer as a reference, you can say something like: “I left voluntarily because it was not a great culture fit. I loved the work I was doing, but my experience there was not ideal and I’m not confident that they would give the best summary of my job performance.”

A company’s culture is defined not by moments of the worst thing that happened, but by how the company responds once they know about it. Learn more about the work RAINN’s consulting services team does every day to help companies and organizations improve their prevention and response practices.