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A Step-by-Step Guide to Documenting Sexual Harassment

What to know about collecting evidence, whether you’re a victim or a bystander

Illustration: Kelsey Dake

TThe reason you should document sexual harassment is straightforward: whether you’re the target of it or someone who saw it happen, a log of the details is important when it comes time to report the harassment to human resources or a higher-up. You don’t need documentation to file a complaint, but it can help whoever’s investigating know who to speak to or where to look, and it can help support your claims by providing a record of what happened and when. In certain cases, it may also help prove that the harassment meets the legal standard of being severe or pervasive, especially if it’s ongoing.

But the how of documenting harassment can be a little more confusing: what to make note of, where you should store notes, who you should reach out to for additional information, when you should bring it to the relevant authorities. Here’s a breakdown of everything you need to know about documenting, including what to write down and what to do with it.

What does it mean to document?

Documenting harassment means taking notes of what happened, and keeping records of any written or electronic communication that’s part of the harassment. This could mean text messages, emails, or social media posts from the victim, harasser, a witness, or someone else involved. Write it down, screenshot it, print it out, or do whatever else you can to help yourself keep track.

“Even if you don’t have a specific time, that definitely doesn’t mean that there’s no helpful information that the employee may be able to recall and record.”

What information do I need to include?

When documenting harassment, the main questions to answer are: who, what, when, and where. Try to be as specific as possible. For example, instead of writing down that someone made an offensive comment, write down exactly what they said, explains Shannon Rawski, an assistant professor of human resources at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Try to note exactly where and when the incident took place; for example, in conference room B during the weekly staff meeting, or near the bathrooms on the first floor, around lunchtime.

When recording who was involved, don’t just include the victim and harasser. Also note anyone else who saw the harassment, as well as anyone you talked to about it. “If you’re writing down potential witnesses, that just helps the HR department know who to interview about the case,” Rawski says.

It’s a good idea to keep track of anything to show that the victim or a witness discussed the harassment after it happened. This could mean noting that the subject of the harassment came up during a conversation, for example, or it could mean holding onto emails or texts with a friend or a bystander.

“Check in with those people after the incident and maybe have a debriefing conversation,” Rawski says. “And then what you could do is send a follow-up email, maybe not with explicit detail in it, but say thank you so much for listening to me today about the incident.” (Showing that a victim or witness had mental or physical distress because of the harassment could also be important; for example, keep a record of any doctor visits or therapy appointments where it came up.)

Eva Hagberg Fisher, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley who reported her professor for harassment, says she used emails between herself and her harasser, along with emails to friends about what happened, to create a meticulous timeline. She also quoted the emails in her report to illustrate what happened.

“It was very challenging for me, in the face of such strong denials, to every single moment gather together my own clarity to be like, ‘No, I know what happened to me,’” Hagberg Fisher says. “And so in that case, having all of these extra contemporaneous accounts was just really helpful scaffolding for me to be like, ‘Okay, no, I am telling the truth.’”

What if I don’t remember some of the details?

Ideally, you should write everything down as soon as possible, so the information is fresh in your mind, but “even if you don’t have a specific time, that definitely doesn’t mean that there’s no helpful information that the employee may be able to recall and record,” says Lisa Schnall, a senior attorney advisor at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If you know that something happened at 2:30 p.m., on a specific date, mark it down; if not, rely on context to help you get as close as possible. You could say it happened a few days after the holiday party, for instance, or it was during your child’s spring break. Any information can help investigators narrow down when and where to look. The same goes for describing the harasser; if you don’t know a person’s name, you could still note that it was the person behind a cash register towards the left side of the store, or the manager with long hair who was working during a lunchtime shift.

Where should I keep my notes?

Keep a single notebook or electronic document where you write down new information after each incident. “If these are repeated offenses that you feel the need to document, then you’re going to want easy access to your documentation,” Rawski says. If you’re worried about an employer or someone else finding your documentation, a handwritten notebook that you can lock away in a purse, briefcase, or desk drawer could be helpful, she says.

How should I use my documentation?

Reviewing your notes can help when it comes time to file a complaint or make a report. Hagberg Fisher says her emails also helped provide context to her communication with her harasser. “I was worried that it was going to be a real liability that I had continued to work with my professor after he had done these things,” she says. But having communication that showed her feelings about her professor — like her fear of speaking up about the harassment because he had so much power over her career — helped explain their continued contact to university authorities.

What if I forgot to record something?

Having evidence to back up your words is helpful, but if you haven’t been taking notes the whole time of the incident, or incidents, that shouldn’t be a deterrent from speaking up. “The biggest point is just, please come forward. If you have documentation, great. Even if you don’t, that is something that… the company may be able to obtain as they do an internal investigation,” Schnall says. It can’t be emphasized strongly enough: Don’t let not having complete records stop you from reporting.

Even if you have everything written down, you’re not required to bring the information to anyone, immediately. If you’re the victim, you might want to wait until you feel thoroughly prepared, emotionally, or otherwise; if you’re a witness, you may want to get the victim’s go-ahead, or coordinate with other bystanders first. Whatever your situation, there’s no expiration date on the information you’ve assembled. Even if “it’s been a month or two” since the harassment took place, Schnall, says, “there’s nothing stopping [victims] from reporting right now.”

A freelance writer based in Chicago with bylines at the Cut, Hazlitt, Paste Magazine, and more. Working on a book for Beacon Press.

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