80

Disclaimer: I am not even posting this anonymous, because I really don't care anymore, and I want to be able to answer every single comment, and thank every single answer.

Background Information: Germany, huge company, Junior Dev, female, mid 20s, I never wear revealing clothing NEVER, I usually wear jeans and a huge hoodie.

I am being sexually harassed at work. It all started when I was told that my contract propably is not being extended, this was last fall. My contract ends this August, and I am now more than happy to walk out the door. But in the beginning I was fighting. I wanted to stay, because I was scared of the responsibilities I might have at a different company. And I was really sad the first time.

Colleagues started to send me inappropiate mails, about how I would start to feel better as soon as I would sleep with them. My teamleader found out, he pressured me to go to HR with him. Nothing changed. Except I don't get a papertrail of the harassment anymore. Colleagues are snapping pictures of my butt when I bend down to lay some cables. One colleague called me on Saturday night and "offered" to help me with my project if I perform a sexual act. Colleagues are coming by my desk only to show me a picture of their penis on their phone. When I leave some colleagues say "Hey! Where is my hug?" and when I go to give them a brief hug they grab my butt. When I am in an elevator with a colleague I get inappropiate comments like: "I would like to hear you scream in here" or "in the mirror your boobs look even bigger".

I have no idea why this is escalating all of a sudden, and I am scared. I am so scared I don't know how to react. Usually I say in a calm voice that I don't want to do whatever they want from me. And I ask them to stop. They usually answer something like "don't play hard to get". And I get quiet afterwards. I know I should be screaming at them, I know I should break their arms when they try to touch me, but I can't, I am not strong enough.

I am not sleeping well anymore, I don't know who to talk to. I don't want to burn bridges with this company so shortly before I leave anyway. I just don't know how to react. I fear no one is going to take me seriously because of the #metoo movement.

Question: Is there a way to leave gracefully after what is happening right now? Is there a way to sort this out without going to court over something I can't prove? We dont have a "Betriebsrat" or anything similar. I am concerned also for our female trainee. If I leave, I am scared she might become the next "victim".

UPDATE:

Thank you for your advice. I did go and see a doctor and a laywer. First the good news:

A psychologist I am seeing now regulary is helping me to deal with the situation. I do understand now that it is not my fault. I stopped feeling guilty after a few weeks of help, and by now I am able to work to my fullest again, even though it is still challenging and requires lots of self control.

Now the less good news: I talked to a lawyer and the police. Both told me that the stress of going to court would probably hurt me more than the company. My laywer also told me that the prove that I had was too weak to guarantee an outcome in my favor, and that cases like this can take years. And even if it would work out in my favor, the punishment for the offender would be minimal. (because I guess that is how the german law works...)

Alltogether I decided that I will fake a smile until I am at a new and safe workplace. When I am about to leave I am going to hold a big meeting with all coworkers I can possibly find and tell them the whole story (without names). So they may become more aware of their surroundings and hopefully won't look away if it starts happening again to someone else. I talked with my psychologist about how to handle this meeting and how to say things. My psychologist never tells me WHAT to do, but HOW to do it. She is truly a great help.

  • 17
    Is there no one in this entire company that's willing to back you up? – Twyxz Mar 5 at 11:41
  • 2
    Why not call names in that big meeting? If someone is terrorizing you, you need to be very loud - that is the best tactic. – BЈовић May 22 at 8:22
  • @BЈовић Good Question. Mainly 2 reasons. 1. I don't want to open a discussion where the offender can defend himself and hurt me even more. I know through my lawyer that the punishment even if everything works out would be minimal. 2. I don't want to hold this meeting to punish this offender. I want to make the company aware of what has happenend and is happening, so every single one can look out in the future to prevent this from happening again. – Pudora May 22 at 8:26
  • 2
    Glad you got out of that environment. Now, how's that glassdoor review going? Also, how did the big co-worker meeting go? – mcalex May 22 at 8:34
  • 1
    Like Twyxz mentioned, no one willing to back you up makes this company sound like a lost case. It reminded me of this "Koan". I hope you find a company that respects you. – R. Schmitz May 22 at 10:28

10 Answers 10

70

TL;DR - Seek advice from a professional (lawyer). This is not something that should be taken lightly.


Now, coming back to the question:

I don't want to burn bridges with this company so shortly before I leave anyway.

Why, just why? As you mentioned, even after reaching out to HR and lodging a formal complain did not make the situation better, and as per your explanation, there are more than one co-employee involved in this horrible practice - I'd say burn all bridge and get away ASAP. You don't want to look back, ever.

Regarding the actions you can take:

  • I'm not sure about German local laws, but most of the medium to large organization have whistle-blower policies, and statutory bodies governed by third parties, specifically to prevent incidents like these. You can try exploring them as options.

  • Make sure you have a written proof of the submission of the complain to HR. This is a serious issue and if you choose to remain silent, as you correctly feared, it may grasp other employees, too. Escalate it through the hierarchy and expect to get a fairly quick response. If you see unexpected delays in getting a response - that itself may indicate a red flag (malpractice inside the organization - even more reasons to get out sooner).

  • Make sure you have copies of the inappropriate communication (mails) even if the company access is cut-off (take print outs / snapshots / archives, forward to your personal email account outside work). This would be needed and helpful as proofs of the gross misconduct towards you.

  • If you have a forma complain launched and no (visible) action has been taken against that, most of the time you are allowed to refrain from attending the workplace. I don't know any reason why Germany would be different, but most likely it is not. You can, at least, work from home until the matter settles. You said that your team lead is on your side - that is a plus.

  • Repeating the first statement: Seek advice from a professional (lawyer). This is not something that should be taken lightly. Moreover, from the extent of your description - this may be considered not only a mental but physical abuse also which in most of the places, put the case under police authorities.

  • 16
    @Pudora Believe me, an organization is no better than the employee behavior it maintains / tolerates. If I were you, I'd not think about getting back, at least in foreseeable future. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 5 at 10:52
  • 8
    @Pudora : go to HR, and demand a written documentation of your complaint. If they have none, lodge a complaint on the spot, including as many names, dates and locations as you can remember, make them give you a signed copy of that. In that case also lodge a complaint about the first complaint not making it into the files. Escalate to the next level of HR management immediately, with a paper/email trail to match. – bukwyrm Mar 5 at 11:57
  • 3
    @DavidK Very valid point, since the workplace (or people in the workplace) does not seem very concerned with the malpractice - I'd suspect that there might be an attempt to cut-off any resource which can be used as a proof once an external complain in lodged. I'll add that in my answer itself. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 5 at 13:18
  • 4
    @Pudora Take print outs if you want. Also, while forwarding, remove any trailing part which contains confidential info. Use your best judgement. – Sourav Ghosh Mar 5 at 13:28
  • 5
    @Pudora And a lawyer will be able to help you figure out what is and is not allowed as well. – David K Mar 5 at 13:29
67

This is unacceptable and illegal behaviour from your employer. In Germany, there is the Antidiskriminierungsstelle that can help you. In particular read chapter 4 of this booklet. In short: after making your complaint to the company they have to address the problem. If they don't you are allowed to not show up to work (and receive full payment).

You can also get legal and other help from the "Hilfetelefon Gewalt gegen Frauen".

You are not alone. Please get help.

  • 10
    This answer is the most applicable to Germany. The lawyering is more of a US thing. – henning Mar 5 at 19:09
  • 10
    +1 for specific concrete advice relevant in Germany. – Damila Mar 6 at 5:21
31
  1. Go to the doctor explain the situation and get an extended sick leave and a referral to a psychiatrist (since the situation is already having a effect on your state, e.g.: not being able to sleep well).
  2. Go to a lawyer ASAP to inform yourself about possible next steps.
  3. If you have to go back try to get some kind of home office.

Good luck

  • 4
    I actually think this is the answer, which will have the least negative effect on my wellbeing. When I went to HR the first time with my teamleader I couldn't stand being questioned. They asked me what I was wearing that day, if I was "mistaking" their kindness for more (no....) if I was flirty before (also no). And they tried everything to find something that was my fault. If I have to go through something like that in a court, I don't know if I could. HR even said I should change my Mail footer from "Liebe Grüße" (kind regards) to "Grüße" (regards), because it was too flirty.... – Pudora Mar 5 at 12:53
  • 5
    @Pudora as I read quite often here, HR isn't your friend, it's a way for the company to cover their behinds. From that PoV it's logical that they try to understand the possible edge cases of the situation they have in front of them. In any case, good luck and get better. – HermanTheGermanHesse Mar 5 at 13:11
  • 8
    @Pudora HR asked you what you were wearing!? In that case, you need to find the relevant agency in Germany and take it up with them, because clearly that company's HR is not doing what an HR department is supposed to do. – user1602 Mar 5 at 13:46
  • @Kyralessa It is actually kind of funny, because he sent the mail as an answer to me sending out a mail to everyone calling in sick. Imagine me answering: "I was in my pyjamas, under 3 blankets, in bed, 30km away from him." – Pudora Mar 5 at 13:57
14

Start a journal making notes of incidents. If they are calling you, get a recording app and record the calls (though to use this you may need to notify the other person on the call that it is being recorded depending on jurisdiction).

Contact a lawyer and get proper legal advice - if HR is refusing to act on this then I'm willing to bet you can make a good bit of money out of the company over this.

  • 5
    Do not record conversations and telephone calls! In Germany this is illegal and can get you fired. Only record after giving notice to the other party, or in a so called 'Notwehrsituation', meaning after the first threat/harassment of that conversation. – bukwyrm Mar 5 at 11:54
  • 5
    Those lines were crossed a long time ago. She shouldn't worry about getting fired. Instead she should take legal actions and do whatever necessary to proof her case. – Hans1984 Mar 5 at 12:08
  • 3
    @bukwyrm The rules for inadmissible evidence in German criminal courts are very different from US courts. There are very few situation where illegally obtained evidence becomes inadmissble. But that does of course not prevent the person who broke the law in order to obtain the evidence from getting indicted separately. – Philipp Mar 5 at 13:55
  • 2
    @Philipp: Das allgemeine Interesse an einer funktionstüchtigen Rechtspflege und das Interesse, sich ein Beweismittel für zivilrechtliche Ansprüche zu sichern, reichen dabei für sich betrachtet nicht aus, dem Verwertungsinteresse den Vorzug zu geben (BAG 21. Juni 2012 - 2 AZR 153/11 - Rn. 29). Dafür bedarf es zusätzlicher Umstände. Sie können etwa darin liegen, dass sich der Beweisführer mangels anderer Erkenntnisquellen in einer Notwehrsituation oder einer notwehrähnlichen Lage befindet (BAG 13. Dezember 2007 - 2 AZR 537/06 - Rn. 36; BGH 15. Mai 2013 - XII ZB 107/08 - Rn. 22; jeweils mwN). – bukwyrm Mar 5 at 14:45
  • 2
    @bukwyrm I wrote criminal court, not civil court. – Philipp Mar 5 at 14:51
8

I will try to answer the actual questions which got asked.

Is there a way to leave gracefully after what is happening right now? Is there a way to sort this out without going to court over something I can't prove?

It appears like sexism is so ingrained in this company (or at least in the department where you are) that there isn't. There is no reason why you should leave "gracefully" in this situation. The only good solution here is to go to a lawyer, press all the criminal and civil charges your lawyer consider feasible, resign and find a different job. Considering the current situation on the German job market for software developers it shouldn't be difficult for you to find a new job quickly.

I am concerned also for our female trainee. If I leave, I am scared she might become the next "victim".

Yes, you should warn her about the hostility you experienced, explain to her that this is not normal and inform her about her legal rights.

  • 1
    Thank you for answering my questions. I am really not sure if I am strong enough to go to court. I am a very emotional person and I cry very easily. I am scared of being questioned. But as you and other answers pointed out, this is the only step which might make them stop. If I leave without doing something, they will continue with the next one. I am just not sure where to get the strengh to actually do this. – Pudora Mar 5 at 14:25
  • @Pudora We are a question&answer website, not a personal support group. We can not "give you strength". We can show you the options you have, but you are responsible for taking them. – Philipp Mar 5 at 14:36
  • I know. I am just saying it to give context. You are right, it is hard to differentiate between feelings and the workplace issue. – Pudora Mar 5 at 14:42
5

There's times when burning bridges is absolutely the right thing to do - from the fact that you describe this as being multiple co-workers that would indicate it's not a situation where removing one co-worker would resolve the issue and make this an acceptable place for you to work in the future.

So I'd document everything you can, resign ASAP and if you have the necessary resources contact a lawyer about making a complaint via your local labour court (Arbeitsgericht) I'm not overly familiar with Germany but if they have an equivalent to ACAS contact them as a place to start, from my limited experience I'd suggest that ACG will apply here.

  • 4
    Resigning in Germany means you will not get unemployment benefits for three months. – simbabque Mar 11 at 14:26
4

I don't understand how people (colleagues!) can be like this, unbelievable. This doesn't help you at all, I realize, but just wanted it to be said.

I'm not one to advise anyone to throw the towel, but if you feel unsafe at work, call in sick. I would guess Germany has sickness policies, that can involve a doctor? Make an appointment with them and explain your story. It's an unhealthy workplace and you cannot work like this, any reasonable person would understand that. It's prio 1 that you feel safe at your workplace. This is abusive.

From the doctor, try to get higher management involved. It's simply unacceptable. Bring a representative (maybe union-rep or something like that, or lawyer). Do not do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

  • 2
    Thank you for your answer. I was actually thinking about this, because I actually feel sick when I think about going to work. I even passed out in the train on my way to work before because I forgot to breathe. But I am scared my Disability insurance will be more expensive in future if I have a doctors note over a longer period. – Pudora Mar 5 at 10:56
  • 5
    If you have any physiological symptoms, create a paper trail at once, including with your GP ('Hausarzt'), HR, Betriebsrat (if any of the harassers are in the Betriebsrat or HR escalate in CC to the next and possibly two next levels directly). Disability insurance cannot rise for work-related problems IF you can show that it was indeed work related! – bukwyrm Mar 5 at 12:02
  • Not sure why someone voted this down - it sounds like good advice to me. Possibly they took "unbelievable story" literally? Might be worth an edit - I know what you meant, but some might trip over it. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Mar 5 at 13:23
  • 1
    @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere I did not mean to say I do not believe the poster, but you're right, I will edit it a little :) – Sabine Mar 5 at 13:27
4

TLDR:

  1. Document everything
  2. Send HR an email detailing every event
  3. Keep your proof on you while on the job, and take it home EVERY DAY
  4. Contact a lawyer.

This is about as clear as a clear cut case can get.

You've spoken to them, you've spoken to HR, you've done everything by the rules, now it's time to play hardball and make them pay.

IN THE FUTURE

  1. Put everything in writing. Even if you just talk to HR, send a followup email that says "As per our discussion at 10, " then detail what you talked about. That way, you're documenting discussions and making a paper trail regardless.
  2. Don't get frightened, get mad. You did nothing wrong, they're being jerks
  3. Send an email to HR for every last smirk, look, snark, rude comment, unwanted photo, et cetera. **DO NOT LET A SINGLE ACT GO UNCHALLENGED.
  4. Print out copies every day and bring them with you, or BCC yourself when you email HR, or best, do both.
  5. You should have a stack of proof big enough to make a lawyer overjoyed with the sheer volume of proof you have. Find one who specializes in harassment, and wins.

In the mean time, seek comfort where you can. This is an awful thing to go through, and it can shake your confidence to the core. Go seek a psychologist/counselor as well. This will serve two purposes.

  1. You will get the help you need
  2. This will give your lawyer more ammunition, and help with damages if applicable in the German courts (I am familiar with Germany somewhat, but not the specifics of the law, so again, seek legal council)
4

I'd like to stress one thing: You're not the one burning bridges. Your colleagues' (and HR's) beyond unacceptable behaviour has already turned those bridges into piles of rubble. Judging from the question (you're "scared", "not strong enough" to fight back) your number one priority should be to get out of there and keep yourself safe.

It's common - and understandable - for victims of abuse to lose not only the strength to fight back, but also their perspective on just how much out of line the attackers are. Speaking from personal experience, I tend to remain in "social" or "conflict resolution" mode long past the point where stronger responses become appropriate. It can be very difficult to get out of this mindset, especially when subjected to continued harassment. Thus, I'd strongly recommend to go on sick leave immediately (most doctors will gladly help you there and if one refuses, just go somewhere else) and clear your mind before making any decisions about how to deal with the situation further.

Taking a sick leave is not "giving in" or "showing weakness", it's retaking control of the situation and your own wellbeing. The same goes for getting therapy.

As others have pointed out, you probably have the option of not going to work without having to deal with financial fallout in the short to mid term. Please consider that option. Your desire to protect the trainee is admirable, but you need to take care of your own wellbeing first before you can effectively help anyone else.

Whether to involve a lawyer or upper management or take any other steps against your attackers is up to you. You may recover quickly and decide it's worth the extra stress, or not. But you don't have to make this decision right now. Get better first.

Just in case, I'd recommend documenting/saving what evidence you can and limiting communication with the company to channels that allow you to retain evidence, e.g. e-mail, texts etc. Perhaps reach out to your team lead if you're comfortable. Perhaps warn the trainee if you have a way of contacting her.

2
  • you were told your contract probably won't be extended

  • you were fighting to stay

  • sexual harassment started

Somebody wanted to "dissuade" you from staying and declared you fair game ("Freiwild").

  • Who knew that you might not stay and who knew you faught to stay?

Those are your suspects.

  • Who harassed you?

Those are your perpetrators.

I suggest not to leave "gracefully" but to gather evidence and record as much of the harassment as possible.

This is clearly a coordinated effort to get you to leave "voluntarily".

Consult a lawyer immediately and if possible, given the evidence, sue all of them for everything you can, including the company.

Some even might get a criminal record out of this.

If you want to leave "gracefully" you'd have to suck it all up until august and just let them torture you with sexual harassment.

This is doable if you just want to bite the bullet and bide your time but it most likely will cause you mental harm and will negatively influence you for many years to come, it already has.

Not to mention, that it might get out of hand and one idiot, emboldened by the "group harassment" might actually sexually attack you.

If you can prove what you just mentioned and the correlation they all will be in deep shit in Germany!

Get a lawyer to help you gather additional evidence if you need it and keep complaining to HR.

You can also try to find help with a union or other work or sexual harassment related entities or governmental bodies.

If an action some took is a criminal offence, you also should go to the police.

After all, you went to HR and this is a papertrail just like everything they did beforehand.

Your choices are to give in and endure the barrage of harassment or to fight it.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.