Sexually harassed as an Intern? Sorry, it's hard to fight

On her first day of her new internship, Elizabeth's boss invited her out for a drink with all the other new staff.

But when she showed up at the bar and none of her co-workers were there, she started to wonder if something was wrong.

Elizabeth took the internship at a large international organization because she hoped to advance her writing career. That was what her boss promised her too, but his strange behavior continued. He would give her extra projects and encouragement, which Elizabeth liked, but too often tried to get her alone or brought her unexpected gifts.

Soon, she realized he wasn't just interested in her career. She was being sexually harassed. But as an unpaid intern, what could she do about it?

Legal limbo

Interns occupy a strange place in the workplace - not volunteers, but not employees either. Because of that, they may be limited in what they can do to curb workplace harassment.

Laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prevents workplace discrimination like sexual harassment, don't protect unpaid interns, according to Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute. "Title VII doesn't apply to an unpaid intern," says Eisenbrey. "The courts have ruled that if you're not paid, you're not an employee under those statutes."

That leaves interns like Elizabeth with few options, especially when the perpetrator is the one in charge. Eisenbrey says students who need an internship to help them with their future job search are particularly vulnerable. "You know that the person who you're relying on for a recommendation letter is the very person who's doing this to you. That would make you think twice about it," he says.

Because Elizabeth's supervisor was the head of the office, and each office in the larger organization operated independently of one another, there wasn't anyone who she could turn to. A friend with legal experience told her she didn't have a chance. "'You don't have any proof,' my friend told me," says Elizabeth. "'And even if you did, you wouldn't be able to afford a lawyer.'"

Most lawyers would be unwilling to take a case when the prospects of damages are so small, says Eisenbrey. Still, he notes that a caveat to the law is that a court may rule that discrimination laws apply if the intern was unpaid, but should have been paid according to the Fair Labor Standards Act. But he admits that even this doesn't give much protection to interns in the workplace. "Young people who are so desperate to get something on their resume that they'll work in an unpaid internship are probably especially vulnerable."

Interns beware and prepare

Colleges and universities often do their best to prepare students for problematic situations in the workplace. Geni Harclerode, internship coordinator at the University of Michigan, says her school holds workshops and seminars to help students think through what kind of experience they want in an internship and how to deal with unexpected situations.

"We work really hard to empower students to assert themselves and start asking questions even before they start their internship," says Harclerode. She encourages students to try and create an open, trusting relationship with their supervisor from the first day of their internship, creating a place for them to go if situations like sexual harassment arise.

"That's a conversation you want to plan for because those are hard words to say," says Harclerode. She also tries to let students know that her door is open, and has counseled several students through uncomfortable work environments.

The university also does its research on the companies they invite to recruit student interns. They take all complaints seriously, and would suspend any company that didn't address concerns about student safety. She says more and more university career centers are becoming aware of the potential for sexual harassment and are networking with other schools to keep students safe.

But there are situations like Elizabeth's where there's no one to turn to when someone's dealing with sexual harassment, says Harclerode. She hopes her students can find a way to speak up for themselves and stop unwanted attention. "We hope that students feel like they have the right to say something or put a stop to it," she says.

A rude awakening

Elizabeth did put a stop to the harassment, but at a price. She wrote her boss an email, telling him that his behavior was making her uncomfortable. That day, the harassment stopped, but so did her career advancement.

"In the beginning he was promising to help with my career," says Elizabeth. "Now he doesn't even look at me."

She's warned other interns and employees about her boss' behavior and even worries about a new young intern, whose timid personality has attracted her boss' attention. "I see him doing it again and again, and it makes me sick," says Elizabeth.

She went into the experience hoping to enhance her future. But what she's gotten out of it, she says, is a rude awakening to what the work world can be like.

"I've had to really learn to keep my distance from men in the work place," says Elizabeth. "It makes me feel very cynical about my career and finding a place in the world.""It ended up being me and him," she said. "He started asking me a lot of questions about my sex life. I just felt really uncomfortable."


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