Know Your Rights at Work

Sexual Harassment

Employee’s Guide: Sexually Harassed — What Should I Do Next?

Sexual Harassment Defined

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion, and it applies to employers with 15 or more employees. The law also makes it illegal to retaliate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. It applies to federal, state, and local governments, as well as employment agencies and labor organizations.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct are behaviors that might constitute sexual harassment if they are used to sexually coerce or create a hostile work environment. The behavior does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks related to a person’s sex.  For example, conduct like making offensive comments about women in general, can be deemed sexual harassment.

Let’s look at the two general categories of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo harassment:

This type of harassment occurs when an employment decision — like a promotion, an assignment, or even keeping your job — is based on your submission to the sexual harassment. The conduct can either explicitly or implicitly impact an individual’s employment situation.

  1. Hostile work environment:

This type of harassment occurs when the behavior makes the work environment intimidating, hostile, or offensive and unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance.

What Should I Do Next?                    

If you feel you have experienced sexual harassment:

The courageous act of reporting can change your employment culture and help to create more inclusive social norms at work.

  1. Consult your employee handbook or policies. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy in place, follow it. Put complaints in writing. Take immediate notes on the harassment and be specific in your details — note the time and place of each incident, what was said and done, and who witnessed the actions. Also, consider documenting your own work productivity while the incident(s) occurred or after. Nothing is too small or trivial to document.
  2. If you feel comfortable, tell your supervisor about the behavior and the steps you have taken to address it. If you do not feel comfortable speaking with your supervisor directly, report the behavior to the human resources department or the person responsible for workplace complaints. For example, your company may have an internal Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or another way for you to file an internal complaint.
  3. Confide in your family, friends, and even your coworkers if you feel safe doing so. Experiencing sexual harassment is traumatic; you’ll need your support system in place to validate your experiences and to bolster you, regardless of whether or not you take further action.
  4. You have the option of contacting the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – the federal agency charged with enforcing many antidiscrimination laws. Even if you don’t want to pursue a complaint, you can speak to an EEOC counselor for insight and resources. You also have the right to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC if you believe you’ve been sexually harassed. You don’t need an attorney to file a complaint, so don’t wait! You only have 180 calendar days from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a claim. The 180 day filing deadline is extended to 300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a state or local law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis. The EEOC’s website offers more information on filing a charge.

Retaliation – What You Need to Know

A major reason women do not come forward at the time harassment occurs — if at all — is that retaliation and retribution in the workplace are legitimate fears.

Harassment usually involves a power dynamic where the victim could be afraid of losing a paycheck or career progression. That risk can sometimes hinder someone’s decision to come forward. This is another reason why having a support system made up of family, friends, and colleagues is so important when coming forward.

However, employers are legally prohibited from retaliating against employees who report sexual harassment. If you report discriminatory behavior, you are protected from adverse employment actions, such as termination and other actions designed to dissuade a reasonable employee from reporting discrimination.