Know Your Rights at Work
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, including federal, state, and local governments.
Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination based on sex, which is prohibited by federal law. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature are behaviors that might constitute sexual harassment if they are used to sexually coerce or create a hostile work environment.
- Sexual coercion
Quid pro quo: when an employment decision — like a promotion, an assignment, or even keeping your job — is based on your submission to the sexual harassment, explicitly or implicitly
- Hostile work environment
When sexual harassment makes your 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.
- 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.
- If you feel comfortable, tell your supervisor about the behavior and the steps you have taken to address it. Report the behavior to the human resources department or the person responsible for workplace investigations/complaints.
- 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.
- You have the option of contacting the 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 days from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a claim. 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 their 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. 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.