Know Your Rights at Work

Sexual Harassment

FAQ: Title VII and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Process

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.

Even with Title VII’s and other state protections in place, many people across the country still face sexual harassment in their workplaces.

If you are experiencing harassment at work you are likely overwhelmed and afraid. The important thing to remember is that you are not alone and that you do have options when coming forward.

The following resources will help you better identify sexual harassment, advocate for yourself and others, and determine your next steps. As you begin this journey it is important to remember to DOCUMENT EVERYTHING.

Are there different types of sexual harassment claims?

Yes. Generally, there are two forms of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo: an employment decision — like a promotion, an assignment, or even keeping your job — is based on your submission to the sexual harassment

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes quid pro quo sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment or (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions.

  1. Hostile work environment:when sexual harassment makes your workplace environment intimidating, hostile, or offensive

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature and of a non-sexual nature, so long as it relates to one’s sex, may constitute hostile-environment sexual harassment when the conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an employee’s work performance or of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Courts consider several factors to determine whether an environment is hostile, including, but not limited to: (1) whether the conduct was verbal, physical, or both; (2) how frequently it was repeated; (3) how offensive or severe the conduct was; (4) whether the alleged harasser was a coworker or supervisor; (5) whether others joined in perpetrating the harassment; and (6) whether the harassment was directed at more than one individual.

What kinds of behavior could be considered sexual harassment?

What constitutes sexual harassment can vary depending on the situation and people involved. It might include behaviors like unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, direct or indirect threats or bribes for sexual activity, sexual innuendos and comments, sexually suggestive jokes, unwelcome touching or brushing against a person, pervasive displays of materials with sexually illicit or graphic content, attempted or completed sexual assault and non-sexual behaviors, like making offensive or degrading comments, which relates to one’s sex.

Does Title VII protect men from sexual harassment? What about same-sex harassment?

Anyone, male or female, can be a victim of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not limited by gender, race, industry, or career level. The victim or the harasser may be a woman or a man, and her or his victim does not have to be of the opposite sex — a man might harass another man, and a woman might harass another woman.

Additionally, harassers are not always direct supervisors. Behavior may still constitute sexual harassment even if the harasser is a coworker, a supervisor in another area, or even a person not employed in the victim’s workplace. In fact, a victim of sexual harassment does not necessarily have to be the person directly being harassed; the victim could also be an employee who is indirectly, but negatively affected by the offensive conduct.

Can one incident of harassment or offensive behavior constitute sexual harassment?

It depends. In quid pro quo cases, a single sexual advance may constitute harassment if it is linked to the granting or denial of employment or employment benefits. In contrast, unless the conduct is quite severe, a single incident or isolated incidents of offensive sexual conduct or remarks generally are not sufficient evidence of a hostile environment. A hostile-environment claim usually requires frequent or severe conduct, which is why it is a good idea to document everything. Nevertheless, a single, unusually severe incident of harassment may be sufficient to constitute a Title VII violation, but it is good to understand that the law doesn’t prohibit offhand comments or isolated incidents.

Can my employer punish me because I complained about sexual harassment?

No. Title VII forbids employers from retaliating against you for filing a charge of harassment or speaking out against harassment. It also protects you from retaliation if you choose to participate in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing on behalf of a coworker who you believe has had his or her rights violated under Title VII. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you think harassment has occurred in your workplace, whether toward yourself or a colleague!

Are there other laws besides Title VII that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace?

Title VII is a federal law that applies nationwide, but some states have adopted protections against sexual harassment under state law as well.  For more information, research your state’s relevant laws or contact an employment lawyer in your state.

If your work is within the halls of academia, then the federal sex discrimination law Title IX is also relevant.

What should I do if I believe I am facing sexual harassment at work?

Remember that each situation is different, and you should take the steps that make sense in your case.

  1. Consult your employee handbook or policies. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy in place, follow it. Put complaints in writing. Take 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.
  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. Another option is to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission(EEOC). If you believe you have a Title VII claim, you have the right to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, the federal agency charged with enforcing many antidiscrimination laws. But don’t wait to file your complaint! In most cases you have 180 calendar days — that’s six months — from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC in order to preserve your rights. 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. You do not need an attorney to file a complaint with the EEOC. The EEOC’s website offers instructions on filing a charge.

What will the EEOC do after I file a complaint?

After you have filed a complaint, the EEOC will notify your employer that you have filed a charge and will begin an investigation into your complaint. The EEOC may then take a number of different paths. First, the EEOC may attempt to settle your complaint or refer you and your employer to a mediator. Second, if the EEOC is unable to reach a settlement both parties agree on and the defendant is a private employer, the EEOC may file a lawsuit in federal court.  Finally, the EEOC may also choose to simply dismiss the charge. When a charge is dismissed or if the EEOC is unable to reach an agreement to settle the complaint, you may still go to court.  The EEOC will issue a notice to you advising you of your right to sue in court. This notice is called a “right-to-sue” letter. If you want to file a lawsuit before the EEOC completes its process, you may request a right-to-sue letter.

I’m not sure yet if I want to file an EEOC charge or make a formal complaint to my employer. What steps can I take to protect myself?

  1. Keep a record of the discriminatory practices you believe are taking place.
  2. Check your company’s employee handbook. Your company may have an internal Equal Employment Opportunity Officer or another way for you to file an internal complaint. For instance, some companies offer mediation or other tools to resolve problems.
  3. Keep a record of your work going forward, particularly noting your productivity and any changes to it. Keep copies at home of your job evaluations and any letters or memos that show that you do a good job at work.
  4. Seek support from friends and family. Harassment at work is a difficult thing to face alone, and the process of fighting harassment can be very stressful.
  5. You can contact the EEOC to speak with a counselor about your legal rights whether you choose to file a claim or not. The EEOC may investigate and/or offer mediation services to help resolve the complaint.
  6. Keep timing in mind. In most cases you have 180 calendar days — six months — from the date of the discriminatory activity to file a discrimination charge with the EEOC in order to preserve your rights. 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.

How can I learn more about the sexual and other forms of harassment?

The EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace report provides invaluable information for employers and employees alike in identifying and addressing unlawful harassment at work.