Trigger Warning: Those who have experienced sexual assault may have a difficult time reading the following information. If you have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault in the workplace, know that help is available.
Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimation against employees on the basis of sex is prohibited.
If you’ve been sexually harassed, you have the legal right to file a claim against your employer. When harassment occurs in the workplace, you’ll need to touch base with an employment lawyer to determine the merits of your case.
Before you take legal action, it’s important to understand how workplace sexual harassment is defined within the law and what you need to do to build an effective case.
Defining Sexual Harassment In The Workplace
Sexual harassment is broadly defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or sexually suggestive physical or verbal behaviors in the workplace, but it must be severe enough that it “materially alters the term and conditions of your employment,” which is known as a “hostile work environment.” It can also exist in the form of a “quid pro quo,” which is when an employment opportunity is contingent upon the employee performing a sexual favor.
It’s important to keep in mind that the behavior doesn’t have to necessarily be sexual in nature, and can simply include offensive comments to do with someone’s sex.
Two Forms Of Workplace Sexual Harassment
For most legal cases involving workplace sexual harassment, there are two categories: quid pro quo harassment and a hostile work environment.
Quid Pro Quo Harassment
Quid pro quo, which means this for that, refers to an employment decision about the employee that’s based on their submission to any sexual advances.
For example, a supervisor could demand a sexual favor in return for a promotion you’re in line for, an assignment you really want, or simply keeping your job. This demand could be obvious or discreetly implied.
Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment refers to when sexual conduct or gender-based hostility makes your workplace unbearable. Unwelcome sexual advances or other inappropriate behaviors create an environment that is hostile, offensive, or intimidating to the point that it “materially alters the terms and conditions of your employment.”
In legal settings, courts take many things into consideration when determining if a workplace environment is hostile, including:
- how often the behavior was repeated
- if the alleged harasser was a supervisor or coworker
- if other employees joined in on the harassment
- if more than one individual was harassed
Examples Of Sexual Harassment
Workplace sexual harassment can occur in different ways under a variety of circumstances. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a phyical act of sex, but could also simply be what someone said or posted online.
Behavior that’s considered sexual harassment includes:
- emails that feature sexual teasing, jokes, or innuendo
- saying things of a sexual nature; being verbally abusive
- sexual grabbing, groping, or touching
- frequently brushing or rubbing up against someone; standing too close too often
- repeatedly making advances to hang out after work when you say no or refuse (this is especially true for supervisors trying to pressure employees into dating or socializing)
- giving sexually suggestive gifts, like underwear or pornography
- routinely making sexually suggestive gestures
- sending or posting sexually suggestive photos or other material that may be offensive
- making lewd remarks about someone’s gender or sexual orientation
The sexual harasser can be a man or woman, and anyone can be a victim of sexual harassment. Harassers can be direct supervisors, coworkers, vendors, or anyone in the workplace, including a client or customer.
What Should You Do If You’re Being Sexually Harassed?
There are many things you can do if you’re being sexually harassed, but it’s not easy. Sexual harassment in the workplace can take a toll on your mental health and adversely affect your work performance.
However, there are active steps you can take if you feel like you’ve been sexually harassed:
1. Read Over Workplace Policies And Document Everything
Many employers have in-depth employee handbooks that outline policies and appropriate behaviors. Read through this document to see if it details what you should do in the event of sexual harassment.
It’s a good idea to put any complaints you have in writing. After each incident, write down your memory of the events and be as specific as you can. Include the time and date, the place it occurred, details about the harassment, what you did about it, and whether there were any witnesses.
Don’t feel like anything is too minor to write down, including how the incident affected your work performance. When it comes to documentation in these matters, nothing is too insignificant.
2. Report Behavior To Supervisors If You Feel Comfortable
If your employee handbook covers sexual harassment, it may suggest you report it to your immediate supervisior. Follow any procedure the handbook outlines and communicate what happened to your supervisor if you’re comfortable doing so.
If you’re not comfortable, contact your human resources department. Or, seek out the person who deals with such complaints if there’s one available. If you feel like you’re being harassed, it’s important to follow up in a formal way as soon as possible.
3. Confide In Family Members, Friends, Or Coworkers You Trust
Like cases of sexual assault, sexual harrassment can be traumatic. Confiding in people you trust ensures you have a support system to help you cope with the ordeal. Even if you take no further action, talking about the incident with people you trust can help.
4. Contact The EEOC Or An Attorney At Law
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is tasked with enforcing antidiscrimination laws on a federal level. You can file a complaint, speak with a counselor, or have the incident formally investigated.
You can also reach out to a private attorney, who will likely do many of the same things as the EEOC. However, while the EEOC operates on a federal level, a private, workplace sexual harassment attorney can seek damages on a state or local level.
A private attorney may also be able to move the process along at a quicker rate because the EEOC must go through an administrative process that takes time. Whereas the EEOC may or may not file a claim after an investigation, you and your attorney can decide whether you want to move forward with a lawsuit.
Filing A Sexual Harassment Claim
If you choose to file a claim with the EEOC, you must do so within six months (180 days) of when the harassment took place. However, this can vary by state, and you may have up to 300 days.
If you choose to file a claim with a workplace sexual harassment attorney, it may still be a good idea to file with the EEOC. Under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes sexual harassment against the law, you must file with the EEOC before moving forward with a lawsuit.
However, if you contact a knowledgeable attorney within the six-month timeframe, they can guide you through the process of filing a complaint.
Workplace Sexual Harassment By A Co-Worker Or Someone Else
If you were sexually harassed by a coworker, then the employer is only liable if management was aware of it and did not take reasonable corrective actions. The employer can also be held liable if management should have known about the harassment, but no actionable corrections were made in a reasonable time.
This same standard is true for lower-level supervisors who create schedules or facilitate daily workload requirements, but do not have the power to change your employment status in any way.
Workplace Sexual Harassment By A Supervisor
If there was any significant change in your employment status due to your declining a sexual advance by a supervisor or someone in a position of authority, your employer is liable.
Examples of changes in employment include:
- changes in benefits
- failure to hire
- failure to promote; a promotion
Employers are held liable because they were found to be responsible for the actions of their employees under two Supreme Court rulings in the late 1990s.
In these rulings, it was decided that the employer must take reasonable action to prevent harassment, and the court ruled that an employer is strictly liable if the harassment comes from a supervisor and results in a change of employment status for the victim.
However, if the harassment by a supervisor creates a hostile work environment, but doesn’t result in any tangible employment changes, the employer can avoid liability if they can prove two things:
- The employer took reasonable action to prevent or correct any harassment.
- The employee failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective measures outlined by the employer.
Can Employers Retaliate Against Workplace Sexual Harassment Claims?
Many employees never come forward after an incident of sexual harassment because they fear retaliation in the workplace. You may be hesitant to file a formal complaint within the organization because you don’t want to lose a paycheck or put your career in jeopardy.
But, the law is on your side. If you report any form of sexual harassment, employers cannot legally retaliate against you. As long as you follow proper protocol and report any discriminatory behavior, you’re protected from any significant change in employment, including termination or another action that’s meant to dissuade you from filing a report.
Will An Attorney Take Your Sexual Harassment Case?
Even if you decide to file a complaint with the EEOC, it can be helpful to hire an attorney. If you’re interested in taking legal action, it’s important to know how an attorney will help you build your case.
A workplace sexual harassment attorney will evaluate your case and determine if it meets the standards of sexual harassment. They will consider:
If The Conduct Was Truly Unwelcome
Depending on the specific details of your case, an attorney will want to know how you responded to the alleged behavior. They’ll want to know if you participated in the alleged conduct in any way, like jokingly responding to an email, or if you made it clear that the harasser’s behavior was inappropriate and offensive.
If The Conduct Was Objectively Offensive
Your attorney will also consider whether the conduct was objectively offensive, or if any reasonable person would be offended by the behavior. A male groping a female subordinate, for example, is likely objectively offensive, whereas other behaviors may not be so clearly defined.
If The Conduct Was Committed By A Supervisor
Your lawyer will want to know if you went through the appropriate procedures stated in an employee handbook or formal policy.
If The Conduct Was Formally Reported Or Exhaustively Documented
Your lawyer will likely ask if you formally reported the incident within the internal network of the organization. This could be your supervisor, the HR department, or another resource. They’ll also want to know if you documented the appropriate behavior, saved emails, or kept a written record of any kind, including a journal.
If You’re Seeking Damages
If the sexual harassment lead to a loss of pay, demotion, or reduced hours, then your lawyer will want to know if you’re seeking damages. If you have any documentation that supports your claim of losses, your attorney will consider if pursuing damages is feasible.
If You’re A Credible Witness
Your attorney will have to consider your credibility as a witness. If you move forward with a case, you may end up in front of a judge or jury. Your attorney will likely consider your overall character, workplace history, appearance, and anything else that lends to your credibility.
Workplace Sexual Harassment Attorneys Serving The U.S.
After experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, it can be difficult to know if you should pursue any legal action. At Florin|Roebig, we specialize in employee rights law to fight against sex discrimination of any kind.
Our experienced team of accomplished sexual harassment attorneys includes:
- Wil H. Florin, B.C.S.
- Tommy D. Roebig, B.C.S.
- Chase P. Florin, B.C.S.
- Neil P. O’Brien, M.B.A.
- Shaun M. Cummings
- Luca G. Esposito
- Chad K. Florin, M.B.A., LL.M.
- Nicholas S. Costantino
- Jordan A. Kolinski
- Parker Y. Florin, LL.M.
- Taylor D. Roebig
- Kavon P. Smith
- Matthew L. McMullen
- Michael A. Ossi, O.C.
- Lawrence J. Najem, O.C.
- Andrew M. Leone, O.C.
- Nollys R. Solarte, O.C.
- Brian R. Dettman, O.C.
Contact Us Today For Help Filing A Workplace Sexual Harassment Claim
If you’ve been a victim of sexual harassment, you need to act fast to protect your rights.
Our team of qualified attorneys are standing by to offer you a free case evaluation to help you pursue your legal options. You may be entitled to damages if there was any change in your employment status because of the harassment.
Contact the office of Florin|Roebig to connect with one of our employee rights attorneys today.