However common, sexual harassment in the workplace is an unfortunate and illegal practice. Sexual harassment is classified as sex discrimination and it is expressly prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, it’s important that you educate yourself on your rights and what actions you can take against it.
Here we will discuss what sexual harassment in the workplace is, examples of sexual harassment, how you are legally protected, and what you can do about it.
What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is defined by the US Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as, “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”
The takeaway from this definition is that sexual harassment is any unwanted behavior that is sexual in nature. In the workplace, sexual harassment may take the form of directly sexual behaviors like touching. Sexual harassment also includes non-sexual behaviors that negatively generalize a person or group of people based on sex.
Federal law and state law protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. Some states have stricter sexual harassment laws. Investigate the laws for your state for more specific state law information on sexual harassment.
Examples of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment may come from non-verbal, physical, verbal, or visual behaviors. The following are examples of behaviors that qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace.
Non-Verbal Sexual Harassment
Physical Sexual Harassment
Verbal Sexual Harassment
Visual Sexual Harassment
Types of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Severe or Pervasive Cases
Sexual harassment in the workplace may be severe, pervasive, or both as defined by law.
Severe cases of sexual harassment are solitary incidents of extreme sexual harassment or sexual violence. Most times, courts will not permit sexual harassment cases for single incidents unless it is deemed severe.
Pervasive sexual harassment is ongoing. These incidents may be less severe but still damaging. Prolonged exposure to unwanted sexual behavior can negatively impact an individual and the workplace.
Quid Pro Quo
A quid pro quo sexual harassment incident is a singular event. Typically the quid pro quo sexual harassment comes from an authority figure. The authority figure might use their position of power to sexually harass an employee. In these cases, the employee might fear demotion or job loss.
Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment is continuous or pervasive sexual harassment in the workplace. It is defined as unwanted and unwelcome sexual conduct or discrimination based on sex. Hostile work environments are sometimes severe, abusive, and long-lasting.
Know Your Rights
Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law and you have rights. You have the right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment. Your employer is required to take “reasonable action” against any perpetrator of sexual harassment.
It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against you for filing a sexual harassment report. You, or other people who have witnessed and support your claims, legally cannot receive any punishment from your employer for taking action against sexual harassment.
Both federal law and state law strictly prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Most employers with 15 or more employees are required to take action that will ensure employees are not subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.
If the harasser is a supervisor, the employer is legally liable for the behavior. In order for an employer to be held liable for the harassment made by a co-worker, client, or another party, they must know about the sexual harassment claims. Submitting an official sexual harassment report in writing is sufficient notice of this claim.
File a Civil Lawsuit
If your employer fails to correct the situation and change the work environment, you may file a civil lawsuit against your employer. Read the Actions To Take Against Sexual Harassment section for more information before starting a civil lawsuit.
Potential Legal Remedies
A legal remedy is a court-ordered compensation to a victim for damages inflicted pertaining to the case. In sexual harassment cases, victims may be entitled to receive such compensation as:
Actions to Take against Sexual Harassment
Experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace is traumatic. Everyone deserves a safe workplace free of unwanted and inappropriate behaviors. There are specific actions to take if you are experiencing sexual harassment at work. These procedures cannot guarantee that the situation will change, but they can help you through the process.
Clearly Express Disinterest
Although understandably uncomfortable, if you experience sexual harassment in the workplace, you must express your disinterest. Without rejecting the unwanted behavior, sexual harassers can claim the interaction was mutual and consensual. Do not express disinterest if expressing disinterest compromises your safety. Call the police instead.
Follow Your Company’s Protocol
If you have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, consult your company’s human resources handbook. Most companies have a section for sexual harassment complaints. If your company doesn’t have this section, look for a section pertaining to the company’s official protocol for complaints and grievances. Learn the company protocol for handling these incidents. Follow the provided instructions precisely.
Thoroughly Document Everything
Whenever an incidence of unwanted sexual behavior occurs at work, document it thoroughly. This can be done digitally or in a notebook—the method is unimportant so long as there is a record of the behavior. Document as much detail about the event as possible, including the time and date.
If others were around, be sure to include this information in your notes. It doesn’t matter if there weren’t any witnesses present for the incident; write it down anyway. Also, record any incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace that is directed towards others. Often harassers target more than one person. The more details you record for these cases, the better.
Keep a Paper Trail
A paper trail provides supportive evidence for a sexual harassment case. Keep every letter, note, email, text message, or any other correspondence pertaining to sexual harassment in the workplace when building a case.
Report Sexual Harassment in Writing
To bring a sexual harassment to court, you are first legally required to report the harassment to your employer. Your company’s protocol will dictate who you should file the report with. In most companies, victims can file a report to the HR department. In other cases, reports are made to supervisors. Employers are required to act against sexual harassment in the workplace.
File your report in writing and immediately write a follow-up email. The follow-up email should reiterate the topics of the meeting. List all the specifics in the follow-up email, including names, dates, times, and a confirmation statement. The follow-up email should show that you had a conversation with the recipient about a specific person, or persons, who are sexually harassing you. Keep this information in your paper trail.
Safeguard Your Notes
Keep your notes in a safe place that is not accessible to others. Your personal bag or briefcase is a suitable and safe place for your documentation. Do not leave your notes on or in your desk at work. Use your own supplies to create these notes—do not use company property.
File a Complaint with the EEOC
If you have filed an official sexual harassment complaint with your company but are still experiencing harassment, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Victims have 180 to 300 days to file a claim with the EEOC after the incident.
Hire an Attorney
Hire an employment attorney after filing a claim with the EEOC. Sexual harassment is against the law and you have the right to work in a harassment-free workplace. A good attorney will help you proceed in your sexual harassment case.
Knowing your rights for sexual harassment in the workplace is a solid first step to bettering your situation. If your employer does not take reasonable action with any expediency, you can move forward with a sexual harassment case.
Sexual harassment cases are among the more difficult cases to prove in a court of law. Meticulously documenting any incidents of sexual harassment and following your company’s protocol will help build your case. After you have taken the right steps against sexual harassment, seek legal counsel to move forward with the civil suit.
The most important thing to know about sexual harassment in the workplace is that it is not acceptable, it is not legal, and you do not have to tolerate it.