Sexual harassment in the workplace can come in many forms:
- Unwanted sexual advances;
- Requests for sexual favors;
- Verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature would also constitute sexual harassment;
- Making offensive remarks about a person’s sex.
The comment does not have to be sexual in nature as long as it is an offensive comment about a person’s sex. The harassment can come from a supervisor, a co-worker, someone in the same company but in a different department, or even a client/customer.
Simple teasing, offhand comments or non-serious isolated incidents would normally be considered inadequate grounds for a sexual harassment claim. For example, an offhand comment of “you look nice today” would not be considered sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment can also be determined by the context and manner in which the action is conducted. For example, asking a coworker on a date once in a polite manner would not constitute sexual harassment. However, repeatedly asking a coworker for a date even after being rejected may constitute sexual harassment.
Consensual conduct would also not be considered sexual harassment. For example, if two colleagues got involved in a romantic relationship, then they may engage in consensual sexual activity. That sexual activity would not be considered sexual harassment, even if they broke up later. However, engaging in consensual sexual activity in the workplace can violate other work policies and create a hostile work environment for other employees.
Employers have a responsibility to maintain an atmosphere where sexual harassment is discouraged. Employers can promote a sexual harassment-free atmosphere by adopting a sexual harassment policy. They must also develop a policy for processing sexual harassment complaints. Employees must be notified of these sexual harassment policies. Additionally, employers can provide company supervisors with training on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. Some employers also discourage or forbid intra-office relationships.
Sometimes, the harasser may not know or understand that their actions or words were offensive. The victim may want to inform the harasser that the victim found their actions or words offensive. At the very least, the victim will put the harasser on notice that the victim finds their actions or words offensive. If speaking with the harasser proves to be ineffectual or you believe that speaking with the harasser will be fruitless, you can:
- Document all instances of sexual harassment.
- Include the date, time and nature of the sexual harassment that occurred.
- Finding witnesses who witnessed the sexual harassment will also be helpful.
- Inform a supervisor/manager or HR.
- If the sexual harassment persists, file a claim with HR.
If filing a claim with HR does not resolve the sexual harassment issue, file a claim with a government agency. For example, you can file a sexual harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The government agency will investigate the claim and may initiate an action with the claimant’s employer. In the case of the EEOC, they will inform the claimant’s employer that the claimant has initiated an action.
This is a necessary step as most state laws require claimants to “exhaust all possible remedies” before starting a lawsuit. Keep in mind that the claim with the government agency must be filed 180 days or 300 days from the last instance of sexual harassment. The 180 day/300 day timeline depends on whether there is a state law prohibiting sexual harassment and a state agency enforcing that state law.
If the EEOC does not want to pursue the claim on behalf of the employee, then they will send the employee a “Right to Sue Letter.” This Right to Sue Letter allows the claimant to file a lawsuit. This would be the final option available for employees who want to sue an employer for sexual harassment.
Sexual harassment is a serious, and often stressful, issue. If you are unsure about how to go about the process for claiming sexual harassment, speak to an experienced harassment attorney today.