Federal Sexual Harassment Law

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 What Qualifies as Sexual Harassment under Federal Law?

Sexual harassment is a type of employment discrimination consisting of unwanted sexual advances, sexual conduct, or other verbal or physical actions of a sexual nature, usually in the workplace. Many different types of behavior may constitute sexual harassment including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Repeated episodes of deliberate touching or brushing against another’s body, which does not contribute to or advance the work, service or education being conducted;
  • Repeated requests for a date, pressure or demands for a date, or for sexual activity with a subordinate by a person in a superior position or co-worker;
  • Displays through pictures or other graphic media of obscenity which do not contribute to the work, service, or education being conducted; and
  • Any type of communication of a sexual nature that does not contribute to or advance the work being conducted.

The sexual harassment does not have to be directed towards the victim. In addition, a harasser can be a supervisor, co-worker, contractor, or even customer or client of the victim’s employer. The harasser can be male or female, including the same gender as the victim.

An employer is responsible for holding other co-workers or supervisors liable for any of their actions, involvement, or behavior associated with sexual harassment. If an employer does not remedy a situation involving sexual harassment after hearing about it, then the employer can be liable for sexual harassment.

What Types of Sexual Harassment Exist?

Federal law recognizes two different kinds of sexual harassment.  They are: 

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee is told by a superior or coworker that they will get a promotion only if they agree to engage in sexual activity with the superior or coworker. Or the employee may be told that their continued employment depends on their assent to sexual activity with a superior or coworker. If the employee rejects the advances, in most situations, the employee does not get the promotion or loses his or her job.

Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment

Hostile environment sexual harassment exists where co-workers or supervisors in the workplace make sexual advances or comments to an employee. These advances or comments may not affect promotions or the future of the employee’s job, however they do make the workplace environment hostile, offensive and essentially unworkable. Examples of hostile environment sexual harassment include, but are not limited to:

  • Personal questions of a vulgar or obscene nature;
  • Vulgarities and other offensive language;
  • Physical conduct that is either sexual in nature or degrading to a reasonable person; and
  • Sexually explicit or offensive photographs or literature that is in plain view of other employees.

What are Some Other Examples of Sexual Harassment?

Unwanted sexual conduct can take many forms. Some common types of sexual harassment include:

  • Requiring sexual favors in exchange for an employee’s promotion or continued employment;
  • Grabbing and other forms of physical sexual assault;
  • Making repeated sexual jokes or innuendos;
  • Propositioning employees;
  • Giving sexually suggestive or inappropriate gifts such as lingerie; and/or
  • Sharing sexually offensive pictures, drawings or videos.

What are My Rights under Federal Law?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, sex, and national original. If your organization has 15 or more employees, it is governed by Title VII. Title VII covers private employers, local governments, federal agencies, labor organizations, and employment agencies.

Under Title VII, a person has a right to fair treatment from an employer and in the workplace. In addition, a person has a right to report unwanted sexual advances without fear of retaliation. Thus, under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against a person by demoting or firing them because they reject sexual harassment, report unwanted actions, sue the employer, or help with an investigation.

What Can I Do If I am the Victim of Sexual Harassment?

A oerson’s first step should be to report the sexual harassment through your employer’s complaint resolution system. Many organizations have a mechanism for handling allegations of discrimination and harassment, which may include a formal investigation process, interviews, and decisions that can be appealed. A person should consult their employee handbook or contact their human resources department for more information.

If this process does not resolve the issue, a person can file a harassment complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC handles all federal complaints of workplace discrimination and harassment under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A person must file an  EEOC complaint within 180 days of the date of the sexual harassment. If multiple acts occurred, each act has its own 180-day deadline, although a person can file one complaint that covers all acts.

To file a sexual harassment claim, a person must either visit an EEOC local field office or file by mail. A person’s complaint should included:

  • The person’s name and contact information;
  • The name and contact information for the person’s employer;
  • The total number of employees;
  • A description of any and all sexual harassment, including when each act occurred;
  • A statement that the person’s believe they were discriminated against based on sex; and
  • The person’s signature.

What Will the EEOC Do After I File a Complaint?

After a person has filed the sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC, the EEOC will notify the person’s employer that an employee has filed charges and will start an investigation regarding the matter. If the EEOC finds that there is truth to the allegations during the investigation, it will file a lawsuit in federal court against the employer. During this process, an employer is prohibited from retaliating against the complainant or any other employee because of the charges that were filed.

How Should an Employer Investigate the Sexual Harassment Complaint?

An employer has a responsibility to hold co-workers and supervisors liable for their actions in the workplace, and for any involvement in behavior associated with sexual harassment. It does not conform to the requirements of Title VII for an employer to ignore the situation and fail to take remedial steps to fix the situation. The employer should appoint an internal investigations committee that is responsible for looking into reported situations. Or, a company can hire an outside agency to investigate reports.

Moreover, internal committees should include at least one person from outside the company’s management to help relieve any potential for bias or corruption. In addition, any investigation must not have either alleged perpetrators or victims conducting the investigation.

What Remedies or Compensation Can I Receive in a Sexual Harassment Claim?

Sexual harassment victims may be entitled to a variety of remedies, including:

  • Economic Damages: compensation for lost wages, future wages, or other related monetary losses;
  • Equitable Relief: remedies designed to restore the victim to their positions prior to the the harassment, e.g. by reinstating the victim to their job; 
  • Compensatory Damages: compensation for pain and suffering, and
  • Punitive Damages: compensation meant to punish the victim’s employer for the harassment.

Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Sexually Harassed?

Sexual harassment claims would be challenging to investigate and prove on your own. It is important to get the assistance of an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. While the EEOC is tasked with investigating sexual harassment complaints, it does not always have the time or resources to do a thorough inquiry into each complaint.

An experienced harassment lawyer can help evaluate the facts of your case, advise you of your rights and legal optoins, help you navigate federal law, investigate your case, and pursue civil employment discrimination claims in court.  You are most likely to get the best outcome with an experienced harassment lawyer representing you and your interests.

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