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 at the workplace. There are many different types of behavior that may constitute sexual harassment including, but not limited to, the following:
- Deliberate touching or repeated 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 an authoritative position or co-worker;
- Displays through pictures or other 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 victim of sexual harassment does not need to be the intended recipient. In addition, a harasser can be a supervisor, co-worker, contractor, or even customer or client. The harasser can be male or female, including the same gender as the victim.
An employer has additional responsibility to hold other co-workers or supervisors liable for their actions, involvement, and 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?
There are two different types of sexual harassment that are legally recognized and which a party is typically protected against. These two types of sexual harassment are:
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment; and
- Hostile environment sexual harassment.
Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee gets a promotion or gets to keep his or her position at a company based on whether the employee accepted sexual advances by another employee, typically a higher-ranking employee. If the employee rejects the advances, most situations provide that the employee does not get the promotion or may lose his or her job.
Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment
Hostile environment sexual harassment exists where a co-worker or supervisor in the workplace makes sexual advances or comments to an employee that, while not affecting promotions or the future of the employee’s job, makes the workplace environment hostile and offensive (essentially unworkable). Examples of hostile environment sexual harassment include, but are not limited to:
- Personal questions of a vulgar nature;
- Vulgarities and other offensive language;
- Physical conduct that is sexual or degrading to a reasonable person; and
- Sexually explicit or offensive photographs or literature that is in plain site 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 order to promote an employee;
- 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 or drawings.
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. This includes private employers, local governments, federal agencies, labor organizations, and employment agencies.
Under Title VII, you have the right to fair treatment by the employer and in the workplace. In addition, you have the right to report unwanted sexual actions without fear of retaliation. Thus, under federal law, it is illegal for an employer to retaliate against you be demoting or firing you if you oppose the 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?
You should first 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 appealable decisions. Consult your employee handbook or contact your Human Resources department for more information.
If this process does not resolve the issue, you 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 VII.
You must file your EEOC complaint within 180 days of the date of the sexual harassment. If multiple acts occurred, each act has its own 180-day deadline, though you can file one complaint that covers all acts.
To file a sexual harassment claim, you must either visit an EEOC local field office or file by mail. In your complaint, include:
- Your name and contact information;
- The name and contact information for your employer;
- The total number of employees;
- A description of any and all sexual harassment, including when each act occurred;
- A statement that you believe you were discriminated against based on sex; and
- Your signature.
What Will the EEOC Do After I File a Complaint?
After you have filed the sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC, the EEOC will notify your employer that you have filed charged 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 your employer. During this process, an employer is prohibited to retaliate against you or any other employee because of the charges that were filed.
How Should an Employer Investigate the Sexual Harassment Complaint?
An employer has additional responsibility to hold other co-workers or supervisors liable for their actions, involvement, and behavior associated with sexual harassment. It is unlawful 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.
However, such a committee should include at least one person outside the company’s management structure 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 entitled to a variety of compensation and remedies, including:
- Economic Damages: compensation for your lost wages, future wages, or other related expenses,
- Equitable Relief: remedies that help you recover from the harassment (including job reinstatement),
- Compensatory Damages: compensation for your pain and suffering, and
- Punitive Damages: compensation meant to punish your employer for the harassment.
Do I Need a Lawyer If I Have Been Sexually Harassed?
Sexual harassment claims are extremely difficult to investigate and prove on your own and getting legal assistance is very important, especially if you no longer work for the company. While the EEOC is tasked with investigating sexual harassment complaints, it does not have the time or resources to do a thorough inquiry into each complaint.
An experienced employment lawyer can help evaluate your claim, advise you of your rights, help you navigate federal law, investigate your case, and pursue civil employment discrimination claims in court.