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Federal Sexual Harassment Law

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What Qualifies as Sexual Harassment under Federal Law?

Sexual harassment is unwanted verbal or physical action of a sexual nature that occurs in the workplace. Sexual harassment is actionable under federal law when either:

  1. An adverse employment decision was made because the victim yielded to or refused the unwanted action, or
  2. The unwanted action created a hostile work atmosphere that hampered the victim’s performance.

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.

If an employer does not remedy a situation involving sexual harassment after hearing about it, then the employer can be liable for sexual harassment.

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
  • 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, 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
  • Your signature

The EEOC will review your complaint and may ask for more information via a questionnaire. If the EEOC decides to pursue your complaint, the EEOC will assist you in completing an official EEOC charge form. However, if the EEOC does not decide to pursue your claim, then you may file a civil lawsuit against the employer.

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

Sexual harassment claims are extremely difficult to investigate and prove, 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.

Photo of page author Jessica Long

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 05-29-2018 01:22 AM PDT

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