Every state has a set of harassment laws that set guidelines on how to handle aggressive, unwanted or inappropriate forms of behavior at work. Even if your job does not have a posted employment policy spelling out what sexual harassment is, you are protected by federal laws under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”).
Two of the most common categories for sexual harassment lawsuits are quid pro quo and a hostile work environment. Harassment is not just sexual; it also includes undesired offensive behavior in or outside the workplace. Quid pro quo and a hostile work environment are explained below.
Quid pro quo is an inappropriate exchange where a supervisor or co-worker promises you something in exchange for a sexual favor. For example, if you were to ask your supervisor for a promotion or a raise, and they then suggest you perform a sexual act in exchange, this is harassment.
Inappropriate suggestions from a supervisor or co-worker create a hostile work environment. However, this behavior is not in exchange for a sexual favor, but undesirable to the individual on the receiving end. Undesirable behavior can come in the form of a sexual joke, racial or cultural stereotypes, unwanted touching, etc.
The following are three ways to create a hostile work environment:
- Physical: Any actual sexual touching, offensive, or unwanted might amount to harassment. An example of unwanted touching is a hug. While a hug might seem harmless to one person, an unsolicited hug is an invasion of personal space. Continuously unwanted hugs (physical touching), may amount to a harassment lawsuit;
- Visual: Continuous emails such as those containing memes with offensive language, photographs, or jokes can be viewed as harassment. It is important to note that doing things in a public space at the workplace, or spaces that can be seen by others may also set grounds for a lawsuit, such as viewing nude photo on your laptop in the lunchroom; and
- Verbal: Verbal harassment may consist of inappropriate conversations either on the phone or with another co-worker, and music with offensive lyrics.
Also, any form of stalking or criminal behavior such as threatening advances and attempts to inducive sexual activity with a co-worker or supervisor outside the workplace can amount to claim being brought before the court.
After reporting the harassment incident to the proper channel at your job (this will most likely be the human resource department), you may also want to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (also known as the EEOC) to start a claim.
The EEOC is in place to ensure federal laws are followed when harassment claims are reported. Additionally, there is a time-limited you have to file a sexual harassment claim. Claims must be filed within the time frame set by federal law.
When an individual is sexually harassed in the workplace, the employer is not automatically liable. Ultimately, the individuals deemed responsible will depend on the following circumstances:
- What position does the wrongdoer have in the company, i.e., are they the CEO, or store manager. The higher the wrongdoer is in management, the more likely the courts will find the company at fault;
- Was the harassment previously reported by the victim to the employer and they did not provide a remedy and as a result, the behavior continued; and
- Any supervisor who is directly over the victim, who is responsible for reporting to higher management may be liable depending on the circumstances
Again, circumstances vary; therefore, it would be a good idea to keep notes of all incidents reported and who they were reported to.
Emotional support, equitable relief and, or monetary damages are the general remedies for sexual harassment. These are explained as follows:
- Emotional support would come in the form of professional help. Depending on the level of trauma that happened as a result of sexual harassment, an employer may have to provide counseling or some other form of mental health support to help the victim.
- Equitable relief is the courts’ way of providing what is fair. If a victim was fired as a result of reporting an incident(s) of sexual harassment, the court would more than likely reinstate them at their job. Note, equitable relief and monetary relief are often rewarded together. For example, all the back pay owed to the victim that was wrongfully terminated would more than likely be granted as a remedy along with the reinstatement.
- Monetary damages are economic relief that comes in the form of money the court has determined is owed to the victim. Punitive and compensatory damages both fall within this category:
- Punitive damages-monetary damages are sometimes granted as a form of punishment; in some cases, this is referred to as punitive damages. An example of punitive damages is, where an employer knew about the harassment and did nothing to rectify the situation, the employer could have to pay punitive damages as a result of ignoring the situation.
- Compensatory damages– this form looks similar to equitable relief; however, this is how the courts determine future wages, and pain and suffering amounts as a result of the circumstances.
Sexual harassment lawsuits are complex and need to be handled by a professional with experience. It would be wise to obtain an employment attorney to help determine if you have a case based on your circumstances. There are different nuances, such as the amount of time granted to file your claim and federal guidelines set by the EEOC that are best explained by an attorney.