Workplace sexual harassment occurs when someone makes an unwanted sexual advance towards a coworker or otherwise engages in inappropriate conduct in the workplace. These actions will often interfere with a person’s job and create a work environment that is intimidating, hostile or offensive.
If you are accused of sexual harassment, it is important to recognize that you could be facing serious consequences, as there are both federal and state laws that address sexual harassment. If an administrative charge or lawsuit is filed, the employer will be a named party ad well.
What is Considered to be Sexual Harassment?
If you or your employee are accused of sexual harassment, you should first be aware of what types of actions are recognized as harassment under law. There are two different categories of sexual harassment recognized under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The first type is called quid pro quo harassment, which occurs when a supervisor or person of higher rank asks an employee to perform sexual favors in order to keep their job or receive a benefit. An example is your supervisor telling you that you must have sex with them to keep your job.
The second type is called hostile work environment harassment, which occurs when an employee feels uncomfortable in the workplace because a coworker engaged in sexual conduct that created an offensive atmosphere.
In order to fall into this category, one person does not have to be of higher rank. Some examples are grabbing/touching a colleague without their permission or making inappropriate jokes.
What are Some Defenses to Sexual Harassment?
If a person believes that they have been sexually harassed, the first step that they may take is to report it to the company’s human resources department.
If human resources informs you that you have been accused of sexual harassment, you may want to contact an attorney before discussing the allegation. If you believe that you were falsely accused, you may also want to attempt to remedy the situation by simply speaking to the person who claimed you sexually harassed them.
For the employer, complaints made to human resources about sexual harassment should be taken very seriously. An investigation should be performed with all findings put into writing. It is also a good idea to review the sexual harassment policies and training that are in place at the organization.
However, oftentimes a claim will be filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Center (EEOC) and corresponding state agency.
The EEOC will investigate the claim and decide whether or not to move forward. If the EEOC decides not to take further action, the accuser can still file a civil lawsuit. It is important to know your rights and any defenses you may have to the claim.
In a sexual harassment case, the burden of proof is on the accuser to prove that harassment occurred and the employer was aware of the harassment and did nothing to stop it. Some potential defenses to a sexual harassment claim include:
- The claim was false;
- The evidence presented did not prove that sexual harassment occurred;
- The plaintiff failed to file an administrative complaint before filing a civil lawsuit;
- The employer was not aware of the sexual harassment;
- The employer took actions to stop the sexual harassment;
- The victim never complained of any sexual harassment to the employer; and
- The incident was isolated and does not show a pattern of offensive behavior (this defense is generally more successful for hostile work environment claims).
Keep in mind that if the victim and offender are the same gender, this will not be a defense to a sexual harassment claim. If your defenses are valid, the case can be dismissed.
Do I Need to Contact an Attorney if I am Accused of Sexual Harassment?
If you have been accused of sexual harassment or are an employer where a claim of sexual harassment has been made and a lawsuit has been filed, you should contact a local employment attorney. An attorney can advise you of your rights and whether there are any defense to the claim.