Sexual harassment is a problem that occurs in the workplace consisting of  unwanted sexual conduct, or other unwanted sexual advances. Generally, claims of sexual harassment occur in one of two following forms:

  1. Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment: This form of harassment occurs when a person, usually one in a position of authority, requires an employee to perform some sexual favor in order to maintain their job position or receive some type of promotion. 
    • An example of quid pro quo sexual harassment is a manager asking for sexual favors in return for promotion to a higher position within the company.
  2. Hostile Workplace Sexual Harassment: This form of harassment occurs when the unwanted sexual conduct or advances rises to a level that causes an employee to be unable to effectively perform their job. 
    • Hostile workplace sexual harassment may come in the form of inappropriate sexual jokes, inappropriate comments about a coworker’s body, pressuring an employee for dates,  or the transmission or presence of pornography on the office computers. 

When an employee makes a report of sexual harassment, the company becomes obligated to perform an investigation, which is normally performed by the Human Resources Department. Depending on the seriousness of the report of sexual harassment, a company may suspend the person accused.

These claims are often also filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal government organization tasked with enforcing the federal laws that prohibit the discrimination of employees based on personal characteristics such as race, gender, religion, nationality, disability or age.

How Do I Defend Myself Against a Sexual Harassment Claim?

The best course of action to take if you are guilty of sexual harassment is to stay calm and collected, apologize, and promise to never do it again, in hopes that the company will allow you to keep your position.

But what if you are not guilty of the accusations, after all false accusations happen often and there could be two completely different perspectives about what happened. You may feel panicked and angry about the false accusations, but staying calm and collected is important as angry outbursts will make you appear defensive and guilty in the eyes of human resources. Further, it is very important to not retaliate against the accuser, as that will escalate the situation.

If you are wrongly accused, below is a list of steps that you should take:

  1. Cooperate with any Investigation: Once again it is important to stay calm and collected in this situation, instinctively you will want to push back against the investigation and vehemently deny the false accusations against you. However, the investigation is going to continue with or without your cooperation, so the correct move is to cooperate with the investigation and provide your version of the story in writing, while avoiding to insult the accuser.
  2. Provide the Investigation with a List of Witnesses: If there are any witnesses, you should provide a list to the department or person conducting the investigation. This list should contain the names of friends or colleagues that can corroborate your side of the story. The best defense to a false accusation of sexual harassment is that the sexual harassment never occurred.
  3. Confess What You Did Do Wrong: Sometimes sexual harassment accusations arise after a breakup of a consensual sexual relationship. You should be upfront and honest about this with the investigator and your supervisor. 
    • Conduct cannot arise to a level of sexual harassment if it was welcomed or consensual. If your company has a policy against dating your colleagues or supporting staff, don’t lie about it, it is better to confess and risk being fired for breaking the rules, rather than for committing sexual harassment.
  4. Apologize, Even If You are Innocent: Even if your joke was not inappropriate to a reasonable person, and the accuser was just hypersensitive, an apology is still your best bet. Why? Because according to the law to succeed on a claim of sexual harassment there has to be unwanted sexual conduct, the person must be offended, and a reasonable person would have been offended in the situation. 
    • Here, the problem may have been that you did not know what was going to offend this particular person. Thus, you should apologize and make a note that this person is more sensitive than the average person, and remember that in your future interactions. 

So, Do I Need to Hire an Attorney for an Issue with Sexual Harassment?

Although not always necessary, as the investigation and truth may come out rapidly clearing up the charges, you should still consult a local employment lawyer. Why?

If the accusations are serious, you could potentially lose your job, reputation, or a lengthy civil lawsuit could ensue, due to the accusations. An employment lawyer is a lawyer specializing in employment law, particularly employee-side employment law, and the law in this area is very complex. Further, if you are determined to be guilty, and you believe such a determination is unfounded, than an employment lawyer can help you negotiate your exit from the company and may help you receive a severance package and a neutral reference.