In a legal context, sexual harassment refers to inappropriate sexual remarks and/or acts that are directed towards an employee because of that employee’s gender. Two examples of such behavior include sexual advances and unwelcome touching. In order to qualify as sexual harassment, the victim of the behavior must find the behavior unwelcome.

It is important to note that the behavior does not need to be explicitly sexual in nature; rather, the behavior must be directed at the victim simply because of the victim’s gender. What this means is that the behavior would not have been directed at the victim if the victim were of any other gender. Sexual harassment is a form of employment discrimination.

Employment discrimination on the basis of gender is considered to be illegal in the United States. However, not all unwelcome conduct constitutes sexual harassment in a legal context. Sexual harassment occurs on the job when the conduct interferes with the victim being able to perform their job. It can also occur when the unwelcome conduct creates a work environment that is legally determined to be hostile, intimidating, and/or offensive.

Additionally, sexual harassment occurs when a promotion is made contingent upon submission to sexual advances and/or demands. This is referred to as quid pro quo.

Sexual harassment also occurs when refusal to submit to advances and/or demands is penalized with a negative personnel decision. Two examples of such decisions would be a demotion, or termination of employment. Some of the most common examples of what would likely constitute sexual harassment, legally speaking, include:

  • Jokes;
  • Innuendo;
  • Unwanted touching and/or gestures; and
  • Insulting and/or degrading references to a person made on the basis of their gender.

A harassment claim, then, is an employment law dispute in which a worker experiences offensive or unwanted conduct from an employer, a supervisor, and/or another co-worker.

Because harassment claims are subject to a variety of both state and federal laws, they can often overlap with other legal issues, such as:

  • Employment discrimination;
  • Sexual discrimination; and/or
  • Sexual assault.

Are There Different Types Of Harassment Claims?

To reiterate, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a person who is in a position of power over an employee, such as a supervisor or manager, demands sexual favors. They also award pay raises, promotions, and other job benefits contingent upon submission to the advances or demand. As previously mentioned, the supervisor may instead demand that if the employee does not submit, they will suffer negative job consequences.

In order to constitute quid pro harassment, it is not necessary for the employee to submit to or refuse the demand. Often, a court will find that simply making the demand at all would constitute quid pro quo sexual harassment; another way of putting it is that the court may determine that the demand itself is an act of illegal harassment.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment requires the plaintiff to prove that under all of the circumstances, the work environment was overall considered to be hostile. When determining whether a work environment is hostile, a judge will consider the following factors:

  • How often the harassment occurs;
  • How severe the harassment is;
  • Whether the harassment intends to humiliate a victim;
  • Whether harassment physically threatens a victim; and
  • Whether the harassment unreasonably interferes with the victim being able to perform their work.

Generally speaking, in order for a victim to prove that harassment occurred, they themselves must find the environment hostile. Additionally, an “objectively reasonable person” who is looking at the same set of facts must reach the same conclusion. What this means is that whether a person believes that the workplace was hostile is generally insufficient in order to prove a claim. As such, the victim must prove that an average and neutral person would find the behavior to be hostile.

Are There Any Time Limits For Filing A Harassment Claim? Are Any Extensions Available?

When an employee files a claim for harassment, they are generally required to first file the claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or, “EEOC.” This claim must be filed with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged harassment, or other type of violation that the employee has experienced.

It is important to note that the EEOC guidelines may only apply to some employers; specifically, those who have 15 or more employees working for them. The EEOC guidelines do apply to both state and municipal government employers, as well as different labor organizations and employment agencies. Additionally, there are some circumstances in which the federal government can be subject to specific EEOC rulings and deadlines.

For harassment claims that are not associated with employment harassment, such as criminal stalking, the deadlines for a filing generally vary from state to state. A common state criminal statute may provide a time frame of up to four years after the incident occurred in which to file a claim. In order to ensure that a claim has been timely filed and that all violating conduct has been accounted for, victims should speak with a harassment or employment attorney for further guidance regarding their state’s specific laws.

In some jurisdictions, the EEOC may permit an extension for filing under specific circumstances. If allowed, the extension can last between 180 days to 300 days after the alleged incident occurred. Additionally, an extension may be allowed if the claim is also covered by either an existing state law or a local ordinance.

For cases in which a state law or local ordinance applies, some additional research may be required regarding the laws that would apply in that specific jurisdiction. Under these circumstances, the victim should contact a local attorney in order to determine the proper procedures and date of the actual filing deadline.

What Else Should I Know About Time Limits For Filing A Harassment Claim?

Either before or during filing a harassment claim, you should keep a personal record or diary account of the incident or incidents that have occurred. This should include vital information regarding the incident, such as the date, time, location, and details about the incident itself, as well as all of the parties involved.

You can use this account as supporting evidence when either filing your claim with the EEOC, or in a court of law if the dispute results in a lawsuit. Examples of other evidence that you should try to collect for your harassment claim include:

  • Witness accounts;
  • Emails describing the harassment;
  • An employee policy handbook, specifically the section regarding sexual harassment policies; and
  • Any other information that can help prove that a harassment incident occurred, such as security camera footage.

These evidence items should all be collected as soon as possible, as the longer you delay in a filing for a harassment claim, the less likely it is that you will be successful. If you miss the deadline for filing, this can prevent a lawsuit from being brought altogether.

Do I Need An Attorney For Filing A Harassment Claim?

If you are the victim of workplace harassment and wish to file a claim, you should consult with an experienced and local harassment lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney will help you protect your rights and determine your best legal options according to your state’s specific laws. Additionally, a workplace attorney will also be able to represent you in court, as needed.