Attorney at Law

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal in the United States. As an employee, it is important to educate yourself about what sexual harassment is, the laws that apply to it, and the steps that you can take if you ever find yourself experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. 

What Is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct on the basis of a person’s sex.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is illegal when it is serious and frequent enough to create a hostile or offensive work environment, or when it results in adverse employment decisions such as the victim being fired or demoted.

Sexual harassment can happen regardless of sex. The victim and the harasser can both be either a man or a woman, and they can be of the same sex.

Sexual harassment can also happen regardless of position. The harasser may be the victim’s co-worker, supervisor, or somebody who is not an employee at the company, such as a client or customer. 

Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment includes:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Offensive remarks about a person’s sex
  • Suggestive or demeaning comments
  • Offensive gestures
  • Offensive or unwelcome touching
  • Suggestive jokes, pranks, or materials
  • Intimidating behaviors
  • Discriminatory hiring and promotion procedures 
  • Discriminatory wages
  • Discipline or termination because of a person’s sex or as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment 
  • Demanding sexual contact in return for promotion or other employment benefits

The following things are not considered sexual harassment:

  • Simple teasing
  • Offhand comments
  • Isolated incidents that are not very serious
  • Unreported sexual harassment by a co-worker

The Laws Around Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment has been illegal federally since the late 1980s, when the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to apply to discrimination on the basis of sex. Recognizing sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination makes it illegal for government organizations, labor organizations, and private employers with over 15 employees. 

Additionally, many states explicitly prohibit sex discrimination in their employment discrimination laws and/or state that sexual harassment is not permitted in the workplace. Eight states even require employers to provide workplace sexual harassment training. For an overview of exactly what laws each state has regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, you can reference this resource from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

What To Do If You Are Being Sexually Harassed in the Workplace

1. Speak to the Perpetrator

The first thing you should do if you are being sexually harassed in the workplace is to make it clear to your harasser that their behavior is unwelcome. By law, many behaviors are only considered to be harassment if they are unwelcome. If you want to take legal action later on, it’s important to make it clear that you are offended by the offender’s behavior and that you want it to stop. For the strength of a lawsuit, it’s best to get this conversation in writing.

2. Make a Complaint to Your Company

It is the organization’s duty to thoroughly investigate any sexual harassment claims and put an end to them if they are valid. If they fail to do so, they are breaking the law regarding workplace sexual harassment. 

It is likely that your company has policies and procedures in place regarding how to report sexual harassment. Follow these procedures to notify them about what is happening. To prepare for a possible lawsuit, it is important to keep records that clearly indicate that you reported your sexual harassment to the company and that they had the opportunity to remedy it.

3. Monitor How the Company Responds

Your employer should promptly and thoroughly investigate your complaint and take action to effectively stop the harassment and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It is illegal for them to take any adverse employment action against you as a result of your complaint, including demoting you, firing you, or making any changes that are bad for you or your salary such as moving you to a different shift, role, or location. 

4. Further Action

If your employer fails to put an end to the sexual harassment and/or takes adverse employment action against you, it is illegal, and you have grounds for a lawsuit against them. It is best to speak to a lawyer at this stage to receive a review of your case and advice about whether or not you should proceed to file a lawsuit. 

If you do decide to take legal action, you are required to first file an administrative charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They will investigate the claim and, although it is rare, they might decide to file a lawsuit against your employer on your behalf. If they do not, they will give you a Notice of Right to Sue. With this in hand, you are legally allowed to proceed with filing a lawsuit against your employer.

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