Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual conduct in the workplace that creates a hostile work environment or amounts to a quid pro quo. Sexual harassment is illegal and victims have legal recourse, which includes bringing a lawsuit for damages.
If you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, we advise you to consider the following six key steps:
- document everything,
- review the employee handbook,
- get legal advice,
- follow the internal reporting process,
- file a claim with the EEOC, and
- consider filing a lawsuit against your employer.
1. Document everything
One of the most important things to do if you are being sexually harassed at work is to document all of the harassing interactions. Doing so will help you build your case. No matter how severe the harassment, poorly documented cases will struggle to gain traction.
You want to make it clear that you have support to back up your claim. If your claim is well-documented, it can make people believe it even if they do not want to.
Some important things to document are:
- the date and time of the harassing behavior,
- where each instance of harassment occurred,
- details about the harassing conduct, with clear descriptions of what was said or done, as well as who did it,
- whether anyone saw the harassing behavior and what they did, and
- whether the harassment is impacting your workplace performance.
When the harassment begins, it can help to get a small notebook to write down these details. Keep it near you at work so that you can jot down harassing interactions while they are still fresh in your mind. Do not do so in front of your harassers, though. If they know that the notebook exists they may try to take it and destroy it. Keep the notebook with your personal belongings so other people have less reason to look for it and so you bring it home every day.
If the sexual harassment is electronic, like through social media, email, or text messages, keep screenshots of them all. Whenever possible, include the time and date within the screenshot.
It can be tempting to record the harassment, whether in a video or just an audio recording. However, your employer’s policies may prohibit this in the workplace. Additionally, state privacy laws may forbid recording someone without their knowledge and consent. Review your company’s policies and state law before recording the harassing behavior.
It can also be wise to tell someone you trust about the harassment. This person can be a friend, family member, or coworker. By doing so, this person can corroborate your harassment claims by testifying about these conversations.
2. Review your employee handbook for harassment reporting policies
You should review your company’s policies regarding the reporting of workplace harassment. Many companies, especially larger ones, have set policies for reporting discrimination or harassment in the workplace. These workplace sexual harassment policies generally state who you are to report to, as well as secondary options in case the first is your harasser.
You should also review your company policies to see if they include a non-disparagement agreement. These agreements threaten legal action if you talk badly about the company. If there is one, you should be prepared for your employer to invoke it if you speak out publically about the harassment.
These reporting policies are generally in your employee handbook. If you do not have one on hand, request one from your supervisor or human resources (HR) department.
3. Get legal advice from an employment lawyer
You should also consult with an employment or labor attorney. Experienced attorneys in this field will have helped numerous other workers in your situation. They can tell you how to build your harassment claim in ways that will ensure that it gets taken seriously. They can also help you know your rights and figure out what your goals are for the case.
4. Follow your employer’s internal reporting procedures
If your employer has internal reporting procedures for sexual harassment claims, you should follow them closely. They exist to streamline the reporting process, ensure that the claim gets handled by someone who is trained to handle it, and to treat all claims in the same fashion.
Importantly for you, though, going through the internal process – no matter how futile it might seem – is essential for building your case. By utilizing the internal reporting system, it puts your employer on notice about your claim. If your employer does not respond appropriately, it can be held liable for the harassment.
Generally, the internal reporting process may require you to:
- inform your harasser that their conduct is unwelcome and that you want it to stop,
- make a statement to your supervisor, HR department, or union representative, and
- engage in some sort of conflict resolution process to work out a solution to the harassment.
In many cases, this internal complaint is enough to resolve the situation. The harasser stops their unwanted conduct and the workplace returns to normal.
5. File a claim with the EEOC or state agency
If the internal complaint does not resolve the harassment, the next step is often to file a harassment claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or a similar state agency, such as the California Civil Rights Department (CRD). The EEOC is the federal agency that enforces federal workplace discrimination laws, like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. State agencies will enforce state human rights and sexual harassment laws, like California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
You can usually submit your sexual harassment complaint through an online portal. You may also do it in person if you want to. Generally, once you submit it, the agency will conduct an investigation into your complaint. This often means getting your employer’s side of the story and interviewing relevant parties.
While it investigates, the EEOC or state agency will often offer mediation to resolve the case. A government mediator will try to get you and your employer to come up with a mutually-agreeable solution to the harassment issue.
If mediation does not resolve the problem, the EEOC or state agency will generally either:
- pursue your harassment case against the employer on your behalf, or
- issue you a “right to sue” letter.
If the agency issues a right-to-sue letter, then you can file a lawsuit.
6. Consider filing a lawsuit
Once you have obtained a right to sue letter, then you will have exhausted your administrative remedies and can file your workplace harassment lawsuit. This is often a last resort for many victims of sexual harassment. However, if the harassing behavior has continued, it may still be your best option.
In the lawsuit, you can recover financial compensation for your
- emotional distress,
- lost wages, and any
- medical expenses that you have incurred from the harassment.
Can my employer retaliate against me for filing a claim?
No, federal law forbids employers from retaliating against someone for filing a sexual harassment claim.1 Many states have similar laws. These legal protections are essential for ensuring that people are not penalized if they report harassment. If you have experienced bad consequences for making your claim, it can lead to an additional cause of action in your subsequent lawsuit.
What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
There are 2 types of sexual harassment in the workplace:
Harassment can create a hostile working environment if the harassing behavior is:
- of a sexual nature, and
- either severe, like a sexual assault, or pervasive, like constant offensive conduct.2
If the offensive behavior or unwelcome sexual advances are severe or pervasive enough to alter the conditions of employment, they can support a charge of discrimination.
Harassment can amount to a quid pro quo if it involves a demand for a sexual favor in exchange for workplace benefits, like:
- a promotion,
- a pay raise,
- getting hired,
- a good performance review, or
- not taking a negative action.3
Conduct like this violates state and federal discrimination law. Harassment that targets someone because of their sex amounts to sex discrimination. Sex discrimination also covers harassment that targets your:
- gender identity, and
- sexual orientation.
- 42 USC 2000e-3(a).
- Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 106 S.Ct. 2399 (1986).