Updated on April 18th, 2023

Know your rights when experience sexual harassment in the workplace.

When you’re being sexually harassed at work, the first step is to report the sexual harassment to management or supervisor. If if the sexual harassment in the workplace does not stopped, the next step is to hire a sexual harassment attorney and file a lawsuit.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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We can agree that no one should experience sexual harassment at work. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment is sex discrimination that violates federal law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment of employees is unlawful when employees are subject to harassment that includes lewd acts, leering, requests for sexual favors, unwelcome sexual advances, and other physical or verbal based on gender by coworkers, supervisors, or managers.

In this article, we will discuss sexual harassment in the workplace as follows:

What Is Sexual Harassment in a Workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can take several forms. Sexual harassment prevention training tells us that harassment can come from a colleague, a supervisor, a vendor, or a client or customer. As to the behavior itself, sexual harassment may include inappropriate jokes or comments, unwanted touching, or a person in a position of power offering a promotion or raise in exchange for receiving sexual favors.

Sexual harassment in the workplace may not even be ‘sexual’ in nature. Harassment can appear as teasing, offensive, or threatening comments using certain stereotypes (i.e., how groups of people are ‘expected’ to act or behave). It can also involve bullying an individual or a group of people according to gender identity (woman, man trans, nonbinary, intersex), sex, or sexual orientation (queer, bisexual, straight, lesbian, asexual, gay, two-spirit, pansexual, etc.) Sexual harassment can sometimes be about both sex and some other characteristic, such as ethnicity or race. For instance, a woman of color may endure different forms of harassment than a white female colleague. As a minority, the woman may be subject to hostile or abusive behavior due to her race and sex.

The following are some problematic behaviors that may qualify as sexual harassment at work:

  • Uninvited requests for dates or sexual favors
  • Improper comments about an individual’s appearance or body
  • Saying negative things concerning or mocking an individual or all people of a particular sexual orientation or gender (Ex: “Gay people want…” “Women like to …”)
  • Using sexual orientation-based or gender-based slurs or swear
  • Making offensive, vulgar, or explicit jokes about sexual acts or sex
  • Sharing or sending texts, emails, and messages with a sexual subject
  • Sharing gossip about an individual’s sex life or personal relationships
  • Inappropriate or unwanted touching of the body, clothing, hair, or face, including kissing, hugging, and assault
  • Leering, staring or making sexual gestures
  • Preventing someone from moving
  • Showing, sharing, or sending vulgar pornography or pictures

For offensive conduct or behavior to qualify as sexual harassment in the workplace, much concerns what the person being harassed thinks about the conduct. The harasser’s opinion does not matter whether they believe it is harmless, not sexual, or desired. Their behavior still counts as harassment if the victim does not appreciate or want the behavior.

Suppose an individual does not or is unable to say “no” or “stop” to let the other person know their behavior is unacceptable. In that case, the conduct still qualifies as sexual harassment at work. For instance, a person may not object to a joke that they find offensive or unwittingly accept a hug that they are uncomfortable with because they fear saying no to the aggressor. If the harasser is a manager or someone in a position of authority over the victim, then the victim may be afraid to say stop out of fear for their job. These are all typical responses to sexual harassment in the workplace. If an individual responds in any of these ways, it does not invalidate the sexual harassment, make it any less severe, or complete the victim more responsible.

What you can do if you experience harassment at work.

If an employee or someone they know is suffering sexual harassment in the workplace (which includes harassment according to sexual orientation or gender identity, there are several actions they can take. It is important to remember that it is entirely rational to be frightened or concerned about reporting sexual harassment or otherwise taking action to make the harassment come to an end. It is wise to do what works for oneself and not to do anything that might put oneself in danger. The following sexual harassment guide should be considered:

  1. Ask the harasser to stop. If an individual is comfortable communicating this, they may do so in writing (by text, letter, or email) or verbally (in person or via phone). If the individual chooses to communicate in writing, they should preserve copies if needed later as proof. If communication is verbal, the individual may wish to ask a coworker to serve as a witness for sexual harassment at work. If the individual does not feel comfortable writing or talking to the harasser directly, they should still keep specific notes about their experiences and interactions. These notes should be stored securely away from work, such as in a journal at home, on one’s cellphone, or in one’s personal email account.

  2. Study a company’s complaint process and policies concerning sexual harassment in the workplace. Most employers give employees a handbook or employee manual when hiring. An individual should review these materials to see what policies are in place that can offer protection. If an employee has yet to receive or misplaced a copy, they should request a new one. They should then search for sections related to discrimination or harassment, which will often discuss ways to report the behavior. If these materials do not address reporting misconduct, one should check for a number for HR or employee relations.

  3. Document everything. An employee must write down what occurred when the sexual harassment in the workplace happened, mentioning the location, date, and time, as well as what was done or said, who did it, what the employee said in response, and what, if any, witnesses were present. The more detail on sexual harassment at work, the better, so keeping notes of every instance is a good idea. If sexual harassment at work occurs again, the individual should record the details immediately to remember them accurately as follows:

    • An employee should take notes about meetings or conversations that they have regarding the harassment, which includes HR, their supervisor, and the person doing the sexual harassment. The individual should record the location, date, and time and who was present. If possible, they should ask witnesses to write down their events.

    • All notes should be stored in a private, safe place at the individual’s home. This can be in a notebook or journal at home, on one’s phone, or via personal email. It is essential to be as objective as possible in one’s notes if they are read later as part of an investigation.

    • Emails, texts, messages, and letters about the sexual harassment or with the harasser should be preserved. They should be collected and kept in one place, away from work.

    • Copies of reports or complaints filed with the company should be kept, as well as all responses.

    • Any copies of the harassment, including responses, should be preserved.

    • If the employee believes their employer has punished them for reporting sexual harassment at work, they should keep notes of everything that occurred, including where, when, and witnesses present.

  4. Report sexual harassment in the workplace to a supervisor or HR. After telling one’s boss or supervisor about the harassment one has been experiencing, it may no longer be comfortable or safe at a workplace. This is because it is more difficult to make an employer do something unless someone has reported sexual harassment at work. However, it is recommended that a victim of harassment report it to someone at work with authority. Report the sexual harassment in writing, whether by letter or email, is recommended. Maintaining copies of reports in a secure place outside of work, specifically at home or in a personal email account, is essential. If an individual chooses to report the sexual harassment verbally, such as in person or over the phone, then it is recommended that one take notes during the conversation, then send a subsequent email confirming what was said.

  5. Report sexual harassment at work anonymously. If an individual feels uncomfortable reporting the sexual harassment, they could always report it anonymously to a manager or HR. Some employers even offer helplines or other ways to report problems safely. This may include a program for employee assistance or an Ombudsperson. Also considered are nonprofit organizations that permit an individual to report sexual harassment anonymously. One should be conscious that if they report sexual harassment anonymously and do not indicate when, where, and who was involved, an employer might be unable to correct the problem.

  6. Collective Action. An individual could work with colleagues to insist on a meeting with their employer, file a petition, or take some other form of action as a group to stop the sexual harassment at work. 

  7. Report sexual harassment to union. If an employee is a member of a union, they could talk to a representative and think about filing a complaint about sexual harassment at work; the employee should ask to speak about the collective bargaining agreement to see if it contains provisions related to sexual harassment in the workplace and other forms of discrimination. If an employee goes to a union with a complaint about racial, sexual, or some other brand of harassment, the union is supposed to offer help. This is the case even if the harasser is a member of the same union.

  8. Submit a complaint to a govt. agency. If an individual has endured sexual harassment at their workplace and their employer is conscious of it but has not put an end to it ignored the report, or punished the individual for supporting another’s complaint or filing their own, then the individual may file a legal claim with a government agency. Specifically, the individual can file the complaint with the state’s civil rights or anti-discrimination agency. They may also file with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has offices nationwide.

  9. Speak with a sexual harassment attorney. There is no harm in speaking with an attorney about sexual harassment at work and reviewing legal options such as filing a sexual harassment lawsuit.

  10. Sue the employer for sexual harassment. It is important to note that before suing an employer for sexual harassment at work, one should file a discrimination charge with a federal or state agency so that one can receive a Right to Sue from that agency. Even if an employee plans to represent themselves without a lawyer, it is highly recommended that they speak with an attorney before filing a lawsuit.

  11. Know deadlines. An individual will have either 180 days or 300 days from the last date of sexual harassment at work to file a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, depending on the particular state. The EEOC considers sexual harassment at work to be discrimination, which means that victims of sexual harassment must file discrimination complaints.

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