Updated on April 18th, 2023

Women’s Rights When Experiencing Sexual Harassment at Work

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) makes it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work by anyone else, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or sex. Women who experience sexual harassment at work may experience a range of negative consequences, including mental and physical health problems, lower earnings, and career interruptions.

Author: Brad Nakase, Attorney

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Sexual harassment at work includes leering, sexual gestures, physical or verbal harassment in sexual nature request for sexual favors, or unwelcome advances. Although Title VII protects women in the workplace, a study by the Center for Talent Innovation found that 34% of female workers say they have been sexually harassed at work. Sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII. Academic research has found that women who experience sexual harassment in the workplace may be likelier to experience lower job satisfaction, financial stress, and more extraordinary resignation.

In this article, our employment attorney discussed sexual harassment in the workplace as follows:

What is the law on sexual discrimination in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits an employer from treating you differently, or less favorably, because of your sex, which is defined to include pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

According to federal law, sexual harassment in the workplace is classified as a form of sex discrimination. This makes sexual harassment illegal throughout the country. In general, national laws are relevant only to companies with fifteen or more employees. However, a particular state may have specific laws that impact smaller employers.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is unlawful for employers to permit anyone at their workplace to endure sexual harassment, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or sex. Anyone can be the victim of sexual harassment. This kind of behavior is more about one party having power over the other, rather than sexual desire. For instance, straight men may sexually harass other men in the form of teasing or mocking them for acting “feminine” or “gay.”

Title VII is relevant to employers. The law is meant to hold employer accountable for creating a workplace free of sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. The law does not, however, make it unlawful for one individual to harass another individual. Rather, the law makes it unlawful for companies to permit harassment to happen or to otherwise fail in stopping it once it has occurred. Therefore, this civil rights law does not grant an individual victim the right to file a lawsuit against another person, unless the harasser is the individual’s employer.

What Are an Employee’s Rights Regarding Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

When you’re experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, your rights are as follows:

  1. Work in a discrimination-free, safe workplace. By law, an employer must provide his or her workers with a working environment that is free from sexual harassment, and that does not target an individual based on their gender identity or sex.

  2. Be clearly told about the business’ policies regarding sexual harassment, such as how to report harassment. An employer is required to create a policy in writing on sexual harassment in the workplace, and they must ensure that every employee is aware of the policy and receives a copy. This policy must be written in clear, comprehensible language.

  3. Talk about or speak against sexual harassment. An employee should be free to speak out or about sexual harassment at work, regardless of whether it is happening to them or to someone else in the workplace. An individual has the right to talk about sexual harassment at work with whomever they want, whether that is a coworker or a supervisor. An individual also has the right to inform their employer, reasonably, that he or she thinks a company rule or practice encourages or ignores sexual harassment in the workplace or that a manager is participating in sexual discrimination or sexual harassment. Under the law, it is unlawful for an employer seek revenge against an employee who speaks with their coworkers about sexual harassment at work.

  4. Report the harassment to Human Resources or one’s boss. An employee may report sexual harassment at work to Human Resources, their manager, or someone else in a position of authority at their company. It is very much recommended to report sexual harassment in writing, whether email or by letter, and to make copies so that an individual has proof later on should they face retaliation or otherwise need to defend themselves. It is important to first report harassment to the company if one wishes to have the option of taking legal action at a later time.

  5. Protest against sexual harassment or other types of discrimination. When an employees gather with their coworkers to bring up concerns over sexual harassment in the workplace, they are participating in what is known as a “concerted activity.” Such an activity is legally supported and protected by the National Labor Relations Act.

  6. Have a complaint investigated and taken seriously. Legally speaking, an employer is required to treat seriously complaints about sexual harassment in the workplace and to investigate them promptly. One an employer has been notified of sexual harassment in their workplace, he or she is required by law to take immediate action to stop the behavior, and to protect the individual who has been the victim of the harassment.

  7. Ask an employer what will occur and who will find out if a complaint is filed. An employee may wish to keep private their complaint about sexual harassment at work , but he or she should be aware that investigations typically involve an interview with the harasser, the individual who has filed the complaint of harassment, as well as other employees who may be possible witnesses.

  8. Report sexual harassment at work to a government agency. An individual who has experienced sexual harassment at work may wish to file charges with an agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or their state’s agency for fair employment practices. In California, this would be the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). An employee also has the right to tell his or her employer that they intend to file a charge, and that they cannot seek revenge against them for doing this. It should be noted that there are deadlines when it comes to filing charges of sexual harassment with the government. These deadlines are known as statutes of limitations. Some states have their own anti-discrimination agencies and laws, such as California. In this instance, the deadline to file a complaint could be different.

  9. Retaliation is illegal. It is illegal for an individual at a workplace to retaliate (or seek revenge) against another individual for reporting or otherwise taking action against sexual harassment at work. The same applies for if the person participated in a legal process or investigation or related to sexual harassment in the workplace. Retaliation may include the following: being demoted or fired, suffering a pay cut or reduction in benefits or hours, being given a less favorable shift, location, or position, receiving different duties, and being forced to take time away from work without compensation. Retaliation may be more subtle than this, as well, and it can get worse as time passes. It may include being ignored by colleagues, not being asked to meetings, and being left out of communications that one had been a part of before.If an individual reports sexual harassment in the workplace, their employer may not ignore or retaliate against him or her. If an employer or person in Human Resources is aware of the harassment taking place, or has reason to believe that an employee is being harassed, then they are legally obligated to take immediate action to attempt to put an end to the improper conduct, look into the harassment, and ensure that it does not persist. The action that the employer takes must also be effective and “appropriate,” which means that it needs to actually stop the behavior without causing harm to the victim or allowing them to become the target of revenge. If an employee complained to their boss or HR about sexual harassment and nothing was done to improve the situation, or in fact they worsened it, then the employee has the right to consider legal action against his or her employer.

    If an employee is terminated or punished for exercising any of the above-mentioned rights, then they have been treated unlawfully and may take legal action. Retaliation, by definition, includes being demoted or fired, suffering a change in shifts, hours, duties, and benefits, having reduced pay, being asked to take time away from work, or enduring any other action that has a negative impact.

  10. Sue an employer for sexual harassment. If an employee experiencing sexual harassment at work filed a complaint with the EEOC, then he or she may receive a “Right-to-Sue” letter, which will allow them to file a lawsuit against their employer. One should acknowledge the strict deadlines regarding how many days after the Notice was received to file a lawsuit in court.

  11. Act as a witness or participate in an investigation. An employee who has suffered or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace has the right to be a witness or play a part in an investigation conducted by the EEOC or another government agency. An employer is prohibited from interfering with an employee testifying at a hearing, providing evidence, or communicating with a government agency that is looking into discrimination and sexual harassment at their workplace. If the investigation does not find any evidence of harassment, then the employee’s engagement is still protected according to their rights, which means that their employer cannot retaliate against them for their cooperation.

  12. Do nothing. An employee has every right to not act in response to the assault or sexual harassment work. This decision is one hundred percent their own not to pursue a lawsuit for sexual harassment.

Have a quick question? We answered nearly 2000 FAQs.

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DFEH Right to Sue

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Is It Illegal To Not Pay Overtime?

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California Break Laws

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Not Getting Paid for Work I Have Done

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California Overtime Law

Under California overtime law, an employee who works over eight hours a day or over forty hours per week is entitled to overtime pay at one and one-half times the regular rate of pay.

Who is exempt from overtime pay?

As of 2023, to be exempt from overtime pay, any employees who are paid at least $62,400 per year and work are primarily professional, executive, creative, managerial, or intellectual and require the exercise of independent judgment.

Can Previous Employers Talk Bad About You?

There are no state or federal laws prohibiting what a previous employer can or cannot say about a former employee. However, previous employers are not permitted to make up lies to damage your reputation and make it difficult for you to get another job.

Can An Employer Cut Your Pay as Punishment?

Employers cannot cut hours to retaliate against employees. Cutting the hours of an employee should never be used as discipline or in an attempt to make an employee quit. 

California Random Drug Testing Law

Random drug testing is not permitted in California, and employers must give their employees notice before a drug test is given.

What happens if you get caught working under the table?

Generally, it is not illegal for your employer to pay you in cash. However, if the employer paid you under the table and did not report your earnings, you may be entitled to money damages under California Labor Code 226.

ADA Proof of Disability

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FMLA Retaliation and Wrongful Discharge

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How To File A Workplace Harassment Complaint

You can always file a harassment complaint with the EEOC about the harassment. Also, you can retain our employment law attorney to help with no upfront money from you.

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Using PTO for Paid Vacation Time

PTO is any time an employee gets paid while away from work, including paid vacation time. PTO is paid time off, meaning a worker may use PTO for any reason, such as paid sick leave or paid vacation time.

When to hire an employment attorney?

You should hire an employment attorney as soon as you are aware of the issue or believe something is wrong and that the employer is not remedying the issue, such as harassment, wrongful termination, or discrimination.

Is PTO Required by Law?

Employers in California are not required to provide any PTO, such as paid time off or paid or unpaid vacation, to their employees.

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