FAQs on Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment may consist of sexual requests from a superior, tied to the quality of the employee's job or benefits, or it can be the inappropriate behavior of one or more co-workers. Victims of sexual harassment have well-established rights under federal law and, in many cases, under state law.

In general, to prove sexual harassment, you must show that the workplace has become a hostile environment, or one in which the harassment has become so persistent and pervasive that the average person would think of his or her workplace as hostile or abusive. Employers have an obligation to make sure that the workplace isn't hostile.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment involves verbal and/or physical abuse. The harasser can be a man or a woman or the same gender as the victim. Harassment is a form of discrimination because it singles out the victim based on a protected category (gender).

There are two main categories of sexual harassment: "quid pro quo" and "hostile environment," which are both prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Quid pro quo

Quid pro quo harassment typically occurs when a supervisor makes a request for a sexual favor in return for giving the employee a raise, promotion, positive job review, etc. It may involve a direct or implied threat of retaliation if the employee doesn't agree to the "terms" of the agreement. This kind of harassment can take place just once, or multiple times.

Hostile environment

Harassment involving a hostile environment occurs when unwelcome sexual attention or conduct is so severe or pervasive that it creates a working environment that a reasonable person would find abusive. The harassment may also unreasonably interfere with the employee's job performance. These cases generally involve many offensive acts over time, although in some circumstances, a case may involve a single act that is particularly abusive or threatening.

Common types of negative conduct

  • Sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors (not necessarily as quid pro quo)
  • Posting pornographic or suggestive pictures where they may be seen by other employees
  • Sending sexually explicit emails
  • Sexual remarks or innuendoes (for example, asking a married employee about her intimate relations with her husband or continually teasing a coworker who identifies as LGBT)
  • Watching a co-worker in a bathroom, locker room or dressing room
  • Actual physical contact (unwanted touching, assault, etc.)

What can an employee do about sexual harassment?

People who suffer sexual harassment can feel powerless, especially when they are told that there is nothing they can do about it. Victims of sexual harassment, however, have strong rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many state laws.

Speak up

In many sexual harassment cases, especially those involving a hostile work environment, your co-workers may not even realize that their conduct is offensive. If you let them know how you feel about the conduct, this may resolve the problem; they may stop the offensive conduct out of a genuine concern for your sensibilities or a desire to avoid workplace tension. If the issue is not resolved, at least you have put the harassers on notice.

Complaint procedures

If the offensive conduct does not stop, you still have options. Some companies have detailed procedures for handling sexual harassment complaints. If your company has such a procedure, you should follow it to the letter, taking note of any time limits set out in that policy. If your company has designated certain staff to receive sexual harassment complaints, then that is where you should bring your complaint.

If your company has no set procedure, speak with your immediate supervisor about the harassment. If your supervisor has been harassing you, make your complaint to the supervisor's immediate superior. It is important, particularly in hostile environment cases, to make sure that your company's management knows of the harassment.

Keep a record of your complaints. You should note the date and time of each complaint, the name and title of the person to whom the complaint was made and the response, if any, to your complaint.

Filing a charge of discrimination

If you are unable to resolve your harassment complaint by using your employer's internal procedures and you wish to pursue the matter, you will need to file an administrative charge with the appropriate governmental agency. The agency is either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's human rights or civil rights enforcement agency. The governmental agency will investigate your claim. It will attempt to resolve it by negotiating with your employer, if you desire. A lawyer can assist you with this process.

If the agency decides not to proceed with your complaint, either because the evidence does not establish the harassment or because the agency does not wish to file a lawsuit against your employer for another reason, it will issue you a "right to sue" notice. This means that you may bring your case to court.

If the agency finds significant evidence of harassment and it is not able to resolve the matter with your employer, it may file a lawsuit against your employer.

Litigation

If the appropriate governmental agency issues a "right to sue" letter, you may bring a civil lawsuit for the injuries you suffered due to the sexual harassment. You do not need to show physical injuries. The most common injuries in sexual harassment cases are the emotional injuries suffered by the victim.

If your sexual harassment suit is successful, your remedies may include:

  • Reinstatement, if you lost your job
  • Back pay, if you lost pay or missed out on a deserved raise
  • Lost fringe benefits
  • Damages for emotional distress
  • A requirement that your employer initiate policies or training to stop sexual harassment
  • Your attorney's fees and court costs
  • In some states, you may be able to obtain punitive damages if your employer acted with malice or reckless indifference.

Should I write this down in a log?

Keeping a log - writing down the "who/what/when/where" of sexual harassment - will help to prove your claim. It's best to write down what happened, each time it happens, as soon as you are able, while your memory of events is good.

What to write down in your log

  • Offensive conversations or remarks
  • Physical contact of a sexual nature, like unwanted touching
  • Emails containing offensive remarks
  • A record of any complaints you've made

Be specific. Include names, job titles, dates, and time of day. Also, gather copies of past performance reviews and similar paperwork. Positive reviews will generally strengthen your case if litigation with your employer becomes necessary.

Other evidence

You may not be the only one with a complaint. If you can, find out if other employees have noticed or complained about the same type of harassment. You may be able to find additional evidence that will bolster your claim. Talking to other employees whom you trust may also help to combat feelings of isolation and to establish that you found the conduct offensive at the time it happened.

How do I cope with sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment takes its toll on the victim. It can also do serious damage to the victim's career, depending on the circumstances.

Self-esteem

You're not the only one. The EEOC receives thousands of sexual harassment complaints every year - not counting those who experience some form of harassment but never file a complaint. And there are those who will settle their claims out of court.

Rebuilding career

Federal law prohibits employers from taking any retaliatory action against an employee who complains of sexual harassment or brings a sexual harassment case before a court or an administrative agency - but retaliation does happen anyway. And sometimes it's hard to prove the connection between the harassment complaint and the retaliatory action.

An employee who files a lawsuit for sexual harassment may not want to stay with the employer. The employee may have no choice but to quit because the employer refuses to remedy the situation; this is known as a "constructive discharge." The employee may also feel uncomfortable staying in the same place after making a harassment claim. If changing jobs seems like your best option, you should know that new employers may not discriminate against you because you have made a complaint of sexual harassment in the past.

Can my employer retaliate against me for filing a sexual harassment claim?

No. Federal law prohibits retaliation against employees who report unlawful employment practices or who file a claim for workplace discrimination. You are also protected from retaliation for appearing as a witness in another employee's sexual harassment lawsuit. If you are nonetheless terminated, you may have an additional wrongful discharge claim.

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The Employment Law Office of John H. Haskin & Associates, LLC, is located in Indianapolis and serves clients throughout Indiana. For more than three decades, we have successfully represented employees in legal disputes with their employers. Our attorneys only represent employees, never employers.