Every employee should feel safe and welcome in their workplace, but sexual harassment and other unwanted sexual behaviors can quickly make even the most inviting spaces hostile. If you’re facing sexual harassment at your workplace, you may feel a bit lost as to how to proceed. Before your work assignments begin to suffer, here are eight essential steps to take if you’ve been sexually harassed at work.

I Am Being Sexually Harassed at Work – What Should I Do?

Before you can act, you must first understand what behaviors are considered to be sexual harassment and what laws protect you as an employee. The definition of workplace sexual harassment isn’t always clear-cut, and you’ll need to make sure you’ve covered all your bases after filing a complaint.

It’s never too early to consider talking to a harassment attorney who specializes in workplace sexual harassment. By doing so, you can ensure you have dedicated support as you begin reporting sexual harassment you’ve experienced.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Typically, sexual harassment refers to unwanted behaviors or comments that are of a sexual nature. This is, of course, a very broad definition that encompasses a wide variety of actions that can happen in the workplace.

Harassment isn’t limited to behaviors of a sexual nature, however. It also includes offensive statements or discriminatory actions that are made based on a person’s sex or gender identity, such as making derogatory statements about women or excluding someone from a work activity based on their gender.

In short, this type of harassment can be either sexual or sexist in nature.

It Is Unwelcome Behavior

One of the most important factors in determining whether an action is sexual harassment is whether the behaviors were unwanted and unwelcome. The conduct must be unwelcome in order to be considered harassment. Telling a sexually suggestive joke to a friend who is in on the humor is likely not harassment, whereas telling a sexual joke to an employee who does not wish to hear such remarks is more likely to be so.

Unwelcome behaviors or sexual harassment do not have to be directed at you specifically. Anyone who witnesses or is present when another person is sexually harassed can be affected if such actions impact the workplace environment as a whole.

It Impacts Your Employment

Another key indicator of sexual harassment is that the actions directly or indirectly affect your employment, performance at work, or otherwise create a hostile or offensive environment that you must work in. That these behaviors affect your employment is important. If a behavior fails to have this sort of impact, it may not be considered sexual harassment.

For example, teasing or joking alone may not be illegal. The line is crossed into sexual harassment when such teasing is a) of a sexual or sexist nature and b) creates an uncomfortable, intimidating, or offensive workplace. It may also cross a line if complaints about such behavior result in adverse employment decisions, negative remarks in a personnel file, or other retaliation by the employer.

Harassing Behaviors Can Come From Anyone

Sexual harassment in workplace environments can come from anyone. Your supervisor, a supervisor in another area of the company, a co-worker, or even a client, patron, student, or another member of the public you interact with can be a source of harassment.

Similarly, both victims and harassers can be of any sex. Harassment can come from members of the opposite sex or from members of the same sex. The identity of the harasser does not necessarily matter; what matters is that they have acted in a way that is unwanted and sexual or sexist in nature.

Examples of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment includes a variety of unwelcome behaviors, ranging from sexual advances to requests for a person to perform sexual acts. While these actions vary from situation to situation, they often include physical, verbal, and online harassment.

Physical sexual harassment

Behaviors are considered sexual harassment when a person makes unwanted physical conduct with another or acts in a way that is sexual or sexually suggestive. This includes:

  • Actual or attempted sexual assault
  • Deliberate touching or groping
  • Encroaching a person’s personal space
  • Touching oneself sexually around another person

Verbal Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment isn’t always physical. Verbal sexual harassment occurs when a person audibly discusses sexual topics around other people who are unwilling to participate in such conversations, or when one person verbally pressures another into sexual acts.

Forms of verbal sexual harassment include:

  • Commenting on an employee’s appearance
  • Discussing one’s sex life at work
  • Asking for sexual favors
  • Sexual comments or jokes
  • Whistling or catcalling
  • Using sexual nicknames, i.e. sweetheart, doll, or babe

Online sexual harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t always take place in person. Many forms of sexual harassment occur at a distance, particularly via:

  • Text messages
  • Phone calls
  • Social media posts
  • Photos

It does not matter whether the unwelcome sexual advances occur physically, verbally, or in online contexts. All are inappropriate in the workplace.

What Are the Laws Against Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives workers legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace. Any company with 15 or more employees is required to abide by Title VII and handle any harassment complaints accordingly. Similarly, all federal employers regardless of size must abide by the government’s own anti-discrimination laws.

From a legal perspective, federal law covers two specific types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment. While there may be other behaviors that constitute harassment, the legal definition has not yet been expanded to include additional definitions.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

The first type of sexual harassment occurs when a manager, co-worker, or another figure of authority requests sexual favors from an employee in return for a certain outcome. Often, the individual may promise a promotion in workplace settings or a good grade in the case of school environments to the person they have sexually harassed in return for the requested favor.

However, the promised actions could also be negative in nature. This could include threats to fire or demote an employee if they do not comply with the demands. Regardless of whether the promised action is positive or negative, pressuring an employee or coworker for sexual favors in return for action is considered harassment and is illegal under federal law.

Hostile Work Environment Harassment

Workplace sexual harassment is also illegal under federal law when it is so severe that it alters the employee’s working conditions. Also known as a hostile work environment, this situation arises whenever harassment leads to a general workplace where employees are intimidated or made uncomfortable to the point where their work is affected.

Hostile work environments can be a challenge to detect and document. They may be the result of long-term, subtle patterns of behavior in which it is unclear what qualifies as harassment and what does not. Regardless, federal law protects employees against harassment that causes hostile work environments and it is the employer’s responsibility to be diligent about addressing such situations if they arise.

Steps to Take If You’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work

If you’ve been sexually harassed at work, you’ll need to act strategically to ensure you get the justice you deserve. Below are the steps you should take after experiencing workplace sexual harassment.

One of the most critical steps you will need to take if you’ve faced sex discrimination in the workplace is to document everything you possibly can. Keep track of every harassing behavior, every attempt you have made to stop it from happening, and every response you have received. These crucial details and a written record may be what later help to prove your claim to an investigator, government agency, law enforcement official, or jury.

When deciding what behaviors to document, keep in mind that the conduct must be offensive to not only you but to any other reasonable person under the circumstances. Consider asking someone you trust whether they would also consider the behavior to be offensive or unwanted.

Details are key

The little details are what may make or break your case. Keep a written record of everything you can about the incident, including:

  • Time, date, and location
  • Details of what occurred
  • Who was involved
  • Who else may have heard or witnessed it
  • Any text messages, photos, or similar things you have received
  • How it affected you
  • Any other details you can remember

You’ll want to be sure to keep the information in a safe and secure location where it cannot be easily accessed or deleted by someone other than yourself. Consider making multiple copies or backing your files up to an online storage service.

Cover Your Bases

You’ll want to look out for yourself and take proactive steps as you gather information, especially if you fear retaliation. Be sure to keep copies of any past performance report, evaluation, or personnel files you have received. This helps to demonstrate your positive work performance before the incident and can show if your employer later makes negative marks in retaliation after you’ve filed your complaint.

As you document the harassment you’ve experienced, you will also want to document your response to it. Begin by telling the harasser to stop unwanted behaviors or physical contact.

This can be a difficult confrontation to have, especially if your harasser is a supervisor or is otherwise in a position of authority. If you are concerned for your safety or are worried about retaliation, you may wish to skip this step until another supervisor, mediator, or human resources representative is available to sit in on the conversation. Remember that your safety is always the most important consideration.

It’s important when having these discussions that you clearly state what behaviors you want to stop. Avoid making ambiguous statements and be direct about what makes you uncomfortable. This helps to clearly define what behaviors are unwelcome and can be a key factor in determining later if boundaries have been crossed.

This is where it can be especially helpful to document your requests in writing. Having a paper trail to show that you clearly told your harasser that their ongoing behaviors were unwanted and unacceptable will go a long way towards proving any future workplace sexual harassment claim you may eventually make.

After addressing the behavior directly with your harasser, you may need to begin escalating your complaint to others in your company. Before you do so, be sure to check your company’s policies to see if they have an official complaint procedure to follow to report the harassment. This information may be contained in your employee handbook, manual, or other personnel documents.

If there is an official procedure in place to report harassment, be sure to follow it. This will help expedite the process and will give your employer the chance to properly address the issue from the start. If there is no such procedure in place, ask your supervisor or human resources department how to go about filing a complaint.

It is important that you report sexual harassment to your supervisor as soon as possible so that appropriate actions may be taken. Many women and men who have been sexually harassed fail to bring it up with their employers, often due to fears of retaliation or negative repercussions following their complaint. Others may choose not to do so because they are not clear as to what constitutes illegal sexual harassment and what does not.

Regardless, it is impossible for your employer to take action without a report. If you don’t feel comfortable reporting to your direct supervisor, or feel as though they have not taken appropriate action after a previous report, consider moving up the chain of command. Take your complaint to your company’s human resources department or to your union representative if you have one.

After addressing concerns with your employer, report sexual harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for handling such claims. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will review the complaint and all of the documentation provided. Each report is considered on a case-by-case basis.

Additionally, Missouri has a designated state agency known as the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR), which is devoted to handling human rights violations such as sexual harassment. You’ll want to file a complaint with these government agencies as well. Talk to a lawyer for harassment to ensure that you have reported the sexual harassment via all of the proper channels to help prevent these behaviors from affecting other employees in the future.

Harassment lawyers specialize in workplace sexual harassment cases and can help you or a family member get the justice you deserve. You should talk to a lawyer for harassment as soon as possible to determine if you have the right to sue the employee who chose to sexually harass you or the company that allowed you to be sexually harassed at work. Workplace sexual harassment should not be taken lightly and you’ll want an expert team by your side.

Your harassment attorney or employment attorney will want to know the full details of your complaint, as well as any adverse employment actions, negative performance evaluations, or other retaliations you have faced since you filed your internal complaint.

With the help of your lawyer, you can take steps to file a lawsuit seeking punitive damages for adverse employment actions, lost wages, or emotional distress you’ve experienced due to the bad behavior of your employer or coworker.

Filing a lawsuit is a big step, and you’ll want to make sure you’re ready for this process. Keeping track of all of your documentation is essential, and you’ll want to make sure your attorney for harassment has all of your evidence on file. From there, they will work with you to devise a plan of action for pursuing your legal claim.

How Do I Report Sexual Harassment If I Decide I Want To?

It can take a lot of courage to decide to report sexual harassment, especially when it occurs in the workplace. You’ll want to make sure to report it both internally to your employer and externally to the appropriate government agencies. These agencies exist on both the state level and national levels. For Missouri residents, the state agency to contact is the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.

While filing multiple reports may seem daunting, doing so can help to ensure that no other employees are sexually harassed at your workplace. Remember that having a trustworthy team of harassment lawyers in your corner can help give you much-needed support during this process.

Report It According to Your Company’s Policy

There is an expectation that employees will begin the reporting practice by using any internal complaint processes or procedures offered by their company. This gives your employer the chance to properly address the issue once they’ve been made aware of the situation. It isn’t easy to hold them legally accountable for the situation if they have not been given notice and the opportunity to correct the situation from the start.

Always check with your supervisors, human resources personnel, or even your union representative to ensure you are following the internal policies for reporting at your company.

File a Claim With the EEOC or the Missouri Commission on Human Rights

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is one of the federal agencies that handle employee sexual harassment complaints, alongside state agencies like the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR). Both should be organizations that you report your sexual harassment to.

On very rare occasions, the EEOC may decide to pursue the legal complaint on your behalf. More often than not, after your discrimination complaint you will be given a letter giving you the right to sue your employer and any co-workers responsible for the offensive behavior or who failed to act to make the harassment stop.

Is My Employer Responsible for Preventing a Hostile Work Environment?

Any attorney for harassment will tell you that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires all employers with 15 or more employees to prevent a hostile environment from forming and to protect employees who have been sexually harassed. This can obligate them to actively address any sexual harassment complaint they receive, particularly when the hostile environment affects an employee’s job performance.

Ideal Employer Responses After a Complaint

Your employer should take every sexual harassment complaint seriously and should actively work to create an environment where employees feel safe and comfortable reporting harassment. Ideally, they will immediately investigate and should try to reach an unbiased conclusion based solely on the facts of the case. To ensure the investigation remains neutral, some companies may turn to a third-party professional investigator to gather information and interview the people involved so that they may determine fault in the investigation.

After the investigation is concluded, your employer may pursue disciplinary action and/or termination of any employee(s) who have committed sexual harassment in the workplace. Regardless of their findings, employers will ideally take steps to communicate the results of the investigation to you. Doing so is just one way that they can take steps to rebuild a positive work environment.

How Much Time Do I Have to File a Complaint or Sue?

You have 180 days to file a charge with the EEOC, the government agency office responsible for handling such claims. Employees of a federal government agency have a shorter time frame of just 45 days to contact a counselor with the EEOC.

For workers in Missouri, harassment complaints made under the Missouri Human Rights Act must also be filed with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) within 180 days of the harassment or discrimination in the workplace.

This limited time frame is why it is important for you to discuss your situation with a harassment lawyer as soon as possible. They will be able to give you the best advice on how to proceed before your window to file a complaint or sue passes.

Learn How to Protect Yourself From Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

It’s important to be proactive when dealing with unwanted sexual behavior or sexual harassment in the workplace. Don’t ​be afraid to speak up in situations that make you uncomfortable or that are hostile. The behavior ​cannot ​change until it has been addressed. 

If you feel comfortable doing so, consider asking your employer to improve the company policy regarding sexual harassment. You may ask them to provide company-wide training on how to prevent sexual harassment and how to promote an inclusive workplace. You might also ask them to share surveys to judge the overall feelings within the office and whether employees perceive the environment as hostile.

For Employers

Prevention is often the best way to stop sexual harassment from happening in the workplace. Employers should take action to stop these types of behaviors upfront. Establishing clear communication with employees and a zero-tolerance policy for harassment is one of the first and most powerful steps employers can take.

Providing employees with training on how to prevent sexual harassment and on bystander intervention are also two concrete ways to protect employees from sexual harassment in the workplace. Establishing clear practices and protocols for handling complaints if they do arise can also help encourage employees to report problems early so that situations can be addressed before they get out of hand.

I Want to File a Claim or Sue – What Should I Do?

If you’ve decided you want to file a claim or sue, talking to an experienced harassment lawyer is the smart thing to do. A skilled lawyer for harassment will be able to talk you through your complaint and will help you to determine what options you have available for pursuing justice. Reach out to Holman Schiavone, LLC to schedule a free consultation and begin protecting your rights and your future today.