Sexual harassment in the workplace is still a very common problem, but employees are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is unlawful to harass an employee, which includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any verbal or physical harassment that is of a sexual nature. The law also encompasses offensive or hostile remarks made about a person’s sex or gender.
The Federal sexual harassment laws don’t prohibit all comments or teasing, and isolated incidents are generally not considered sexual harassment under the law. However, when the behavior or comments are repeated or severe enough that it creates a hostile work environment, involves unwanted sexual acts, or if they impact employment decisions, there may be grounds for a complaint.
Depending on the severity and type of sexual harassment, there may be grounds for financial compensation of losses or even punitive damages if your employer was negligent or refused to stop the inappropriate behavior.
What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?
Employees are protected from workplace harassment by both federal and state laws. Federal sexual harassment laws protect all employees of companies with fifteen or more employees, including federal, state, and local governments and organizations. The Missouri Human Rights Act extends that protection to employers with six or more employees.
Sexual harassment is a type of sexual discrimination where unwanted sexually explicit behavior negatively impacts an employee. This can also include gender harassment, where negative comments or actions are made directed toward one gender identity or sexual orientation, for example, making comments about women being too emotional to accomplish a task.
Does Federal Law Only Include Harassment Against Women?
No, men are also frequently victims of sexual harassment. Approximately 15-18 percent of sexual harassment claims recorded by the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) came from men from 2010 to 2021. Federal law protects employees of all genders.
What If the Person Who Sexually Harassed Me Is Not My Boss?
Employees are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace no matter who is causing it. That includes inappropriate behavior from employers, co-workers, customers, and clients. When multiple people are involved in the harassment or the harassment is ongoing and severe, it can create a hostile work environment.
What Behaviors Might Be Considered Workplace Sexual Harassment Under the Law?
The federal definition leaves room for casual comments, teasing, and isolated incidents as long as they are not deemed serious. When unwanted sexual behavior or comments are repeated or severe, it can be considered workplace sexual harassment.
There are generally two legal standards of what might constitute sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment harassment.
Quid pro quo harassment
When there is a threat of a job-related loss, whether implicit or explicit, sexual harassment is considered to be quid pro quo harassment. That means that you know that you risk losing a promotion or job benefits, or even your job itself if you don’t play along with the harassment, no matter how unwelcome the attention is.
Situations that might be considered sexual harassment under quid pro quo include receiving promotions or raises for hiding or not reporting a sexual assault, financial compensation for a sexual favor, or threats of losing a promotion if you can’t just play along with the sexual jokes your boss makes to you.
Hostile Work Environment Harassment
A hostile work environment is created when there are repeated or severe sexual encounters that create an intimidating or hostile atmosphere where you work or that result in a negative employment decision for the victim. It is the employer’s responsibility to maintain a healthy environment at their workplace, which includes employees, managers, clients, and customers. If a client is allowed to create a hostile work environment for an employee, the employer is liable under the law.
A workplace culture could be considered a hostile environment when it allows unwanted sexual advances or touching, sexual jokes or jokes about sexual assault, derogatory comments about a specific gender, intentional infliction of unwanted physical contact, or fosters situations where a co-worker feels it is acceptable to make inappropriate statements or gestures without fear of negative consequences.
If the environment at your workplace interferes with your ability to do your job, that could be a sign that it is a hostile work environment.
When Should I Get a Sexual Harassment Attorney Involved?
If you are concerned that your harasser could retaliate against you, you can hire a sexual harassment attorney before you even go to your employer. If you feel like you might not know what to say or that you are vulnerable to being bullied by your employer, a lawyer can be very helpful in supporting you as you stand up for yourself. They can ensure that your employer follows the law by investigating and resolving your problem.
Sexual harassment attorneys can also help you navigate the claim process. They can help you make sure you include all the necessary information that will help your case have the best possible chance of earning the right to sue or reaching an out-of-court settlement.
Reporting Workplace Sexual Harassment
The first step to addressing sexual harassment at work is to tell the person harassing you to stop. You need to make it clear to the person doing the unwanted touching, jokes, or other behavior that it is unwelcome.
At this point, you should start keeping a log of anything that happens and copies of communications. It is important that you document your interactions in writing so that you have a record if the inappropriate behavior doesn’t stop. Keeping good records from the beginning will make it much easier should you need to pursue action at a later date.
Contact Your Company’s Human Resources Department
If the harassment doesn’t stop, or if the person harassing you is in a position of power over you, you may need to go to your Human Resources department. You may even consider going directly to HR if you are concerned that your harasser will respond poorly to your request that they stop their offensive behavior.
If you go to HR, it’s a good idea to review your employee handbook so you are familiar with your company’s stated sexual harassment policy, and specifically outline how what you’re experiencing is a violation of the policy.
Cooperate With the Internal Investigation
Your company should initiate an internal investigation of your complaint to verify the validity of the problem and attempt to quickly resolve it, ideally with a simple conversation with the other party followed by changed behavior. It’s important that you follow through with any steps they ask you to take, as long as they don’t put you in danger or an uncomfortable position at work so that it is clear that you are doing everything possible to resolve the situation quickly.
Your Employer Should Take Steps to Correct the Situation
If they haven’t already done so, your employer should ensure that all employees, including management, are trained on workplace sexual harassment. They should make the rules around appropriate behavior clear, and enforce those rules.
There should be a clear procedure put in place that makes it simple to report and investigate any incidences of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Your Company Must Not Take Negative Action Against You
It is unacceptable for a workplace to retaliate against an employee for reporting sexual harassment. They may not change your job description, fire you, remove desirable work assignments, or in any way negatively impact your ability to do your job while they investigate the complaint.
They may want to separate you from your harasser, which can be helpful, but they cannot do it in a way that negatively affects the victim. For example, if they want to change your schedule so you don’t work at the same time as your harasser, but this affects your hours or paycheck, that could be considered an “adverse employment action” and would be taken into account if the complaint is escalated.
Making a Sexual Harassment Claim
If you are unable to resolve your workplace sexual harassment complaint through your company’s internal procedures, you may decide to formally file a complaint. There are two places a workplace sexual harassment claim can be filed, and you can file in either or both locations.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
There are strict time limits on filing sexual harassment claims. Claims must be filed with the EEOC within 180 days (45 days for federal employees). The claim is filed through a formal Charge of Discrimination, which is a signed statement describing how you experienced sexual harassment at your workplace and requesting that the EEOC investigate and take remedial action.
The Charge of Discrimination is required before a lawsuit can be filed against your employer. It is possible to protect your identity by having another individual or organization file on your behalf. If you are uncertain if filing a charge is appropriate, you can schedule a meeting to discuss your concerns with an EEOC staff member before taking any action.
The Missouri Commission on Human Rights
In Missouri, the Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) handles discrimination complaints. As with the EEOC, claims must be filed within 180 days under the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA). In order to sue your employer for sexual harassment, you must go through the complaint process with the MCHR.
The first step is the Discrimination Complaint Assessment, to determine if the MHRA applies to your situation. MCHR staff are available to help you navigate this process and to refer you to the correct department if it’s determined that your case is not appropriate for the MHRA.
Filing a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
If your charge is not investigated and resolved or dismissed within 180 days of filing, you will receive a Notice of Right to Sue that allows you to pursue resolution through the legal system.
Notice of Right to Sue
If you haven’t received your notice and your charge file is still open with the EEOC and/or MCHR 180 days after filing, you are allowed to request your Notice of Right to Sue. Requests are submitted through the office responsible for investigating your charge.
After you’ve successfully filed your claim and received your Notice of Right to Sue, you must file your sexual harassment lawsuit within 90 days of the date on the Notice Right to Sue. You’ll need to quickly hire an experienced sexual harassment attorney to begin legal proceedings.
Collect and Organize Your Records
Your attorney will need to review all of the records you’ve been keeping and may request further evidence or talk to witnesses. If you are still working for the employer in question, you will need to ensure you don’t address your case with anyone on work property or during working hours.
Document your employment progress
Keep all job evaluations, records of job actions like raises and promotions, whether you got them or not, notes on conversations with your manager regarding job performance, and other things related to your performance and benefits. Be careful not to make photocopies of documents without permission or remove documents from your workplace, which may be in violation of the terms of your employment, and could get you fired or compromise your case.
Document the emotional impact
You may also want to document how this situation has impacted your life. Did you lose weight? Did your personal relationships suffer? Did you lose sleep? Have you needed to start seeing a therapist? Because the primary outcome of workplace sexual harassment is often emotional distress, you will need to be able to document how this has impacted your life.
Pursuing legal action on a sexual harassment claim will potentially be a very emotional process. If you pursue punitive damages based on emotional distress, it may open up very personal aspects of your life to examination through the court. You will need an attorney who will protect you as best they can and help you navigate the process as safely as possible.
An experienced employment attorney can help you file all appropriate charges. In sexual harassment workplace claims, it is rarely the only charge. Often other charges are included like the breach of contract, retaliation, discrimination, and negligent or intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Possible Outcomes of a Sexual Harassment Lawsuit
There is a wide range of possible outcomes for sexual harassment claims. The standard for proving a sexual harassment claim is high, and many cases never go to court. Many employers prefer to reach a settlement outside of court to avoid the expense and embarrassment.
If the case does go to court, it can be challenging to meet the burden of proof that the harassment was egregious and beyond what a reasonable person would consider to be acceptable behavior for an extended period of time.
Many workplace sexual harassment cases are settled before going to court. The advantage of settlement for sexual harassment victims is that the uncertainty of a jury trial, which may or may not find a sympathetic pool of jurors, is removed.
A settlement involves some form of financial consideration that would be negotiated by your attorney to cover your losses, including lost past and future wages, benefits like health insurance, and compensation for emotional damage and disruption to your life. However, the amount is mutually agreed upon, so it is often significantly lower than might be awarded at the end of a jury trial, where punitive damages are likely to be much higher.
You are likely to be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a part of your settlement since the main advantages of settling with your employer are that it is much less time-consuming, less expensive than a court trial (especially if it is a loss), and that they can control the outcome and what you are allowed to say in public.
If your sexual harassment case goes to trial, there is a significant amount of uncertainty as to the outcome. Depending on the nature of your case details, it may be difficult to convince a jury that your experiences are egregious enough to warrant being awarded damages from your employer. Your life may be opened up for scrutiny.
However, the settlements awarded after a jury trial in a successful sexual harassment case are often much higher, since your employer will not need to agree with the terms. Punitive damages are likely to be much higher, if they are awarded, and you won’t be required to abide by a nondisclosure agreement.
Because the details in each case vary so widely, it’s difficult to predict what the best outcome would be in your situation. The best way to figure out what the best outcome is for you is to talk to an experienced attorney at a law firm that specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment claims.
Your attorney can help you navigate the intricacies of state and federal laws, and ensure you build your sexual harassment case so that it gives you the best possible chance at compensation for what you’ve suffered.
If you’re dealing with sexual harassment at work, our experienced attorneys can help you take the next steps to get resolution and recover what you’ve lost. Call Holman Schiavone, LLC today at 816-320-6108 to set up an appointment to discuss your case.