If there's any silver lining to the string of sexual harassment stories in the media, it's that the allegations are shining a light on a serious and all too common problem. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that up to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment includes behaviors that create a hostile work environment, including:
- Making suggestive comments
- Telling sexual anecdotes
- Sharing lewd images
- Touching or looking at coworkers in an inappropriate way.
Anyone in your workplace can engage in sexual harassment – a supervisor, team member, or even a client – and the behavior doesn't have to be carried out at the office, it can easily happen at a work-sanctioned happy hour or on a business trip.
Know Your Rights
Federal law protects employees affected by harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act states that employees cannot be discriminated against based on their race, gender, religion, national origin, age, or disability, and some states have adopted additional protections that expand upon Title VII. Companies are required under these laws to take action when they know harassment is happening, and it is illegal to retaliate against anyone who files a harassment claim.
However, to protect their own interests, companies often make it difficult to pursue claims against them. Human Resource departments may be hesitant to investigate claims of harassment against the person signing their paychecks. And if no one at a company has ever successfully filed a claim before, it creates a culture of silence that discourages victims from coming forward. This is why it's critical that employees know their legal options and be vigilant in pursuing them.
If you're experiencing sexual harassment at work and don't know how to move forward, there are five steps you can take to put an end to the harassment and pursue a remedy.
Tell the harasser to stop
The first course of action is to tell the harasser to stop their behavior. Keep a record of when and how you confronted the harasser. In some cases, this is enough to get the abuse to stop.
Keep records and find trustworthy witnesses
Document every incident of harassment, including a chronological record with the date and time of the incident, who was involved, and who witnessed it. Also document anything that may serve as evidence, both as hard copies and digitally on your personal devices (do not store anything on your work computer or email, as your employer may monitor it). Talk to other witnesses and try to track down other victims. If you do not trust anyone at work, confide in friends and family about the unwanted behavior. If you file a legal claim later, they may serve as witnesses who can verify the timeline of harassment and back up your story.
Contact your supervisors
If you feel comfortable speaking with your direct supervisor or a mentor above them, their clout could work in your favor. They may be able to speak to the harasser on your behalf or guide you through Human Resource's reporting process. However, if the harassment is coming from a superior in the company, this may not be the best option. Only speak to them if you know the harassment will be kept in confidence.
File a complaint with Human Resources
Before approaching Human Resources, familiarize yourself with your company's anti-harassment policies and bring any documentation of the harassment you've experienced. Document every interaction you have with HR as well. In most cases, you must file a claim with HR before you can file a legal claim, but you may wish to speak to a lawyer as well and work with them in tandem, especially if you are concerned about being retaliated against. Legally, your employer cannot retaliate against you for filing a harassment claim, but unfortunately, you should be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Contact a lawyer
A lawyer can help you file a claim with the EEOC if the results from your company's investigation are unsatisfactory. If the EEOC finds that your claim is valid, they will issue a “right to sue” letter that will allow you to file a lawsuit. The exception is if you would like to make a criminal complaint against the harasser; in that case, you do not need to wait for approval from the EEOC. However, you should contact a lawyer and file a police report right away to ensure that you are within any statute of limitations. Time is of the essence to ensure that physical evidence is preserved. Regardless of when you contact a lawyer and whether you need assistance with a criminal or civil claim, attorneys have a duty, to be honest with you about the viability of your case, and most will offer a free consultation.
If you are experiencing workplace sexual harassment, the attorneys at AgnewBrusavich have more than three decades of experience handling sensitive and complex legal matters for victims and their families. Contact us today at (310) 928-9081.