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What To Do If You Have Been Sexually Harassed at Work

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Throughout the United States, at least 25% up to 85% of women face sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, most of these incidents are never officially or unofficially reported. It is the responsibility of the employer to protect their workers from being sexually harassed by anyone they interact with on the job.  Employees must also be free to make reports and file complaints about sexual harassment without the threat of retaliation.

If you are being sexually harassed at work, you have a right to report the situation to your employer and have it resolved. This could mean establishing boundaries, correcting behavior, or removing the offending person from the work environment. There are many forms of sexual harassment that can occur, some of which are even accidental or unintentional. This is often used as a way to rationalize not speaking up, but those instances are usually the easiest to correct. There are many ways to approach resolving workplace sexual harassment whether it is a misunderstanding, a toxic work environment, or a threat to your job or safety. In any situation, knowing your rights and options under the law is the first step.


What is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

The term sexual harassment can encompass many different types of situations. In the context of employment law, sexual harassment is considered sex discrimination which is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This is a federal law which means it applies to the entire country, though different states may have their own additional regulations or procedures in place. It is broadly defined as any unwanted behavior or conduct that is sexual or sex based. If the behavior would make any reasonable person uncomfortable, or if a reasonable request is made that the behavior change and it does not, there may be a viable claim for sexual harassment.

Workplace sexual harassment laws apply regardless of the gender of the victim or perpetrator. Employees are also protected from being sexually harassed by anyone they work with including but not limited to:

  • Managers
  • Supervisors
  • Coworkers
  • Colleagues
  • Customers
  • Clients
  • Vendors
  • Contractors

The word ‘workplace’ is also broadly applied. Employees are protected in any work-related setting including but not limited to:

  • The office or job site
  • Off site meetings
  • Company parties or gatherings
  • Business retreats
  • While traveling for work

Workplace sexual harassment is also generally split into two different categories, though they may coincide with each other.

Quid Pro Quo – When someone in a position of power over the employee uses that power to bribe or threaten them into sexual activities. They might offer job perks, a promotion, or a pay raise in exchange for sexual favors. They may also threaten to terminate them or sabotage their career if they do not agree. Some perpetrators may try bribery first and then if they are rejected, move on to threats.

Hostile Work Environment – When the sexual harassment is repetitive and pervasive or severe enough that it prevents the victim of sexual harassment from being able to perform their job duties. This may involve offensive comments, sexual requests, explicit images being displayed, or even physical contact.


What To Do if Sexually Harassed at Work

There are different ways to approach different situations. It is always important that you keep your own safety in mind as well as being aware of your rights under the law and company policy. If you are not the only victim, you may want to come together to take action collectively as well.

If you feel safe and comfortable speaking with the person directly, you can let them know that they are making you uncomfortable and ask the harasser to stop. If not, or if that is unsuccessful, you can consult your company’s policy for reporting harassment and follow the procedure there. This often involves notifying a supervisor or making a report with Human Resources. It is best practice to make complaints in writing sent via email if you can.

It is important to have as much documentation as possible. Write down the details of verbal or in-person incidents including the names of those involved, exactly what happened, when and where it happened, and list any witnesses. Keep copies of emails, text messages, and social media posts as well as any written complaints or other related documents. You should also keep your documentation in a private location not connected to your work. This is partially for confidentiality, but also because if your employer chooses to retaliate and you are terminated, you could lose access to your workspace and any job-related accounts or devices.


What Should You Do If Nothing Is Done About Workplace Sexual Harassment?

If management and human resources do not resolve the issue, there are further steps that you can take.

If you are part of a union, you can report the matter to them so that they can file a grievance. Familiarize yourself with the collective bargaining agreement so you understand your employer’s responsibilities.

There are also government agencies in place to enforce laws protecting employees from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation:

  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission – On the federal level, the EEOC oversees matters pertaining to laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Complaints must be filed with the EEOC within 180 days of the violation. They will decide whether to investigate your claim or attempt to arrange mediation with the employer. If you wish to file a lawsuit, you will need a Right to Sue letter from the EEOC.
  • Civil Rights Department – In the state of California, the former Department of Fair Employment and Housing is now known as the Civil Rights Department. This agency handles violations of state laws that involve instances of sexual harassment. Complaints must be filed within 3 years of the violation.

If you are still unable to resolve the issue, or you do not want to wait for the investigative process of the government agencies, you can also speak to an employment attorney. They can help you review the details of your situation and advise you on what rights and options you have. If you are terminated for refusing sexual advances or complaining about sexual harassment, you may have a viable wrongful termination claim.


How to Report Sexual Harassment at Work

When you file a complaint with your union, human resources department, or a government agency, it is important to be clear, concise, and detailed. Your sexual harassment complaint should be in writing and sent via email so that you have a copy of what you said and proof that it was sent. The complaint should include:

  • The name of the perpetrator
  • The date and time of each incident
  • The location of each incident
  • The names of any witnesses
  • Details of what was said and done
  • Any documented proof such as texts

If you are terminated, you will have to be able to prove that the termination was in fact retaliation. This can mean having evidence that refutes the reasons the employer gives for the termination, or documentation that shows a clear timeline. If you choose to hire a lawyer, they will want any evidence that supports your claims such as:

  • Text messages & emails
  • Formal complaints
  • Termination letter
  • Performance reviews
  • Witnesses and/or security footage
  • Medical records confirming emotional distress

Remember that if you resign, you are generally waiving your right to sue. There are situations where someone being forced to resign is considered a type of termination, but this is something that you should discuss with an attorney first. Also, if you sign any kind of severance agreement upon termination, you are also agreeing not to take legal action against them.


What is the Statute of Limitations on Filing a Workplace Sexual Harassment Claim?

If you are filing a claim with the EEOC, you have 180 days from the date of the last incident to do so. The CRD allows claims to be filed up to 3 years from the date of the last incident. If you are terminated in retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, you have 2 years from the date of termination in which to file a civil lawsuit against your employer.


Am I Protected Against Retaliation?

It is illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for resisting or reporting sexual harassment. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for employers to do so anyway. Studies have shown that more than half of the claims filed with the EEOC regarding sexual harassment were accompanied by claims of retaliation including wrongful termination. Other forms of retaliation may include reduced pay, demotions, or an increased hostile work environment.


What Responsibility Does My Employer Have?

Employers have a responsibility to protect their employees from sexual harassment. As of 2019, if an employer in California has at least 5 employees, they must provide sexual harassment prevention training every 2 years. Supervisory staff must undergo a 2-hour training course and non-supervisory staff must undergo a 1-hour training course. When a new employee is hired, they must undergo this training within 6 months. Employers must also have a clear policy in place to prevent and address sexual harassment that is consistently enforced. All employees must be made aware of these policies. There are official informational posters that must also be displayed in the workplace.


Who Can Be Held Responsible for Workplace Sexual Harassment?

If someone in a supervisory position sexually harasses a subordinate, the employer is held strictly liable even if they did not know about the harassment. However, if the employer took sufficient appropriate measures to prevent the harassment and offered the employee options to remedy the situation which were then refused, the employer can be cleared of liability. The employer is also liable for any retaliation related to the harassment.

If someone sexually harasses a coworker, the employer could still be held liable if they were aware of the situation, reasonably should have known, did not sufficiently attempt to prevent sexual harassment, and/or did not sufficiently attempt to stop the harassment.


What Are the Potential Outcomes If Someone Wins Their Workplace Sexual Harassment Claim?

Depending on the situation, there are several possible outcomes to a workplace sexual harassment claim. This can include but is not limited to:

  • Removal of the perpetrator
  • Disciplinary action against the perpetrator
  • Reinstatement of the victim
  • Reversal of demotions or pay cuts
  • Compensation for lost wages
  • Compensation for emotional distress
  • Company policies and procedures updated

If the court determines that the employer is guilty of malice, fraud, or oppression or has committed particularly severe acts of reckless discrimination, there may be punitive damages awarded as well. Federal law regulates the amount of punitive damages imposed on a company based on the number of employees.


Contact Mesriani Law Group Today if You Have Been Sexually Harassed at Work

Both federal and state laws are constantly evolving to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the workplace, but it is still a common problem with thousands of victims every year. Unfortunately, many of them do not come forward because victims don’t know how or are afraid of the consequences. Speaking with an employment lawyer is a good way to get a full understanding of your rights and options. Our firm has years of experience guiding our clients through the legal process and getting them the justice they deserve. If you have been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, call Mesriani Law Group today for a free consultation.


Workplace Sexual Harassment FAQs

What are 5 things you should do if you are being sexually harassed?

There are many different options available when faced with sexual harassment, depending on the situation. Helpful steps you can take include:

Ask them to stop – This is not always a viable option and should not be taken if there is a risk to your safety. However, there are many occasions where clear communication is all that is needed to resolve the issue. If you tell someone that their behavior is making you uncomfortable, they may be likely to stop if that was not their intention.

Complain to your employer – You can make a formal complaint of sexual harassment to human resources or the equivalent department. This complaint should be in writing and sent via email if possible. It should be as detailed as possible while still being clear and concise.

Document everything – It is important to have evidence. Keep copies of all emails, text messages, and relevant documents. Take notes of incidents that happen in person so that you can keep track of the details. If you make a verbal complaint, send a follow up email to document what was said.

Educate yourself – Research the federal and state laws regarding workplace sexual harassment. Different situations may have variables that affect what regulations apply. You should know your rights and options under the law.

Talk to a lawyer – Having an attorney on your side can be a huge benefit when taking legal action against your employer. They can advise you, help you compile evidence, build your case, and fight for you every step of the way.

What is indirect harassment?

You can be affected by sexual harassment even when it is not being aimed at you. Indirect harassment is when you are offended or made uncomfortable by the conduct of those around you. This could involve witnessing someone else being sexually harassed or being exposed to situations that the people involved do not consider offensive. In the second situation, it is important to be clear that you are uncomfortable with what is happening. Examples of this can include:

• People having loud explicit conversations in the breakroom
• Someone asking your coworker invasive questions
• Offensive jokes being shared around the workplace
• Explicit or offensive decorations on the desk next to yours
• Coworkers engaging in public displays of affection

About the Author
Picture of Rodney Mesriani
Rodney Mesriani

Rodney Mesriani is the principal partner of the Los Angeles and Santa Monica based Mesriani Law Group. He specializes in personal injury and employment law while also being an accomplished litigator and trial attorney. Rodney is an aggressive negotiator and a well-known and respected attorney in the areas of practice he specializes in.

He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from California State University Northridge before attending Southwestern School of Law where he received his Juris Doctorate. While being an accomplished personal injury and employment lawyer, Rodney Mesriani has made it a point to attend numerous State Sponsored MCLE events and seminars over the years as a law practitioner to be informed of the latest laws and litigation strategies.



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