What should I do if I'm being sexually harassed at work?

Q:

What should I do if I'm being sexually harassed at work?

A:

In the last several weeks, a number of high-profile men have been charged with allegations that they sexually harassed or sexually assaulted women in the workplace. Although allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have received the most attention, there have been allegations against other men in other industries as well. While the media’s attention is likely to foster changes, until such changes occur, it’s important to understand how to protect yourself against sexual harassment in the workplace.

1. Understand what constitutes sexual harassment.

The first step to protecting yourself against sexual harassment is to understand what it is and how to recognize it.

The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

Sexual harassment can include touching, kissing or hugging an employee. It can also include jokes, teasing, questions, remarks about an employee, or requests for sexual favors. Both men and women can be the victims of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can be perpetuated by co-workers, clients and supervisors.

For legal claims of sexual harassment, however, governing bodies generally evaluate whether the claim involves a quid pro quo form of harassment or whether it rises to the level of creating a “hostile work environment.”

2. Try to stop the harassment on your own.

The next step if you are experiencing sexual harassment is to take steps on your own to stop the offensive acts. Although this may not be appropriate in all situations, if someone made one inappropriate comment that made you feel uncomfortable, you may be able to stop the behavior with a firm statement of disapproval.

If the behavior does not stop, if it is a quid pro quo request, or if the behavior is creating a hostile work environment, you need to document the encounter(s) – including the date, time, place and witness names. Keep all of your notes in a secure location. Other evidence such as notes, emails or text messages should also be saved. It’s also important to include information about how their actions affected your ability to perform your job and how they made you feel.

3. Review your company’s handbook and policies on sexual harassment.

The third step if you are sexually harassed at work is to review your company’s policies. The good news is that most employers have steps and policies to report harassing behavior. Find out who to talk to and schedule a face-to-face meeting, if possible.

4. Provide a detailed explanation of the specific complaint.

Next, bring a detailed description of the complaint to the meeting. Be as specific as possible. Do not make exaggerated claims, do not speak in generalities, and do not lie. Making a false claim could be considered defamation and could result in a defamation lawsuit against you.

5. Identify what you would like your employer to do.

In some cases, you may have a clear understanding of the actions that you want your employer to take to eliminate the harassment. You have the right to request that your employer take these actions. Your employer, however, does not have to follow your suggestions, nor do they have to fire the offending employee or even tell you what actions they intend to take. They do, however, have the responsibility to ensure that the harassment stops. Your employer also has a legal obligation to investigate the alleged offenses. You may not, however, be privy to their investigative actions.

6. Follow-up your meeting with a written confirmation.

After you have had your meeting with the proper authority, you will need to follow up with a written statement about the meeting and what was discussed. An email is generally best because it can be saved and retrieved, even if deleted. The statement should contain detailed information about the accusation of sexual harassment, the date and time of the meeting, a list of all meeting attendees, and the solution that was proposed.

7. File a complaint with the EEOC or contact a lawyer.

If you have reported the harassment and followed your company’s policies, but the harassment continues, you have several options. In some cases, depending on when the harassment occurred and the size of the company, you may be able to file a complaint with the EEOC.

Another course of action is to contact a lawyer. Seeking legal advice is recommended if your employer decides to retaliate against you or refuses to address the sexual harassment.

8. Find new employment.

Another option to consider, especially if you have been threatened physically, is to find new employment. Finding new employment does not eliminate your legal right to pursue your case, but it could be necessary to ensure your safety.

Note: Laws regarding when you can file a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be complicated. For example, in some cases, you may be required to file a complaint with the EEOC and give them a chance to resolve the matter prior to filing a legal claim. Talk to a lawyer if you have questions about your rights.

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Whether you're facing a legal issue or just seeking information, Justipedia aims to be your most trusted resource for legal information on the Web. With the help of legal professionals across the country, we put the law in plain language to help answer your top legal questions.

Justipedia was founded by Internet veterans Cory Janssen and Mitchell Allen. Janssen founded Investopedia.com and grew it one of the largest investing sites on the Web. Allen is an author, speaker and the founder of LeadRival, the leading provider of pay-per-action advertising in consumer legal services.

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