How to Deal with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Sexual harassment is usually defined by Courts and employers using the definition of sexual harassment contained in the guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). This language has also formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment. The guidelines define sexual harassment as:

“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

1. submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment,

2. submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or

3. such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

29 C.F.R. § 1604.11

A key part of the definition is the use of the word “unwelcome.” Unwelcome or uninvited conduct or communication of a sexual nature is prohibited, while welcome or invited actions or words are not unlawful. Sexual or romantic interaction between consenting people at work may be offensive to observers or may violate company policy, but it is not sexual harassment.

If you feel that you are a victim of sexual harassment, the following are steps that may be helpful.

1) Know your employer's sexual harassment policy. In some cases, you must utilize the employer's policy / procedure before you can file a charge with the appropriate governmental agency or bring a private lawsuit.

2) Ask the harasser to stop. Warn them that if their behavior continues, they will be reported to the employer and to the Commission. With some people, this may be all that is needed to stop the harassment. It may also be an element of demonstrating that the conduct was unwelcome and not consented to by silent agreement.

3) Write a note or memo to your harasser if they fail to stop. Clearly state that the harasser's behavior is not wanted and must stop immediately. This note or memo should be dated and signed and should have the harasser's first and last name in the greeting. You may choose to send this letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. You may also wish to copy the harasser's manager or supervisor. In any event, you should keep an exact copy for your records.

4) Keep records of each harassment incident including the date, time, place, details and witnesses. If the harasser sends an email, leaves a voicemail, or in some other way gives a tangible piece of evidence of their inappropriate behavior, keep this in your records.

5) Identify other victims and supporters / witnesses. Ask them to write down what they have experienced or observed and ask them to sign and date their statement.

6) If the harassment continues, write a letter to your supervisor describing the incidents and saying that the law requires employers to maintain a working environment free of sexual harassment. Set up a meeting to explain the situation and ask them to take steps to stop the harassment. If your supervisor is the one engaging in the harassing behavior, go to their supervisor, if possible.

7) If the supervisor does not show interest in correcting the situation, or if there is no supervisor over the harasser, inform the supervisor that the dispute will be taken to other offices within the company, if applicable, and to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or your private attorney.

8) Get copies of any written materials available from your employer which show a good work record. This will be very helpful if there is an investigation or if you go to court, particularly if you are fired for reporting the harassing behavior.

Once you have exhausted the informal options described above, it may be time to take action. You may need to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or state or local equivalents. The process can be a little different in each area, so if in doubt, contact an employment attorney for guidance. You may also have a private cause of action in some jurisdictions, and your attorney will be able to guide you through the process of filing this lawsuit.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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