Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Know Your Rights & What to Do if You are Sexually Harassed

Katie McBeth  | 

One of the biggest conversations happening in popular media and journalism right now is that of sexual harassment. The #MeToo movement has brought awareness to sexual assault and harassment in many different professions: from tech companies to Hollywood, and from farm workers to politicians.

This conversation is long overdo and pervasive. It is also providing much needed support to victims that have previously felt silenced or ignored. However, it will take years before this cultural shift takes root in our society. Sexual harassment is prevalent and will always be necessary to address.

Regardless, as a victim, it can be extremely terrifying to share your story; especially if you are working with your harasser. Workplace sexual harassment in any form should never be tolerated by a business. Additionally, HR and supervisors should always address claims immediately and with the utmost severity. Not every business will follow this rule, but as a victim you still have rights outside of your company to advocate for yourself.

First, let’s start by defining the two different types of sexual harassment, then dive into the legal rights you have to fight sexual harassment in the workplace.

What Are the Two Types of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can come in many forms, but is commonly defined as: sexual discrimination, both verbal and action-based, that often entails unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. It is legally defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and is protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Every sexual harassment case is unique, but many can be boiled down to one of two cases:

  • Quid Pro Quo (or “This for That”): In these scenarios, there is often a request that someone perform a sexual favor in exchange for a promotion, raise, or otherwise beneficial favor. The sexual harassment is often coming from a boss or authority figure, and the request can be blunt or merely suggestive in nature.
  • Hostile Work Environment: Sexual harassment can also come in continued targeted discrimination, which leads to a hostile work environment. In these situations, the harassment could come from a coworker or boss, and it could be so consistent that it directly affects your work performance. Additionally, you don’t always have to be the target in order for the behavior or comments to affect you.

Your Rights as a Workplace Sexual Harassment Victim

As a victim, you may be wondering whether or not you fit into either of those two categories. Title VII protections extend to men and women, and the majority of the fifty states have expanded protections for transgender and non-binary (gender non-conforming) individuals as well. It’s important to note that no matter how minor the offense may seem, no matter what your gender, and no matter how important the harasser might be to the company, it is vital to report all instances of sexual harassment.

If you feel unsafe at your current job and thus unable to report the harassment, there are still some options for you as well.

Make a Record of Harassment Behavior

The first and most important thing you should do following an incident of harassment is to make a record of the occurrence. Start by listing who said it, what was said (or the general message), who else was present, and the location and time that it occurred. Keep a note of every following incident, as well.

If the behavior persists, you can also make note of how this affected your work: whether or not you went home early that day, or simply were unable to finish a project because of the incident. Documenting your productivity at work can help your manager or HR leader understand just how profound of an effect this behavior has had on you. It can also help them understand how sexual harassment can directly affect their business.

Share Your Claim With HR

Once you feel comfortable doing so, you can take your notes to either you manager or your HR representative. Bringing awareness to the issue can be intimidating, but your HR leader should be working on your side to eliminate harmful behavior from the office. Once they’ve been made aware of the situation, you can either confront your harasser, or (if you don’t feel safe doing that) you can leave it to the company to follow through on any appropriate disciplinary action.

Unfortunately, not all businesses are willing to investigate sexual harassment claims with the seriousness that these claims deserve. If this is the case with your company, you still have the support of the EEOC. As the EEOC notes on their website:

“Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).”

File a Claim With the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

If your company has been made aware of the issues and has failed to investigate or address the harasser, then they can be held liable for harassment according to the EEOC. If you believe this is the case with your company, you can file a sexual harassment claim with the EEOC and share your notes with them. They will thoroughly investigate any claim that is brought to their attention.

Unfortunately, some sexual harassment victims might also be tied in with a private-arbitration clause or discrimination waiver that their company has forced them to sign. Although the Supreme Court is currently investigating a trio of cases about private-arbitration clauses, it could take some time before a decision is made and a ruling is passed. If you fall into this category, you can still file a claim with the EEOC, as this right is still protected despite any waivers the employer may have you sign. As the EEOC notes: “The agreement [an employer has you sign] may not restrict the employee from filing a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.”

The EEOC also suggests that you consult with a qualified lawyer to ensure that you fully understand your rights and any potential limitations you may have in a sexual harassment case if you’ve signed a waiver.

Preventing Sexual Harassment From Controlling You

No matter what the outcome may be for your individual case, what is most important is your safety and your emotional and mental well-being. If you find that it’s too difficult to continue to work at your business due to the trauma you’ve experienced as a victim, it is within your power (and right) to leave that company and move on with your life. If you do decide to leave, make sure you do so professionally and gracefully so that you can acquire a professional reference from your company.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is never the fault of the victim. As a victim, you have the right to protect yourself, and your company should advocate to create a safe environment for everyone. There might still be decades to go before our culture adapts to a truly equitable work environment, but the work being done now will help pave the way for that inevitable future.

There is power in your story, and power in your ability to stand up for yourself. If you are the victim of sexual harassment at work, seek help and share your story if you can. There’s no time like the present to work on creating a better and safer future for everyone.


Image Sourcehttps://depositphotos.com/

Katie McBeth is a researcher and writer out of Boise, ID, with experience in marketing for small businesses and management. Her favorite subject of study is millennials, and she has been featured on Fortune Magazine and the Quiet Revolution. She researches SEO strategies during the day, and freelances at night. You can follow her writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth

This post was updated February 13, 2018. It was originally published January 30, 2018.