Sexual Harassment: Actions You Can Take
Especially in the employment context, sexual harassment often makes the victim feel powerless. Many victims are even told that there is nothing they can do about the harassment, so they should just be quiet and tolerate it. In reality, there is much that a sexual harassment victim can do to put a stop to the problem, including informal actions at the workplace and formal steps like filing a lawsuit against the responsible parties.
First Step: Speak Up
In many sexual harassment cases, especially those involving a hostile work environment, the responsible parties may not realize that their conduct is offensive. If you are a victim of harassment, your first step toward resolving the problem should be to let the offending party know that you find their conduct offensive. In many cases this will resolve the problem, as the offensive conduct will stop out of a genuine concern for everyone's sensibilities, or out of an urge to avoid further workplace tension. If the issue isn't resolved at this stage, you have at least put the harasser on notice that you find his or her conduct offensive.
Follow Your Employer's Procedure
What if the offensive conduct doesn't stop, or the harasser tells you he or she doesn't care what you say? Some companies have a detailed procedure for handling sexual harassment claims. If your company has such a procedure, you should follow it to the letter, taking note of any time limits set out in that policy. For example, many employer policies will designate someone to whom harassment must be reported, so if your company has designated certain staff as being responsible for receiving sexual harassment complaints, that is where you should start.
If your company has no set procedure in place for reporting sexual harassment, you should bring your complaint to your immediate supervisor. If your supervisor is the individual committing the harassment in question, make your complaint to your supervisor's immediate superior. It is important, particularly in hostile environment cases, to make sure that your company's management is aware of the harassment.
Remember to keep a record of any harassment episodes, your complaints, and any incidents related to the harassment -- including dates, times, persons involved, and what was said.
If you are unable to resolve your harassment complaint by using your employer's internal procedures, and if you wish to pursue the matter, you will need to file an administrative charge with the appropriate governmental agency -- usually the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's human rights or civil rights enforcement agency. The governmental agency will investigate your claim, and will attempt to resolve it by negotiating with your employer.
If the agency cannot resolve your complaint, and it determines that your claim is a valid one, it will issue a "right to sue" letter. This letter means that you may bring your case to court.
If the appropriate governmental agency issues a "right to sue" letter, you may bring a civil lawsuit for any injuries you suffered due to the sexual harassment. You do not need to show physical injuries. The most common injuries in a sexual harassment case are the emotional injuries suffered by the victim.
If your sexual harassment suit is successful, your remedies may include:
- Reinstatement, if you lost your job;
- Back pay (multiplied by three times) if you lost money or missed out on a raise;
- Fringe benefits lost;
- Damages for emotional distress;
- A requirement that your employer initiate policies or training to stop harassment; and
- Your attorney's fees and court costs.
Getting Legal Help with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
If you are a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, there are steps that you can take to stop the problem and protect your right to a legal remedy. Talk to an experienced employee rights attorney in your area to discuss the facts of your particular situation and ensure that your legal rights are protected.