What to Do If You Have Been a Victim of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
It seems as if there are news stories about sexual harassment in the workplace nearly every day. Over the past five years, we’ve seen documentation of sexual improprieties in the entertainment industry, in politics, in higher education, and in companies across the country. Unfortunately, all that publicity appears to have had little impact on the prevalence of sexual harassment in our culture. According to data collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nearly 100,000 complaints of workplace sexual harassment were filed between 2018 and 2021.
How Does the EEOC Define Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is tasked with the initial responsibility for investigating claims of sexual harassment on the job. The EEOC defines sexual harassment broadly to include not only requests for sexual liaisons, but also verbal or physical conduct of a patently sexual nature and any unwanted sexual advances. Sexual harassment of course includes unwanted touching, but it can also involve coming into close proximity without touching. The content of a letter, email, picture, text message, or phone call can constitute sexual harassment, as can a suggestive gesture or look.
How to Protect Your Rights After Workplace Sexual Harassment
You don’t have to quietly submit to sexual harassment at work; there are actions you can take to protect yourself.
- Get help if you feel unsafe—If you feel that taking action might pose a risk to your physical safety–e.g., if the perpetrator might retaliate with violence–you should find someone at your place of employment that you trust, someone to help you take the steps to stop the harassment and get relief.
- Confront the perpetrator—Provided you feel safe doing so, you should first confront the person who has harassed you. Tell that person that their conduct is harmful and unacceptable, and request that the conduct stop immediately.
- Document the harassment—To bolster your claims regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, keep a journal or other record of all inappropriate acts. Document the time, date, and place of the harassment, and include a thorough description of what happened and what was said.
- Report the harassment—Sexual harassment on the job should always be reported to your supervisor, unless that’s the person who is engaging in the wrongful behavior. If that’s the case, go to that person’s immediate superior or to your human resources department. Don’t delay… the longer you wait, the easier it will be for the perpetrator to claim that their conduct was not harassment.
- File a claim—If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to end the harassment, it’s time to file a complaint with the EEOC, the government agency tasked with investigating allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. The EEOC will likely look into your claim and may impose sanctions based on its investigation. However, if the EEOC finds that there is insufficient evidence of sexual harassment on the job, you may still be able to file a civil lawsuit for damages. An employment attorney can help you determine whether you have a claim.