Sexual Harassment

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is probably the most well known form of employment discrimination.  However, many do not know what sexual harassment is.  It is not a single instance of name calling, a request for a date, or a leering look.  Rather, in order to prove sexual harassment, a plaintiff must show that he or she has been subjected to unwelcome conduct that creates a hostile environment based on his or her sex that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of his or her employment.

What does that mean?  The courts are constantly struggling to define what sexual harassment is and what it is not, and sometimes the results can be confusing.  It is really a factual inquiry.  What is clear, though, is that, whether you are a man or a woman, if you are subjected to a steady stream of unwelcome and offensive conduct that is based on your sex, you complain about the harassment to your employer, but your employer does nothing about it, you probably have a strong claim of sexual harassment.

The following are some other important aspects of sexual harassment:

Sexual harassment can either be by a supervisor or one of your co-workers.  This distinction is a critical one because the identity of the harasser can determine your legal rights and remedies. Generally, if one of your co-workers is harassing you, you have an obligation to report the harassment to someone in authority, typically a manager or someone in your company’s human resources department.  In many companies, there are personnel policies that spell out what you must do if you feel you have been sexually harassed.  If your company has a policy, follow it to the letter.  If your company does not have a policy, find someone in authority and tell them about it.  If you do not, you will lose the right to file a claim, no matter how serious the sexual harassment is.

If the harasser is your supervisor or some other managerial employer, then your case may be somewhat easier.  If the harassment by the employer leads to what is called a tangible employment action (in other words, you refuse your supervisor’s sexual advances and you are demoted as a result), then you do not necessarily have to complain or follow the company’s policy in order to have a case, although raising the issue and complaint is certainly recommended.

If you complain and the company does nothing about it, you have the right to file a sexual harassment charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), the federal agency which investigates all claims of employment discrimination.  Once you file a charge with the EEOC, the EEOC will investigate your charge, require your employer to respond to it, and, in some, cases, will bring the parties together for a voluntary mediation session to try to settle your case.  If your case cannot be settled, the EEOC will, in most cases, close the investigation of your case and give you a right to sue letter.  This is what gives you the right to file a federal sexual harassment lawsuit and have a jury trial on your claims.

Many people are hesitant to complain about sexual harassment for fear of an adverse job action. Although this is certainly a legitimate fear, the law does protect you.  If you do complain to your employer or the EEOC about sexual harassment and your employer takes an adverse action against you, such as discharging you, or even a lesser form of adverse action, such as cutting your pay, transferring you to a different location further from your home, or putting you on a less desirable shift, then, in addition to your sexual harassment claim, you may have a claim for retaliation against your employer.

Of course, sexual harassment is not the only type of illegal harassment.  The employment discrimination laws protect you from harassment on the basis of your age, your race, your color, your religion, your national origin, or your disability.

Whatever type of harassment you may be experiencing, it is a very serious problem.  You must be proactive if you believe that you are the victim of sexual harassment.  If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment, you have to complain to your company and then to the EEOC. You do not have a lot of time to take action because there are normally strict time limits to file an action depending on the jurisdiction.

Once you file with the EEOC, the EEOC will help you but you must keep in mind that the EEOC is not your lawyer.  If you want to maximize your chance of succeeding with your claims, you should have an experienced sexual harassment attorney to guide you through what can be a lengthy and confusing process.

We can get involved in your case from the moment you suspect you are being harassed in order to stop the harassment from getting out of control and to put your employer on notice that if it continues, there will be consequences.  If we can get involved early enough, in many cases, we can straighten out the situation without litigation and keep you in your job.

Once the case gets to the EEOC, we can help you by working closely with the EEOC.  We can help move the process along faster, obtain documents and other information from the employer, and, if appropriate, encourage the employer to participate in a mediation or conciliation conference in order to help you obtain a settlement without time consuming and costly court proceedings.

If the case cannot be settled and goes to trial, we are more than ready to take your case to trial. If you have been victimized by sexual harassment or any other form of harassment, you need to get help fast or you may lose your right to file a claim.  Call us at 202-589-1834 or email us.

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