Let’s face it: it’s not always easy to report sexual harassment in the workplace. The situation usually involves power dynamics that make the victim fearful of losing his or her job or being further mistreated. The definitions of sexual harassment can often be vague, leaving victims unsure and unclear about their next steps.
You deserve to have a workplace free of harassment of any kind, and knowing how to report sexual harassment in the workplace can empower you to practice your rights to a harassment-free workplace more fully.
What is workplace sexual harassment?
It’s important to know what sexual harassment is… and what it isn’t. There is a wide range of behaviors considered unacceptable under the definition of sexual harassment, and understanding these parameters can provide you with more confidence in reporting sexual harassment when it occurs.
As the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission explains, sexual harassment includes the following:
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Requests for sexual favors
- Verbal harassment of a sexual nature
- Physical harassment of a sexual nature
- Offensive comments about the person’s sex
The law also has some definitions about frequency and severity to draw a line between one-off incidents and minor teasing and what is legally recognized as sexual harassment. Generally speaking, comments that might not be considered sexual harassment if they only occurred once or twice might meet the standard if they occur frequently enough to make the workplace a hostile environment. Similarly, behavior that results in adverse employment decisions (like being fired or getting demoted) can be considered sexual harassment.
How do I report workplace sexual harassment?
The method you use to report sexual harassment will depend on what official channels are set up in your place of employment. Some places of employment (especially larger ones with many employees) will likely have an official reporting system for filing complaints. Others may not be as formalized. Regardless of the channels you use to report sexual harassment, the following steps are in your best interest to make the strongest case and getting the harassment to come to an end.
Step 1: Tell the Harasser to Stop
One of the things that you’ll need to demonstrate if you end up making a sexual harassment report is that you communicated that the attention or behavior was unwanted. Firmly and directly telling the individual doing the harassment to stop will go a long way toward establishing a pattern of repeated behavior later, if necessary. If the situation is such that it does not feel safe to tell the individual directly, you should tell the individual’s supervisor instead.
Step 2: Keep Documentation of the Incidents
Keep a record of everything that happens. Keep a daily log of both the sexual harassment itself and your response (such as when you first told the offender to stop). Keep evidence in any form it might appear, including the following:
- Electronic or paper correspondence with the harassing individual
- Copies of any offensive materials posted around the workplace
- Names and involvement of any potential witnesses
- Dates and times of occurrences
Step 3: Lodge a Formal Complaint with Supervisors
If telling the harasser to stop does not end the unwanted behavior, it’s time to lodge a formal complaint. Check your employee handbook for the preferred process. If there is no process listed, ask your immediate supervisor (if the supervisor is the harasser, their immediate supervisor) or a person in HR how to file a formal sexual harassment complaint.
This step is very important. If your place of employment has an official process for reporting sexual harassment and you fail to use it, it can later be used to invalidate your claims and weaken your legal case.
Step 4: Reach out to Government Agencies
If escalating the sexual harassment report through the formal channels at your place of employment does not solve the problem, there are other routes you can take. At both the state (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and federal level (California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing), there are agencies for fair employment that can help you navigate the next steps. You must file complaints with these agencies before you can file suit.
Step 5: File a Civil Lawsuit
A civil lawsuit is typically the last action to take in reporting workplace sexual harassment. Usually, this is the route someone takes when all other actions have failed to stop the undesired action or if trying to follow the internal workplace channels to report sexual harassment ended in termination. In this case, you can pursue a civil lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guarantees a workplace free from discrimination based on sex.
When should I reach out to an attorney?
If the harassment you’re experiencing continues after attempts to report it through your workplace channels, it may be time to reach out to an attorney with experience in civil lawsuits involving sexual harassment. An experienced attorney can help you ensure you have documented your case thoroughly and advise you on the best next steps to get the harassment-free workplace you deserve.
Contact us today for a free consultation.