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Reporting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (What You Need to Know)

Reporting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (What You Need to Know)

Let’s face it: it’s not always easy to report sexual harassment at work. No one wants to be the one pointing the finger.

The situation usually involves power dynamics that make the victim fearful of losing their job or being further mistreated. Not to mention, the definitions and laws surrounding sexual harassment can be vague and confusing, leaving victims unsure about their next steps.

But the bottom line is—you deserve to have a workplace free of harassment of any kind, starting with understanding the ins and outs of reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.

What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

It’s important to know what sexual harassment is—and what it isn’t.

A range of behaviors is considered unacceptable under the definition of sexual harassment. Understanding these parameters can give you more confidence in reporting sexual harassment when it occurs.

As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 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

Federal 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 a hostile work 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 companies (especially larger ones with many employees) will likely have an official reporting system for filing sexual harassment complaints.

Others may not be as formal. Regardless of the channels you use to report sexual harassment, the following steps are in your best interest to make the strongest case and get the harassment to come to an end.

Step 1: Tell the Harasser to Stop

You’ll need to demonstrate 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 all evidence, including:

  • 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, then 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 (California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing) and federal level (EEOC), there are agencies for fair employment that can help you navigate the next steps. You must file a sexual harassment complaint with each of 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 sex discrimination.

When Should I Reach Out to an Attorney?

If you’ve been sexually harassed and it continues after attempts to report the harassment through your workplace channels, it may be time to reach out to an attorney with experience in civil lawsuits involving sexual assault.

A sexual harassment 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.

Author Bio

Michael Malk is the Founder and Managing Attorney of Malk Law Firm, a Seattle employee rights law firm he started in 2007. With more than 20 years of experience practicing law, he has dedicated his career to representing clients throughout California and Washington in a wide range of legal areas, including unpaid wages, sexual harassment, discrimination, wrongful termination, and other employee rights matters.

Michael received his Juris Doctor from the University of California— Davis School of Law and is a member of the State Bar of California, the State Bar of Washington, and the American Bar Association. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including being named as one of the “Top Attorneys in Southern California” by Los Angeles Magazine in 2018 and being selected as a Super Lawyer for six consecutive years.

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