In legal terms, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. In real life, workplace sexual harassment ranges from repeated offensive or belittling jokes to a workplace full of offensive pornography (creating a hostile work environment) to an outright sexual assault. Although sexual harassment most often takes the form of men harassing women, it can happen to men and women, gay and straight -- in other words, sexual harassment is an equal opportunity offense.
Fortunately, state and federal laws protect workers from sexual harassment on the job -- the same laws that protect workers from discrimination based on gender. At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act forbids harassment. In addition, most states have their own fair employment practices laws that prohibit sexual harassment, many of them more strict than the federal law.
If you are being sexually harassed at work, there are a number of things that you should do to protect yourself.
Tell the Harasser to Stop
Initially, you can try telling the harasser to stop. Although this confrontation may be difficult for you, it is often the most effective way of dealing with harassment. You're more likely to be successful if the harassment hasn't gone beyond things like off-color jokes, inappropriate comments about your appearance, or tacky cartoons posted onto the office refrigerator.
Clearly saying you want the offensive behavior to stop is important, because it lets the harasser know that the behavior is unwelcome (which it must be in order to meet the legal definition of sexual harassment). It is also a crucial first step if you later decide to take more formal action against the harasser.
If the harasser ignores your oral requests to stop, or if you are uncomfortable talking to the harasser face to face, write a brief letter stating that the behavior offends you and must stop. Be sure to keep a copy.
If you are concerned for your personal safety or are afraid that the harasser might become more hostile when confronted, complain to a supervisor instead.
Complain to Supervisors
If confronting the harasser doesn't end the harassment, you should escalate your complaint within the company. Check your company's employee handbook, personnel policies, or manual. Is there a sexual harassment or complaint policy? If so, follow it. If not, ask your supervisor or someone in the human resources or personnel department how to make a sexual harassment complaint. If you don't get the help you need, move up the chain of command to managers and executives, documenting along the way. (See below for tips on how to document your actions.)
Although it is often difficult to make a complaint at work, and you may prefer to skip this step, don't. The U.S. Supreme Court has said that employees who fail to use their employer's internal complaint procedure to make the company aware of sexual harassment, and to give the company a chance to stop it, may not be allowed to hold the company liable in a lawsuit. This means that you are likely to lose in court, should it come to that, if you don't complain within the company first.
Even if your company doesn't have a formal complaint procedure, you should put the company on notice of the harassment. You can do this by making a complaint to the human resources department, telling your supervisor (or his or her supervisor) about the problem, or informing a company executive.
Document Your Claims
It is very important to document what is happening to you, and what you are doing to try to stop it, should you ever have to prove your case to a company investigator, a government agency, or a jury.
Start by collecting as much detailed evidence as possible about the harassment. Be sure to save any offensive letters, photographs, cards, or notes you receive. If you were made to feel uncomfortable because of jokes, pin-ups, or cartoons posted at work, confiscate them -- or at least make copies. An anonymous, obnoxious photo or joke posted on a bulletin board is not anyone else's personal property, so you are free to take it down and keep it as evidence. If that's not possible, photograph the workplace walls. Note the dates the offensive material was posted -- and whether there were hostile reactions when you took it down or asked someone else to do so.
Also, keep a detailed journal about incidents of harassment. Include the names of everyone involved, what happened, and where and when it took place. If anyone else saw or heard the harassment, note that as well. Be as specific as possible about what was said and done -- and how it affected you, your health, or your job performance. Keep your journal and notes at home or in a safe place outside of work.
Make sure you have copies of your performance evaluations and other important personnel documents. In fact, you may want to ask for a copy of your entire personnel file before complaining about a harassing coworker. Your records can be particularly persuasive evidence if your employer retaliates against you for complaining -- which is also illegal. For example, you'll want a copy of your records if you've had positive performance evaluations until you complain, and then your employer tries to transfer, demote, or fire you, or claims your job performance is poor.
Complain to Government Agencies Before Filing a Lawsuit
If complaining to your employer doesn't help, the next step is to go to either the federal agency that enforces Title VII -- the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission -- or to your state fair employment office. If investigation and settlement attempts fail to produce satisfactory results, you can file a civil lawsuit for damages under either Title VII or your state fair employment practices statute.
You must file a complaint with the EEOC before filing a federal lawsuit. Even if you intend right from the beginning to file a lawsuit, you sometimes must first file a claim with a government agency. For example, an employee pursuing a claim under federal law must first file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), and a similar complaint procedure is required under state laws.
The EEOC or state agency may decide to prosecute your case on your behalf, but that happens rarely. More commonly, at some point, the agency will issue you a document referred to as a "right-to-sue" letter, which allows you to take your case to court with your own lawyer.
Note, however, that there are time limits for filing claims with government agencies and for filing a lawsuit, so be sure not to miss them. For more information, check out Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).