A coworker made a lewd proposition to you at a promotional event for a product that your team has been working on. It's not the first time this coworker has made you uncomfortable with sexual innuendos and other bad behavior at work. But, you work in a company and an industry with a “work hard/play hard” culture and you really like your job. You fear that making waves about your coworker, though justified, could come back to haunt you in your career. Should you talk to a lawyer at this point?
This article will answer your questions about sexual harassment and when you should consider speaking with a lawyer. For information about what an employer can do to create a working environment free of sexual harassment, see Fighting Sexual Harassment.
When you experience harassing conduct at work, you may have a lot of questions you need answered before you decide what, if anything, to do. Among those questions are:
These are questions an experienced employment lawyer can answer.
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile or offensive work environment. Not every offensive comment will qualify as sexual harassment as the law defines it. If you're confronted with conduct that you think might be sexual harassment, it's a good idea to speak to a lawyer as soon as possible in order to figure out whether the conduct fits the legal definition or harassment.
Even if you are subjected to harassment, you may need to take certain steps to protect your rights. For example, your employer's policy (and even the law) may require you to report possible sexual harassment to human resources or managerial employees in order to hold the employer responsible for the harassment. (Note that if the harasser is a manager, the law doesn't require that you report the harassment in order to hold the employer responsible for it.) An experienced employment lawyer will help you figure out the right HR or other employee to whom you should report possible harassment. A lawyer can also work with you to outline your description of the harassing conduct. That way, if you get nervous when you speak with HR or a manager about the conduct (which is only natural), you'll have the confidence to provide all of the relevant information clearly and calmly.
In addition to helping you prepare to report harassment, an employment lawyer will advise you as to other steps to take to protect yourself. These steps may include:
When you have to deal with harassment at work, it can be difficult to think clearly about how to respond. An employee subjected to sexual harassment may be too emotionally drained and confused to have the perspective on his or her circumstances needed to formulate a strong response. An employment lawyer can be a great resource to draw on so that you can decide what steps to take.
Your employer is required by law to investigate any complaints of sexual harassment. And, your employer cannot take steps during the investigation that negatively affect your employment. An experienced employment lawyer can check in with you during the investigation to make sure that the employer is proceeding as required by law. For information about your rights during a sexual harassment investigation, see Do You Need a Lawyer for a Workplace Investigation of Sexual Harassment?
Employers are prohibited by law from retaliating against employees who report sexual harassment. Retaliation can take many forms and is not limited to disciplinary write-ups or termination (although those actions certainly may be retaliation). For example, if your managers remove you from desirable projects or exclude you from meetings, events, or even social outings after you report harassment, a lawyer can analyze these actions to see if they are retaliatory.
An employment lawyer will also describe the formal measures you can take to challenge sexual harassment. These include filing a charge of discrimination against your employer with your state's antidiscrimination agency or with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). And, the lawyer can talk to you about the advantages and disadvantages of doing so, as well as the pros and cons of filing a lawsuit against your employer if you are dissatisfied with its response to your complaint of sexual harassment.