Sexual Harassment: When You Should Talk to a Lawyer

Learn about sexual harassment and know when to get a lawyer.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

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.

How a Lawyer Can Help

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:

  • Was this even sexual harassment (as the law defines it)?
  • How should I respond to the harasser?
  • Should I report the harassment?
  • Are there steps I should take to protect myself against future harassment?
  • What can I do to prevent my employer from retaliating against me for reporting the conduct?

These are questions an experienced employment lawyer can answer.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

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.

Seeing a Lawyer Before You Report Sexual 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.

Helping You Protect Yourself

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:

  • Documenting the harassment and all discussions about it with your employer
  • Preparing you to deal with the harasser if the harassment continues
  • Advising you about how to report future harassment to your employer, and
  • Monitoring your employer's response to your complaint to make sure your employer does not retaliate against you.

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.

Help During Investigation of the Harassment

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.

Discuss Filing Charges

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.

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