Know your legal rights and how to protect them
Employees have a right to a workplace that is free from unlawful harassment, including sexual harassment. Unfortunately, whether because their employers don't know the law or simply turn a blind eye to violations, far too many workers experience harassment every day.
The law protects employees in this situation, but you have to know your rights — and your options if they're violated. You have the right to report sexual harassment and the right to take legal action against your employer if they don't put a stop to it. Moreover, thanks to a new federal law, your employer cannot force you to resolve your sexual harassment case in secret arbitration. You have the right to take your case before a judge and a jury of your peers, and you can often recover more at trial than in arbitration.
The law isn't self-executing; someone has to report the harassment in order to put a stop to it. An experienced attorney can guide you through the process and help protect you from retaliation.
What is considered sexual harassment at work?
Sexual harassment can take many forms, ranging from teasing or sexualized jokes to unwanted touching. Sexual harassment need not be directed at you specifically to be legally actionable; if several of your coworkers make sexualized jokes or comments in a common area where they are easily overheard, that may fall under the legal definition. Broadly speaking, there are two types of sexual harassment:
- Hostile work environment: a pattern of sexualized comments or behavior that makes the environment difficult or uncomfortable to work in. This may include jokes, gossip, slurs, comments about someone's body or appearance, or displaying sexualized content in the workplace.
- Quid pro quo: a demand for sexual favors or tolerance of sexual behavior by a person in authority, either in exchange for a benefit (promotion, raise, etc.) or to avoid a detriment (termination, demotion, etc.). The term literally means "this for that."
Remember that both the harasser and the victim can be of any gender and sexual orientation. The harasser also need not be your superior or even someone who works for the same company; vendors, customers, and clients can also commit sexual harassment.
Start by reporting the harassment internally
If you're a victim or witness to sexual harassment, you need to report it internally first if you might take legal action later. If you're being harassed by a coworker, client, or vendor, you can talk to your direct supervisor. If your supervisor is the one committing the harassment or you otherwise have reason to believe reporting to them would not go well, then talk to their supervisor or human resources. You have the right to ask what will be done if you file a complaint. You can also ask for your complaint to be kept confidential, but keep in mind that your employer has a legal responsibility to investigate and address what happened, and depending on the circumstances, confidentiality may not be possible.
Reporting harassment internally — and keeping a record of that report in writing — is important for two reasons. First, once your employer is aware of the harassment, they can't claim ignorance if they fail to address it. Second, if you're retaliated against for making a report, you want to have a record in writing so that you can hold the employer accountable.
You can file a report with state and federal agencies
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates violations of federal sexual harassment law. At the state level, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC) investigates sexual harassment complaints. You can file a formal complaint with either or both of these agencies depending on which laws were violated. Remember that you are protected by law from retaliation for filing a report of sexual harassment in good faith — even if the investigation ultimately determines that sexual harassment did not occur.
You also need to talk to an attorney. Reporting sexual harassment can be a complex and exceptionally stressful process, and there are strict deadlines and legal requirements to be met at each stage in the process. Talking to a lawyer isn't a commitment to file a lawsuit; it's an opportunity to get answers about your legal rights and options from someone who knows the system and has experience guiding victims through it.
If you've been sexually harassed at work, you have rights. We can protect them. Contact us to schedule a confidential, no-obligation consultation with Gibson Law, LLC.