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More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.
More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.

Sexual Harassment by a Manager: Everything You Need to Know

A high percentage of sexual harassment in the workplace is perpetrated by those in positions of authority, including managers. Unfortunately, employees may feel uncomfortable reporting sexual harassment by someone who has power over them. Sexual harassment by a manager can complicate your work life. 

Survivor Advocate

Many people, especially women, have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. Unfortunately, that harassment often comes from someone in a position of power. Sexual harassment by a manager makes employees highly uncomfortable and leaves them unsure of their next steps. If your manager harasses you at work, you have the legal right to report that harassment without retaliation. You also have the right to end the harassment and seek compensation for your damages.

At Helping Survivors, we understand the challenges that arise when you suffer sexual harassment by a manager, and we aim to help victims of sexual harassment access the resources and support they need.

What is Considered Sexual Harassment by a Manager?

Sexual harassment by a manager occurs whenever a supervisor makes unwanted sexual advances or engages in other unwanted sexual behavior toward an employee. Sexual harassment can include verbal harassment, including comments about appearance, clothing, or sexuality. It also includes unwanted romantic advances or insistence on sexual favors in the workplace.

Generally, there are two categories of sexual harassment: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo harassment typically occurs when the perpetrator makes unwanted sexual advances in exchange for favors, job-related benefits, or protection from adverse actions. On the other hand, a hostile work environment involves a severe or pervasive pattern of discrimination or harassment that makes it hard for employees to do their jobs.

Managers who perpetrate sexual harassment use their position of power to harass employees because they assume that employees will feel uncomfortable reporting their behavior.

What Laws Exist to Prevent or Punish Managers Who Engage in Sexual Harassment?

Last Date Modified
May 15, 2024

Sexual harassment, whether by a manager or a peer, is illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, popularly known as Title VII, prohibits harassment and discrimination at work on the basis of gender, biological sex, or sexual orientation. The act also makes it illegal for employers to retaliate against people who report harassment or to allow retaliation.

Title VII further notes that employers cannot ignore reports of sexual harassment. They must investigate and take steps to protect employees who suffer sexual harassment or assault at work.

Each state has its own laws against sexual harassment and discrimination. For example, Arizona directly prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace. Meanwhile, Iowa considers sexual harassment a form of prohibited discrimination under its fair employment practices law.

What is Nonverbal vs. Verbal Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment by a manager takes several forms, depending on the manager’s specific actions. These generally break down into verbal or non-verbal harassment.

Nonverbal Sexual Harassment

The following are examples of non-verbal sexual harassment:

  • Unwanted physical touching.
  • Requiring or pressuring the victim to perform sexual acts
  • Leering, winking, or other physical expressions of harassment.
  • Leaving explicit material in the workplace where others can find it.
  • Deliberately exposing the victim to explicit content or sending that content to the victim
  • Sexual assault.
  • Retaliation against employees who report sexual harassment

Managers who engage in nonverbal sexual harassment may get uncomfortably close to their reports, touch them unnecessarily, or make excuses to be alone with them.

Verbal Sexual Harassment

Verbal sexual harassment from a manager includes the following:

  • Pressuring the employee to agree to a date or sexual favors.
  • Repeated romantic advances, even though the employee has indicated they are unwanted
  • Telling crude or inappropriate jokes
  • Asking inappropriate or unnecessary questions about someone else’s sexuality or relationships
  • Deliberately engaging in uncomfortable or inappropriate conversations, including sexual conversations

Verbal harassment also includes unwelcome commentary, jokes, slurs, or crude references regarding an employee’s sexuality, orientation, or gender. Managers may, for example, make rude comments about an employee’s capability based on gender.

What To Do When a Manager Sexually Harasses You

If your manager is sexually harassing you or someone else, there are several actions you can take to protect yourself and prevent future harm to yourself and others. Some of these actions may apply to your situation while others may not, and our belief is in providing as much information as possible.

If you have already experienced harassment, it is important to save any documentation you might have. This could be emails, text messages, notes or physical writings, video recordings, etc…

You also want to ensure you’re documenting all of your interactions with HR and management before, during, and after reporting. This will help you in the case that if they do not take the appropriate actions following your report that you can build a case against the company.

1. Request That Harassment Stop

If you feel safe, start by asking the manager to stop sexually harassing you. Indicate that you do not appreciate their actions or behavior. It is best to do this with a witness present, such as a trusted coworker. You may also want to have your request for them to stop the behavior in writing or recorded for your safety and if needed in the future.

2. Document Everything

Where possible, document verbal advances or comments. Keep a record of inappropriate comments or harassment, including dates and times. If your manager includes any content in virtual messages, including text messages, emails, or messages over your company’s internal system, keep screenshots and copies of those messages. Collecting evidence will make it much easier to prove your case.

3. Report Your Manager’s Harassment

Report your manager’s harassment or inappropriate behavior immediately. You can report the behavior to their supervisor or your HR department. Provide documentation, but keep copies for yourself. Unfortunately, supporting documents can go missing or be destroyed to protect the manager.

4. Go to the Authorities

If your employer does not take appropriate action to resolve harassment, including punishing your manager, you have a right to file a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC. We recommend contacting a lawyer prior to filing a complaint as they can assist in this process and help you better understand if you have a case and how best to position it in this complaint.

he EEOC will review your complaint, investigate it, and give you more information about your next steps. Both your manager and employer may be held liable for harassment. Once the EEOC completes its investigation, it may grant you the right to sue your employer in state or federal court. Once you have this “right to sue” letter, you should work with a sexual harassment attorney to guide you through how to get the best potential outcomes. 

Many states also have state agencies that handle complaints with similar procedures. Helping Survivors can advise you on the procedures and options in your state.

5. Hire a Lawyer

If your company does not take action to investigate and prevent sexual harassment by your manager, you should like at hiring a sexual assault lawyer to represent your interests and your rights.

A lawyer can collect and review evidence of harassment and make sure you understand your rights. You also likely need a lawyer if you suffer any type of retaliation, including job loss, demotion, denied promotion, or retaliatory behavior from your manager, for reporting sexual harassment. Sexual harassment attorneys typically work on contingency or contingency + a small retainer. Working on contingency means that you do not pay upfront and that the law firm only gets paid for their work if and when they win the case. Some firms may request a small retainer, in hopes that this retainer will cover all the work necessary to get you the best outcome.

Who is Liable in a Sexual Harassment Case?

Your manager is liable for harassment and should face appropriate consequences, including:

  • Retraining
  • Counseling
  • Suspension
  • Reassignment
  • Demotion
  • Firing

In some cases, your employer may also share liability for the actions of its management team. The EEOC will investigate several circumstances related to your harassment claim, including the following:

  • Whether your employer adequately addressed the harassment complaint
  • Whether your employer created or contributed to a hostile work environment
  • Whether your employer protected the manager rather than protecting you
  • Whether your employer retaliated against you
  • How long it took your employer to investigate and act on your harassment complaint
  • What steps your employer took to protect you

If your employer failed to meet its legal duty to you, your employer may share responsibility for the harassment and may face the associated legal consequences, including fines.

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