Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?

What You Can do if Sexually Harassed at Work

Navigating what to do if sexually harassed at work can be a daunting and confusing process for victims and their loved ones. Some options for handling workplace sexual harassment include confronting the harasser, reporting harassment to management or human resources, contacting federal employment agencies, and speaking with an attorney. 

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual harassment is a form of workplace discrimination involving unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances. Sexual harassment can happen to anyone, regardless of their gender, sex, sexual orientation, age, or other demographics.
  • If you have experienced workplace sexual harassment, you have rights and options – which depend on the specific experience. If you have not already, we recommend documenting the harm in your own words and contacting a sexual harassment attorney.
  • A sexual harassment attorney can help you address the situation in the best way possible – including reporting the harassment to your workplace. If your employer retaliates or does not investigate, a sexual harassment lawyer can also help you report to the EEOC and seek claims and compensation against your employer for the harm that happened to you.

Workplace sexual harassment is unfortunately common in the United States. Workplace sexual harassment, whether verbal, physical, or digital, can happen to anyone—81 percent of women and 43 percent of men at work report having experienced sexual harassment or assault. The prevalence of workplace sexual harassment often results in hostile and harmful work environments.

Workplace sexual harassment is illegal everywhere in the United States under federal law. Those who have experienced workplace sexual harassment or a sexually hostile work environment have several options for reporting and getting justice.

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What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination involving unwanted verbal or physical sexual advances, such as sexually suggestive comments or jokes, whistling and catcalling, and suggestive and prolonged touching. Sexual harassment can happen anywhere but commonly occurs in the workplace.

Workplace sexual harassment may take the form of a manager offering a quid pro quo, where they offer special benefits to an employee in exchange for sexual favors or retaliate against them for rejecting such advances. Additionally, inappropriate touching, such as placing a hand on someone’s thigh or brushing up against them inappropriately, and sending sexually explicit emails or messages at work are also considered workplace sexual harassment.

Another type of workplace sexual harassment is a hostile work environment, which involves a severe or pervasive pattern of inappropriate behavior that makes working difficult or uncomfortable. One-off comments or incidents—unless they are especially egregious—are typically not enough to establish hostile work environments.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission governs the nationwide rules against workplace sexual harassment, so these rules apply in all states. The EEOC only covers employers with 15 or more employees. However, certain states may have laws regarding sexual harassment in smaller workplaces.

Last Date Modified
March 17, 2024
Content Reviewed By:

Kathryn Kosmides
Managing Director | Helping Survivors

Steps to Take if You are Sexually Harassed at Work

1. Tell the Harasser to Stop

If you feel safe doing so, telling your harasser that their behavior is inappropriate and makes you uncomfortable may be a successful approach to stopping the harassment. This can be done verbally or in writing via email, text messages, or letters. If you decide to have this conversation verbally, consider bringing along a witness who can attest to what is discussed. Keep records of all communications since you may need them as proof later on.

2. Report Harassment to Management

Reporting the harassment internally allows the employer to take action to rectify the situation directly. An employer cannot be held liable for the harassment unless they know it has occurred, so alerting management first will help you retain as many options as possible.

Follow the recommendations of your employee handbook regarding reporting harassment. You most likely must report the harassment to a manager, human resources officer, or another individual with supervisory or decision-making authority. Make the report in writing to retain a record of the communication since you may need it later as proof.

3. Cooperate in Your Employer's Investigation

Once your employer has been made aware of the harassment, they may investigate the incident. Employers must establish policies and procedures to investigate and stop harassment as soon as possible. Providing documentation and your account of the harassment will help the investigation to move forward efficiently. If your employer’s response to the report of harassment results in negative consequences for your career, such as a transfer to a different location or an undesired reassignment, this is an illegal employment action. Your employer’s response should not result in any adverse employment consequences for you.

4. Contact the Proper Authorities​

If you have already tried reporting the harassment to your employer and the employer has not rectified the situation, consider reporting the harassment to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC has offices in every state where you can make your report in person or via a signed mailed letter. It additionally offers an online reporting option via the EEOC Public Portal. It is important to note that the EEOC has strict time limits for reporting workplace sexual harassment. Depending on the state, you must report harassment to the EEOC within 180 or 300 calendar days of the last time the behavior occurred. If you plan to get a lawyer involved, we recommend contacting a lawyer prior to contacting the EEOC office, unless time is running out.

5. Contact an Employment Attorney

An attorney specializing in handling workplace sexual harassment claims can help you explore your options for compensation and other recourse.

Three common legal avenues available to victims of workplace sexual harassment include:

  1. Administrative proceedings: This includes filing a complaint with the EEOC. An attorney can help you navigate deadlines and the logistics of reporting to an agency.
  2. Civil lawsuits: Civil lawsuits against the harasser are often an option in cases of workplace harassment. Additionally, if your employer did not properly respond to your report, you can also pursue a lawsuit against it. States have different statutes of limitation dictating how long you have to file suit.
  3. Criminal proceedings: In some serious cases, the perpetrator has committed an act constituting a crime. An attorney can help you understand when criminal proceedings may be appropriate.

Who is Liable When Sexual Harassment Happens at Work?

When sexual harassment occurs at work, various parties may be legally responsible. Possible liable parties include:

  • Perpetrator: The offender can be held personally liable for the harassment.
  • Employer: If an employer was aware of the harassment and did not take prompt action to stop it, they may be liable for failing to act. This applies to harassment by supervisors, co-workers, and even non-employees, including customers.
  • Managers and supervisors: If someone with authority over you participated in workplace sexual harassment, they are liable as well.

What to Do When You or Someone You Love is Sexually Harassed at Work

If you or someone you love has been sexually harassed at work, Helping Survivors has plenty of resources available to help you strategize and take the next steps. We maintain several up-to-date pages with information on sexual harassment, reporting, and how to take legal action.

We can also put you in touch with a lawyer with experience handling cases like yours. A lawyer can counsel you on your legal options after experiencing workplace harassment.

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