Frequently Asked Questions about Sexual Harassment Law

What is Sexual Harassment?

Essentially, sexual harassment is discriminatory behavior directed toward someone because of their gender or sexual identity and intended to make them feel threatened or devalued. Although it’s oftentimes sexual or lewd, it doesn’t have to be—degrading jokes or generalizations can be a form of harassment, too.

It typically occurs over a period of time and there may be multiple victims. It can happen to anyone in any environment, although most people associate it with workplaces.

In legal terms, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination as defined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s a federal violation that’s enforced by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

What are Examples of Sexual Harassment?

There are two categories that harassment falls into:

Quid pro quo and Hostile work environment.

An example of quid pro quo (which means “something for something”) is a supervisor telling an employee that they’ll be fired if they don’t provide sexual favors, or offering a promotion in exchange for sex.

Hostile work environment harassment is broader. It can be any discriminatory action that makes an office, store, or other workplace uncomfortable to be in and makes it difficult for the victim to do their work. Common examples include:

  • Telling inappropriate jokes or stories
  • Unwanted and inappropriate touching, rubbing, pinching, and brushing up against
  • Displaying or sharing sexual images in the workplace
  • Making disparaging comments about someone’s gender or sexual identity
  • Telling sexual stories
  • Asking a coworker about their sex life
  • Looking at coworkers in an inappropriate way
  • Making sexual gestures
What is a Hostile Work Environment?

A harasser creates a hostile work environment when their discriminatory actions make it difficult for others to do their job. The harasser might make their coworkers feel uncomfortable by telling sexual jokes, displaying graphic pictures, or touching them inappropriately, for example. In these situations, employees may have a difficult time determining if the behavior is intentional or accidental, or they may worry that they’re taking things too personally.

Often, there is more than one victim or the behavior permeates the workplace and affects everyone. It’s important to note that anyone can report this type of harassment, even if they’re not directly targeted by the behavior.

A hostile work environment is not the same thing as a bad work environment.

To qualify as hostile work environment sexual harassment, the offender’s actions must be discriminatory. No matter how demanding your boss is, how obnoxious your cubicle mate is, or how many times your coworker steals your lunch, if they treat everyone equally terribly, it’s not a hostile work environment because their actions aren’t discriminatory. However, if a coworker’s bad behavior makes you feel singled out because of your gender, you may be in a hostile work environment.

What is Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment?

Quid pro quo - which means “something for something”- happens when a superior takes advantage of their position of power to coerce a subordinate into providing sexual favors. In exchange, the superior offers a benefit, like a promotion or career help.

Alternatively, the supervisor may threaten to fire the victim if they don’t comply with their demands. Quid pro quo can even happen before a job candidate is hired—for example, the person in charge of hiring may demand sexual favors in exchange for the position the candidate wants.

Most people are familiar with this type of harassment because it’s often dramatized and shown in movies and on TV shows.

It’s usually more obvious to the victim and it may not permeate the workplace the way hostile work environment harassment does, since quid pro quo is usually done in private. Although it’s more common for this type of harassment to happen between a higher-up and a subordinate, it’s not a requirement.

As long as the offender has something to offer the victim and they want sexual favors in exchange for it, it’s considered quid pro quo.

What is the Difference between Sexual Harassment and Workplace Bullying?
Although employers often lump these issues into one category, the motivations behind them are different. At face value, harassment and bullying are both unwanted actions that can humiliate or intimidate the victim.

Like harassment, bullying must be ongoing or repeated. However, the key difference is that harassers target their victims based on their gender or sexual expression. Bullying is unrelated to the victim’s gender. Even if your coworkers are rude, gossipy, or downright mean, it’s not sexual harassment if their behavior isn’t discriminatory.

What is the Difference between Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment covers a range of behaviors, from sexual comments to unwelcome touching. It’s considered a civil rights issue and is defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s a form of discrimination that’s often seen in workplaces, although it can happen anywhere.

Sexual assault, on the other hand, is sexual contact that happens without the consent of the recipient. This can include molestation, attempted rape, fondling, or other sexual actions. Sexual assault is a crime and may be a felony or a misdemeanor depending on how severe it is. In some cases, sexual harassment can progress to sexual assault, but up until that point, they are distinct under the law.

Does Sexual Harassment have to be Physical?

Although it can be, it doesn’t have to be. Non-physical actions like whistling, commenting on a coworker’s appearance, asking prying questions, and sending sexual messages are all forms of sexual harassment. In fact, crude comments, jokes, and insults are the most common form of harassment—not physical contact.

Can One Incident be Considered Sexual Harassment?

Usually, the longer or more frequently the behavior happens, the more likely the victim will have a sexual harassment claim.

One-time incidents don’t always meet the legal standard for harassment. For example, if a coworker compliments you in a way that makes you uncomfortable but they never do it again, you probably don’t have a claim. However, a single act can be considered harassment if it’s serious enough.

Quid pro quo harassment - when a supervisor demands sexual favors from a subordinate in exchange for a benefit - may only need to happen once for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate it.

Can I be Sexually Harassed Outside of my Workplace?

Yes. Sexual harassment can happen in any situation and in any environment, including schools, housing complexes, and public places.

Workplace sexual harassment can also extend beyond the office. Harassment can happen just as easily at an after-work happy hour, on a business trip, or through text messages as it can on the clock at an office, restaurant, or retail store.

Regardless of where the incident happens, if your coworker is harassing you it’s your employer’s responsibility to address it.

Who can be a Victim of Sexual Harassment?

Anyone. People of all ages, genders, races, sexual orientations, and abilities can be targets of workplace sexual harassment. The only criterion is that the victim has been discriminated against specifically because of their sexual or gender identity.

Who can be a Sexual Harasser?

Anyone. You can be harassed by people of any gender, age, or race and by anyone in your workplace regardless of their rank or relationship to you.

Supervisors don’t necessarily sexually harass more than other workers; however, their position of power does make it easier for them to exploit their subordinates. Additionally, being harassed by a supervisor can feel more threatening because you might fear that you’ll be retaliated against for filing a report.

Is it only Men who Sexually Harass Women?

No. Women can commit sexual harassment against men, too, and same-sex harassment happens as well. Although data shows that women are more likely to be victims, there are male victims of sexual harassment, and they are not always the perpetrators.

Can I be Sexually Harassed by Someone Who’s Not my Coworker?

Yes. Vendors, consultants, freelancers, clients, customers, and even interns are all capable of committing workplace harassment.

For example, a colleague may ask for sexual favors to close a deal, or a regular customer might call you a demeaning name. If the harassment is happening at or because of your job, it’s still your company’s responsibility to handle it, and you have the right to file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Is Asking a Coworker on a Date Harassment?

No, simply being asked out by a coworker is not harassment. It may violate company policy, but it’s not enough to file a claim with the EEOC.

However, if you decline the date and your coworker continues to pressure you or refuses to take no for an answer, then it may turn into a case of sexual harassment. It doesn’t hurt to make a note to yourself when a coworker makes an advance, just in case you need to report harassment later.

What if my Coworker is being Sexually Harassed?

In cases of hostile work environment sexual harassment, you don’t have to be the direct victim of discriminatory behavior to file a claim. If the offender is making your workplace uncomfortable for everyone, you have the right to file a complaint with your employer and the EEOC.

You can also file a claim on someone else’s behalf, with or without their name. It’s best to ask the victim first before approaching management or HR, since they may want to file their own claim and have you act as a witness.

However, even if the victim chooses not to file a claim, if the harassment makes you uncomfortable, you have every right to report it.

What if there were no Witnesses to the Harassment?

Having a witness to back you up certainly helps, but it’s still possible to file a sexual harassment claim without one. Whether there are witnesses or not, you should keep detailed records of every incident, including the date, time, what happened, and any details that might help put the incident into context.

Save emails, texts, notes, or any other evidence of inappropriate behavior. Confide in people you trust so they can verify your timeline if need be, and create a paper trail of complaints to higher-ups and human resources.

Thorough records of the incidents can help bolster your claim if it comes down to “he said, she said.”

What Laws Protect against Sexual Harassment?

Victims of sexual harassment are protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex. Employers are violating federal law if they fail to prevent or stop harassment. Some states also have sexual harassment laws that go beyond Title VII.

Is Sexual Harassment a Crime?

Generally, no. It’s a form of discrimination that falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you choose to file a lawsuit, it will almost always be in civil court, not criminal court, and if you win, your employer may have to pay damages, but no one will be sentenced to incarceration.

However, harassment can become a crime if it’s quid pro quo (when the harasser demands sexual favors from the victim) or it devolves into stalking, sexual assault, or forced physical contact. Whether the harassment is a crime or not also depends on state-level criminal laws.

What Should I do if I’m being Sexually Harassed at Work?

The most important thing you can do is document the harassment. Keep careful records of every incident, noting the date, time, place, what happened, and any witnesses.

Make sure you keep notes on your personal computer or in a place outside of work, since your employer has the right to search your work computer and supplies. You may also want to confide in people close to you so they can verify your timeline if need be.

Gathering all the evidence you can is important if you decide to file a report later.

Review your company’s harassment policy and follow the procedure closely. In most cases, your next step is to talk to the harasser and ask them to stop. This could be enough to put an end to the behavior. If not, you can speak to the harasser again and tell them you’re prepared to file a report, or skip a second conversation and start the reporting process if the harassment is more serious. At this point, you should also consult with a sexual harassment lawyer, especially if you’re considering filing a report.

Finally, before filing a formal complaint, you may want to (or your company may require you to) speak with your supervisor. They may be able to speak to the harasser or help you approach HR to begin an investigation. In cases where your supervisor is the harasser or you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, you can go to any higher-up in the company—they all have a legal requirement to address harassment when it’s reported.

If you are unsure, it’s always best to check with a sexual harassment lawyer before speaking to your supervisor or any other company personnel as their job is to protect the company first, then perhaps you. Our sexual harassment lawyers will always give you a no-cost opinion on your options.

How do I Report Sexual Harassment?

First, get your ducks in a row: make sure you’ve followed any guidelines set forth in your company’s harassment policy and you’ve exhausted all your preliminary options, like asking the harasser to stop directly.

Gather any evidence you can, including notes, photos, and harassing messages. You may also want to carefully ask around your workplace and see if there are any other victims who would be willing to come forward with you.

Before reporting, you should consult with a lawyer, especially if you’re concerned that you’ll be retaliated against. Companies are often more concerned with keeping the peace rather than finding the best outcome for the victim, so it’s important to have someone on your side who will advocate for you and explain your legal options when you decide to report.

Unless there is no one in your company who you can talk to (in which case, you can file a report directly with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), you should report harassment internally first. Your company’s HR department is the best choice, but you can speak to anyone in management or even go directly to the CEO—they all have a legal responsibility to deal with harassment once they know about it.

It’s a good idea to report the harassment in writing or write a follow-up memo after your meeting to create a paper trail.

Once reported, your employer must investigate your claim per federal law. Although there is no time limit, they should acknowledge your report the same day and begin an investigation soon after, so it’s important that you’re prepared to offer all your evidence and witnesses.

Your employer should thoroughly examine any evidence you have, interview any witnesses and other victims, and interview the harasser. Note that you may be able to remain anonymous, so your harasser won’t necessarily know who reported them.

If your employer doesn’t investigate your claim thoroughly or finds that there was no inappropriate behavior, your next option is to file a claim with the EEOC. You must do this within 180 days, or 300 days in some states. Your lawyer can help you with the federal reporting process and make sure that you meet all deadlines.

Once a report is filed, the EEOC will review your employer’s findings and conduct an investigation of their own. The investigators may determine there was no harassment and simply resolve the case. If they do find harassment, however, they’ll give you two options: the EEOC will take up your case and file litigation on your behalf, or it will issue a “right to sue” letter allowing you to file a private lawsuit.

At this point, your lawyer can advise you on your best option but definitely check with a lawyer prior to taking any action.

What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission?

The EEOC is a federal agency that’s in charge of enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. If you’ve been sexually harassed or discriminated against at work, the EEOC can investigate and, in some cases, will file a lawsuit on your behalf. In most situations, you must file a report with the EEOC and allow them to do an investigation before you can file a private lawsuit against your employer. 

Do I have to File a Claim with the EEOC?

You don’t have to file a claim if you’re satisfied with your employer’s resolution or you don’t want to pursue litigation. If you would like the option to sue your employer, in most cases you must file a claim with the EEOC first.

After an investigation, they will do one of three things:

Determine that there was no wrongdoing and resolve the case

Take on your case and conduct litigation on your behalf, or

Give you a “right to sue” letter, which allows you to file a private civil lawsuit with your attorney.

However, there are exceptions, and you may be able to file a lawsuit without getting approval from the EEOC first. You should speak to a sexual harassment attorney to see if you meet the criteria.

Can I Sue my Employer for Sexual Harassment?

Yes, although there are steps you must take before you can file a claim.

First, after talking with a lawyer, you should follow your company’s harassment policies and procedures and meet all its requirements (talking with your supervisor, allowing HR to perform an internal investigation, etc).

Then, in almost all cases, you must file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which will conduct an investigation of its own.

If investigators find that there was wrongdoing, the EEOC will give you two options: they’ll offer to take up your case and file litigation on your behalf, or they’ll issue a “right to sue” letter, which allows you to file a private civil claim against your employer.

Ideally, you should have already retained a lawyer by this point, but if not, you should speak with a sexual harassment attorney right away. Once the EEOC closes its investigation, you only have 90 days to file a lawsuit. Although it may seem easier to let the EEOC handle your case, it’s not always the best option (and oftentimes, it’s not an option at all—the EEOC only handles a fraction of the cases it reviews).

A qualified attorney can help you decide what your next steps should be after an EEOC investigation.

Is There a Time Limit to Filing a Sexual Harassment Claim?

Yes. You must file a report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within 180 days of the incident you’re reporting.

In some states with additional sexual harassment laws, the deadline may be extended to 300 days. Your employer may also have internal deadlines that you must meet.

After the EEOC concludes its investigation, you only have 90 days to file a lawsuit. It’s important that you act on your case as soon as possible to avoid missing any deadlines. The earlier you involve a lawyer, the better—they’ll be familiar with all the criteria you have to meet and will keep your case on track.

What Remedies Will I get if I Win my Case?

Since harassment is almost always handled in civil court, most remedies will include reimbursement for money lost or damages for the suffering you went through. Remedies can include:

  • Any back pay you lost because you were passed over for a raise, fired, or unable to do your job
  • Any other fringe benefits you lost
  • Any lost future earnings because your career was derailed
  • Compensatory damages to compensate you for emotional or psychological distress
  • Punitive damages to punish your employer
  • Reinstatement to your position if you were fired
  • An order requiring your employer to improve its sexual harassment policies and prevention programs
  • Attorney’s fees and court costs

Unless the harassment included a criminal component (like sexual assault, stalking, or menacing), the perpetrator will not be sentenced to jail or prison. Depending on what state you live in, there may be additional penalties for your employer or remedies you can receive.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Reporting sexual harassment is complicated and, unfortunately, comes with risk. There are numerous requirements you have to meet, in a particular order, in a short time frame.

Working with your employer’s investigation and the EEOC can be emotionally draining and stressful. And on top of all that, you might be in fear of losing your job, ending your career, or ruining relationships.

A sexual harassment lawyer can help relieve some of the stress of reporting. They can answer your questions understand the legal process, ensure you meet all requirements, and help shield you from retaliation and other negative consequences.

Generally, employers want to resolve sexual harassment claims quickly and quietly. Your wellbeing isn’t their priority - the wellbeing of the business is. That’s why it’s important that you have an experienced  attorney advocate on your side.

What Should I look for in a Sexual Harassment Lawyer?

Most importantly, your attorney should have significant experience handling sexual harassment and discrimination cases. You can face substantial challenges when reporting harassment, and your attorney needs to be able to tackle all of them head-on.

Employers often have in-house legal teams or large budgets to hire top lawyers whose only goal is to discredit you. Harassment cases often come down to “he said, she said,” and you’ll need a comprehensive strategy to prove your case.

Shady employers may do everything in their power to protect high-level employees and maintain business as usual. Your lawyer should be able to meet these challenges with confidence.

You should also have a good working relationship with your lawyer. They should be responsive, answer your questions, and instill trust in you. Hire someone who shows you compassion and understanding while advocating aggressively for you.

Can my Employer Fire me for Reporting Sexual Harassment?

No. Federal laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for reporting sexual harassment. But, unfortunately, employers don’t always follow the law.

Although it’s illegal, it’s not unheard of for employees to be fired or punished after reporting harassment. If you’re worried about being fired, you should keep careful documentation of all your interactions with HR, any disciplinary action, and any unusual behavior directed towards you at work.

It’s also important that you speak with a lawyer well-versed in retaliation cases.

What is Retaliation?

Retaliation happens when an employer punishes an employee for reporting wrongdoing. Since it’s illegal for employers to fire employees for reporting sexual harassment, companies may try to force whistleblowers to quit on their own accord by making their work life difficult.

Your company may retaliate against you by reducing your pay or hours, demoting you, disciplining you harshly for small mistakes, giving you less desirable shifts or responsibilities, or setting you up to fail by overloading you with work. Although retaliation is usually done by supervisors, coworkers may also ostracize whistleblowers by bullying or harassing them.

What Should I do if I’m being Retaliated against for Reporting Sexual Harassment?

The most important thing you can do is document every incident and gather all the evidence you can to build a case.

It’s helpful to gather examples of your positive track record, like prior performance reviews, written compliments from supervisors, or a history of raises to demonstrate that recent disciplinary action is in response to your harassment report.

Now is also the time to get a lawyer. The lawyer helping with you with your sexual harassment report should be able to help you report retaliation as well.

The process for reporting retaliation is similar to the process for reporting sexual harassment.

First, you should review company policy and note if there are internal reporting guidelines; however, you’ll likely feel more comfortable going directly to the EEOC.

Your attorney can advise you on the steps you should take before reporting to the federal government. The EEOC will investigate and offer three outcomes: they’ll find no retaliation and resolve the case, they’ll offer to file litigation against your employer on your behalf, or they’ll give you a “right to sue” letter to file a lawsuit on your own.

No matter what the EEOC decides, your attorney can help you decide your next step.

If you think you may be a victim of sexual harassment, you probably are. Learn your rights and options in a no-cost, absolutely confidential conversation with an experienced and aggressive lawyer on our team.

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