Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. Your right to work in a harassment-free environment is protected by federal and state anti-discrimination laws. If you are being sexually harassed at work, you have legal recourse to get the harassment to stop and protect your job and your income.
Recognize What Sexual Harassment Looks Like.
According to both federal and New York state law, sexual harassment at work comes in two forms.
Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment
Quid Pro Quo is Latin for “this for that,” or “something for something.” In terms of sexual harassment, it means that either employment threats or promises have been made in exchange for sexual favors. These threats or promises may be clear and overt or could be implied.
If a person in a position of power at work makes a threat to demote, fire, or withhold certain shifts on the job unless you submit to his or her sexual requests, this is quid pro quo sexual harassment. They are making threats to punish you at work unless you perform certain sexual acts for them in return. Employees who desperately need their jobs have been made to feel like they have no choice. They either must debase themselves or risk losing their income.
Sometimes, the offer of quid pro quo sexual harassment comes in the form of promises or incentives. In cases like this, a supervisor, manager, or other person with power at work may make an offer to grant you extra time off, certain desirable shifts, promotions or better pay if you perform sexual favors for him or her.
In other cases, the harassment may be less obvious, but still implied and understood to exist, even if not spoken about openly. Employees may be aware of certain coworkers who have moved up the ladder after performing sexual favors for someone on the office. In cases like this, the harassed employee must have good faith belief that this quid pro quo enticement or punishment exists, and that his or her job was in jeopardy if they did not perform accordingly.
Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is not always a “this for that” offer that can either be accepted or declined. Sometimes, sexual harassment appears in less obvious ways. When enough repetitive or relentless sexually-charged behaviors exist in the workplace to interfere with an employee’s ability to perform their job, this can create a hostile work environment.
Repetitive off-color jokes of a sexual nature, constant requests for dates, commentary about your physical appearance, especially of certain body parts, or degrading stereotypes based on gender or sexual orientation all are verbal signs of sexual harassment. When these types of comments recur often enough, it can create an atmosphere of discomfort and fear in the workplace.
Physical contact can also build a hostile work environment sexual harassment case. If the same person continually has “accidental” brushings or seems to always need to push past you in tight spaces, it may not be as accidental as it seems. Always touching shoulders, back, arms, or insisting on hugs and kisses are other physical forms of sexual harassment. The instances can cause employees to avoid specific people, meetings or other encounters that can hinder their job performance.
Visual displays of either a suggestive or pornographic nature are also forms of sexual harassment. If certain pictures, even ones displayed inside a co-worker’s cubicle or office, depict images of a sexual or degrading nature, they can trigger fear and discomfort enough for a sexual harassment claim.
Document Sexual Harassment Events
If you begin to see a pattern of sexually harassing behaviors, images or commentary, begin by taking notes on what happened, who was present and what the environment was. In court, single instances of offensive behaviors are not usually enough to file a sexual harassment lawsuit.
However, if you have enough documented evidence to prove that these events are a distinct pattern of behavior, you will have a stronger case. Include dates, times, and names of any witnesses in case corroboration is needed. Try to remember exact quotes whenever possible to avoid claims that words were taken out of context.
Keep your notes updated over time to show that these events were not singular or just during a specific event, but show a pattern of repetitive behavior.
In addition to keeping a journal detailing the harassment, it is also important to look at the company policy on sexual harassment. Companies are not required to have a sexual harassment policy. However, if the company does have a policy, the company must follow the policy. Company policies must be publicized and enforced, and should be provided to all employees. While reporting an incident to management can be daunting, it can serve as further evidence down the line to support the claim. If the employer has set up a complaint process and an individual does not utilize this process, the individual may not be able to later pursue the claim in court.
Sexual harassment policies will likely contain information on the behavior that is expressly prohibited and the disciplinary actions that will be taken against a harasser. The policy may also provide protection against retaliation once a report is made. Additionally, the policy should outline the complaint process.
Employers have a responsibility to protect all employees from any harassment. Managers may be held liable for the actions of an employee if the manager knew, or had reason to know, of the harassment and did not stop it. If the manager is the harasser, this standard is mostly likely met. A manager is any individual with authority to recommend business decisions that will affect the employee. Business decisions include promotions, demotions, termination or reduction in salary or benefits.
Be Clear That the Attention is Unwanted.
Respond to any sexually harassing behaviors, comments or images by clearly telling the person speaking, acting or displaying images that you do not enjoy them and wish them to stop. Speaking out loud in front of other witnesses is a good idea to be sure that your objections are heard and cannot be denied.
Use a work-supplied email platform to email the offender about his or her actions. Request, in writing, that they stop immediately. By taking this action, you are creating a time-stamped document that can later be used as evidence that the offender was made aware of his or her actions, yet refused to curtail them.
Report Sexual Harassment to Superiors, Human Resources, or the state.
Before filing any legal action, you should make every attempt to report sexual harassment to your superiors in your workplace first. This shows good faith that you are trying to work in a safe environment and value your job above any kind of retribution or revenge.
If your supervisor or manager is the person harassing you, take your report directly to Human Resources. HR departments are equipped to handle matters like this by following strict documentation procedures that protect all employees.
If supervisors and HR are not options, there are government agencies that can help investigate claims of sexual harassment in certain businesses. Experienced employment attorneys who are well versed in sexual harassment law can help you file these kinds of reports.
Contact Castronovo & McKinney if You Have Been Sexually Harassed at Work
Our sexual harassment lawyers represent clients who have been sexually harassed in the workplace and are ready to help you. Whether your experience has been with quid pro quo sexual harassment, or if you are forced to work in a hostile work environment due to sexual harassment, our law firm can help. Call us today for a free consultation of your case. Together, we can help you keep your job and enjoy a harassment-free work environment in the future.