If you are sexually harassed at work

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Know the law, take notes and be prepared to go outside the company, says the director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center

If you are being sexually harassed at work, you may be feeling helpless, frustrated, angry or alone. 

Know that you are not alone. While sexual harassment is underreported, a 2015 survey found that one third of women between 18 and 34 had been harassed at work. Men were nearly always the perpetrators of the harassment. Only 10% of women reported being sexually harassed by other women.

A 2011 poll found that 25% of women, but just 10% of men had been sexually harassed. Other studies show between 50% and 80% of women experience sexual harassment. Women of color, immigrant women, LGBT women and women with disabilities may be more likely to be sexually harassed. In addition, harassment can be based on race, sexual orientation, national origin or other characteristics (or some combination).  

If you are being harassed at work, don't blame or question yourself. While sexual harassment laws are not a general "civility code" (meaning that they do not require people to be nice or polite), most women downplay and underreport sexual harassment because they are uneasy, embarrassed or frightened.

If you are not ready or able to take action, at least document the incidents in writing (on your calendar, or phone, or notebook) and save those notes in a safe place. You should write down the date, time and location of the harassment and names of any witnesses, if any. Be sure to keep copies of any harassing materials such as text messages or photographs or voicemails. Consider talking to someone you trust about what is happening at work. You also may wish to contact an attorney.

You should also know that sexual harassment can take many forms. Sexual harassment may be as blatant as a demand for sex in exchange for a benefit at work (such as a raise or promotion). Another common form of harassment is called "hostile work environment"-- when someone at work engages in repeated or severe unwelcome visual, verbal or physical conduct because of sex.

Physical examples range from unwelcome touching, kissing or hugging, to rape. Verbal harassment might include repeated unwelcome comments on your physical appearance, requests for dates or sexual jokes. Verbally hostile comments about women in the workplace also can be sexual harassment. Visual harassment examples range from pornographic images to anti-woman graffiti. 

The role of the person harassing you might matter. The employer is expected to be more responsible for actions of managers and supervisors. But employers also are accountable for the acts of co-workers and third parties where they "knew or should have known" of the conduct. It is fair to say that people you come in contact with at work should not be permitted to sexually harass you. 

Employees are usually required to report harassment to the employer before pursuing a legal claim. Look in an employee handbook or on posters in your workplace for policies prohibiting sexual harassment (and explaining where to report it). Even if you can't find a policy written down, you should usually try and contact someone in management to complain about harassment and document your complaint in writing.

But there are some important exceptions. If the person harassing you is the only one in charge or if the person in charge is someone closely tied to the harasser, or if you are afraid to report for some other legitimate reason, you may be excused from complaining to your employer. The law prohibits retaliation against you because you complained of harassment.

If you can't complain to your employer, or if you tried and nothing changed, you may be entitled to turn to a city, state or federal government agency for help. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission will take your complaint of harassment (or retaliation or discrimination) if you work for an employer with 15 or more employees. You may have to file your complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the harassment (or retaliation). In some states, if you have a state agency that also takes complaints of harassment, you have up to 300 days to file with the EEOC.

Your state law may be better than federal law in sexual harassment cases. For example, in California, state law prohibits sexual harassment for all employees. Your city might have laws against sexual harassment. Filing with an administrative agency is almost always required before going to court. However, if you are planning to file a lawsuit, there is a process to obtain an immediate right to sue letter from the EEOC for example.

You may be entitled to a variety of remedies for sexual harassment claims. If you lost your job or were forced to quit because of harassment or retaliation, you can seek to have your job back. If you were financially harmed (lost wages or benefits) because of the harassment, you can have those wages or benefits paid. If you experienced physical injury or emotional distress, you can receive monetary compensation. Your company might also have to pay "punitive" damages (damages meant to punish).

Sometimes, you may be able to force a company to put policies and training in place about sexual harassment or obtain other non-monetary changes like a positive letter of reference. In addition, you are entitled to have your attorney's fees paid if you win your case.

If you are a member of the LGBT community, you are protected from harassment based on sex (including same-sex harassment) or gender identity or gender non-conformity. You may also be protected from sexual orientation harassment depending on your jurisdiction. Sexual orientation harassment is still a developing area of law and you should consult with a lawyer or a national LGBT organization for help. 

Elizabeth Kristen is the Director of the Gender Equity & LGBT Rights Program and a Senior Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center in San Francisco. She regularly represents low-wage workers in sexual harassment cases. This article provides general legal information and does not constitute legal advice. Contact a lawyer to discuss your personal situation.


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