Sexual Harassment: What You Need to Know
Contrary to popular belief, sexual harassment is not always obvious. Sexual harassment might mean an employee was passed over for a raise or a promotion because of his or her sex or gender, or it may mean an employee was subject to unwanted attention in the form of cat-calling or suggestive gestures or acts. Regardless of how severe, employers who engage in sexual harassment, or those who fail to act when it occurs in their workplace, may face fines or legal action. Therefore, it is essential that today’s employers fully understand any sexual harassment laws that apply to them at the state or federal levels to ensure they don’t break them and face related lawsuits from their workers.
Defining Sexual Harassment
According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”
Often, workplace allegations of sexual harassment are separated into one of two categories. Hostile Work Environment harassment occurs when employees are subject to unwanted jokes, threats or sexual images or innuendos while on the job. Quid Pro Quo harassment is often more overt, and it refers to an individual in a position of authority insisting on sexual favors in exchange for promotions, raises and so on.
Employee Recourse for Sexual Harassment
Often, the best first course of action for an employee who feels he or she is being sexually harassed is to make it very clear that the behavior is unwanted. Some companies, and particularly larger ones, often have steps in place that employees who feel they are being harassed are supposed to follow. In the event that predetermined steps are not in place, employees are generally advised to report the harassment to a supervisor. In some cases, such as when the supervisor is in fact the one engaging in the harassing behavior, the employee can file a complaint with a state or government organization, or with the EEOC. The employee is protected by whistleblower laws from facing retaliation from his or her employer, should he or she decide to file a formal sexual harassment complaint.
Filing a Sexual Harassment Complaint With the EEOC
Sexual harassment workplace discrimination claims can be filed with the EEOC, although certain guidelines exist in terms of timing and the process, in general. First, employees who feel they’ve been victims of sexual harassment must file a charge with the local or closest EEOC branch within 180 days of the date the perceived harassment took place. The EEOC must then notify the employer within 10 days that a formal charge has been issued before launching its investigation into the matter to determine whether the claim is warranted. The EEOC will then classify the charge as either having ’cause,’ meaning the claim is likely valid, or ‘no cause,’ meaning adequate evidence was not found to support the claim. In the event that a ‘no cause’ determination is made, the employee may decide to request a review of the investigative process within two weeks of the initial ‘no cause’ finding.
Conciliation, or the process of working to resolve the issue between the employer and the employee, is generally the next step. In the event that an agreement is not reached during the conciliation phase, the EEOC may opt to issue what’s known as a ‘right to sue’ letter for the employee. Once this letter is issued, the employee must file a lawsuit within 90 days or miss the window allotted for doing so.
Workplace Sexual Harassment: Additional Considerations
While, in general, workplace sexual harassment seems to be on the decline, it is still a common problem for many members of the American workforce. Many employers and employees do not realize that harassment can come from a number of different sources, among them superiors, coworkers or independent contractors with whom they are business partners. It is also important to note that, regardless of whether a behavior seems rude or inappropriate, it still must meet certain criteria to be considered sexual harassment.
Primarily, what must be proven is that the subject of the harassment is a part of a legally protected class. It is also important to note that sexual harassment is just as possible against male employees as it is female ones. Similarly, females may be just as responsible for engaging in harassing behaviors as their male counterparts, and sexual harassment and discrimination laws are the same for both sexes.
Sexual harassment laws may vary, but any employer who breaks them faces the potential for fines, lawsuits or other legal action.
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