What Is Sexual Harassment?
There are two types of sexual harassment. The first and most common is known as "hostile work environment" sexual harassment, which includes behavior that makes an employee uncomfortable due to its sexual nature. This can include sexual comments, inappropriate touching, sexually explicit photographs or emails, sexual gestures, persistent requests to date, invasive questions about the employee's romantic partners, and physical touching. The second type of harassment is called "quid pro quo." Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employee is coerced into performing sexual acts due to the fear of losing her job or in order to receive a job or promotion.
What to Do If You Are Being Sexually Harassed
Report it, report it, report it!! Tell the harasser to stop the behavior, and tell your supervisor and his. Be specific and detailed--report the harasser's exact words or behavior. If you were given an employee manual, review it to find the sexual harassment policy and follow the steps for reporting the harassment. If the harasser is your supervisor, report it to his or her supervisor and/or anyone else who is designated in the policy to receive reports of sexual harassment. Write down a detailed narrative of what has happened, including times, dates, places and witnesses. Employers are forbidden from retaliating against you for reporting sexual harassment, and from retaliating against others who honestly report that they have witnessed harassment. The employer also is required to investigate reports of sexual harassment. If they do not investigate your complaint immediately, report it to the next level up the chain of command
The Conduct Must Be Severe and Pervasive
To prove hostile work environment sexual harassment, the employee must show that the harassment was "severe and pervasive," and that the conduct was "unwelcome." In some cases, one instance of extremely severe conduct (for example, a sexual assault) could constitute sexual harassment. In most cases, though, there must be a pattern of conduct over time that the average person would find offensive, and that the employee does in fact find offensive and distressing.
The Conduct Must Be Unwelcome
To prove hostile work environment sexual harassment, the employee must prove that the behavior was unwelcome. For this reason, employees must confront the behavior and ask that it stop each and every time it occurs. Employees should not attempt to "fight fire with fire" by engaging in sexual banter or other sexually inappropriate behavior herself, because this detracts from the employee's claim that she was offended by the sexual harassment.
What to Do About How the Harassment Makes You Feel
Sexual harassment can have a devastating impact on an employee's feelings of self-worth, and can cause significant difficulties at home and work. Difficulties with concentration, irritability, depression, sleeplessness, nightmares, weight gain, trust issues--all of these symptoms are quite common for victims of sexual harassment. The most important thing to do is get help from a professional mental health therapist who can help you work through these symptoms.
Final Steps: Should I Take Legal Action?
If you have reported sexual harassment to your employer and you don't feel like they have adequately responded or remedied the situation, or the harassment was so severe you felt you had no other choice but to leave, you may want to consider filing a claim for sexual harassment against the employer. In Massachusetts, you have 300 days from the last incident of harassment to file your claim, and you must file it first with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. If you don't file within that time, you will lose your rights forever. If you successfully prove sexual harassment, you are eligible for compensation for emotional distress, medical expenses, attorney's fees and depending on the circumstances, lost wages.
Do I Need a Lawyer?
You can file a claim on your own with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, but the law regarding sexual harassment is complicated, and most employers are represented by lawyers. In a situation in which everything you say, including even seemingly minor details, can be used against you, consulting with a lawyer who specializes in sexual harassment law and understands both the ins and outs of the law and the impact of harassment on employees is a good idea. Most lawyers will provide a free initial consultation.