You have the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. A supervisor or coworker may make sexual jokes, comments about your appearance or do other things that make you uncomfortable. They may target you intentionally, or they may be misguided attempts at humor. Either way, you don't have to put up with it. Under federal and many state laws, this kind of behavior is illegal.
Often your company will have a policy for reporting, investigating and stopping harassing behavior. But getting the situation resolved is not always as simple as talking to your employer. Sometimes you need a lawyer to help you get a satisfactory outcome. Here are some situations where a lawyer's help can be invaluable.
Your Company Has No Sexual Harassment Policy
Although employers should have a policy in place for reporting and investigating sexual harassment, not all do. But in most cases, your first step has to be reporting the behavior to your employer. It has to be given the chance to fix the problem before you can file complaints with government agencies or file a lawsuit.
If your company has no formal policy, it can be hard to know who to report to to get results. And that makes it easier for your employer to claim it knew nothing about it. It may ignore you or claim you didn't report it to the right person, for example. A lawyer can help protect your legal rights and make sure your claim gets the attention it deserves.
Your Company Has Not Stopped the Harassment
Even if your company has a policy, it may not take your complaint seriously. It may claim the behavior does not constitute sexual harassment. Or that it has disciplined the employee but can't do anything more. As a result, your harasser may be allowed to continue his or her behavior. You have a right to have the matter resolved quickly and effectively.
A lawyer can help you make sure the behavior does qualify as sexual harassment under the law (not all offensive behavior does). You also have the right to have a lawyer represent you in meetings with the company to figure out a way to resolve the issue.
Your Company is Not Covered Under Federal Law
Probably the most commonly cited law in sexual harassment cases is Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. It does not mention sexual harassment specifically, but courts have interpreted the anti-discrimination wording regarding gender and sex to include sexual harassment.
But this Act only applies to employers with at least 15 employees. If your company has fewer employees, you are not protected under it. But that does not mean you have no legal rights.
Most states also have laws with anti-discrimination wording similar to Title VII, which means the courts interpret them in the same way to make sexual harassment illegal. Other states have revised their laws to include language specifically mentioning sexual harassment. Many of these laws cover smaller employers.
If you are not sure what laws may apply to your case, a lawyer familiar with the laws in your state can help.
Your Company Has Punished You For Reporting Sexual Harassment
It is also illegal for your employer to fire, demote or otherwise punish you for reporting sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be hard to prove. The mere fact that the company took a negative action against you does not prove that it happened because you complained. You have to show that one caused the other.
A lawyer can help you hold the company responsible if it does this.
You Want to File a Complaint With the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
It's not strictly necessary to have a lawyer to do this, but it can be very helpful. While the EEOC takes claims seriously, it does not represent you and is not strictly looking out for your rights.
Also, the exact procedure for filing can vary depending on which field office you file with. Your lawyer can make sure you get it right. And make sure you bring all relevant documentation or other information that will help the EEOC understand and investigate your case.
Your lawyer can also make sure you file in time. In most cases, you have 180 days after the last harassment incident to file your complaint, although you may have longer in some states.
Your lawyer can also work with the EEOC as it investigates. He or she can help keep the process on track and even help get your employer to the table for mediation or settlement talks so you don't have to take the next step of filing a lawsuit.
You Want to File a Lawsuit
Again, you don't have to have a lawyer to file a lawsuit, but unless you know the law well, you'll need help to build a winnable case. Also, before you can take this step, you'll generally need a “right to sue” letter from the EEOC. The EEOC will issue one after finishing its investigation or at your request (if it has been more than 180 days since you filed your complaint). Then you have 90 days to file. A lawyer will know these and other details of the law and can help make sure you don't make a mistake that costs you your rights.
Although the ideal situation is that your employer has a policy regarding sexual harassment and it takes immediate action on your complaint, investigating and stopping the harassment, this is not always the case. If you are having trouble being heard at any step, or you just aren't sure what to do next, an experienced lawyer can guide you through this stressful time, protecting your rights and hopefully your job. Remember that there are time limits, so it's important not to wait to file your claim or you could lose your right to do so.