Written by attorney Vincent Peter White

Sexual Harassment Laws

Sexual harassment laws are the federal and state laws that prohibit unwelcome and offensive sexual behavior that adversely affects a person's job. Sexual behavior must be pervasive or severe to be considered sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the primary federal law that prohibits sexual harassment (as a form of sex discrimination) in the workplace. Some state laws offer additional protections against sexual harassment.

Behavior That Violates Sexual Harassment Laws

Sexually harassing acts are unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other sex-based behaviors that:

  • Interfere with an employee's job performance or create a hostile work environment

  • Determine employment decisions (e.g., rejection of a sexual favor causes an employee's dismissal)

  • Are an explicit or implicit term of employment (e.g., submission to sexual favor is required to get a promotion)

Sexual harassment behaviors may be:

  • Verbal or written, such as sexual innuendoes, jokes, or comments

  • Physical, such as assault or inappropriate touching

  • Nonverbal, such as offensive gestures or expressions

  • Environmental, such as displays of drawings, posters, or objects of a sexual nature

A single or isolated incident may not constitute sexual harassment, unless the act is detrimental or severe. Both women and men can be victims of sexual harassment. Harassers may be the victim's supervisor, coworker or agent, or customer of the employer.

If You Believe a Sexual Harassment Law Was Violated

You must notify your employer of the unwelcome sexual behavior for the employer to be liable. Employers are not allowed to fire, transfer, or otherwise retaliate against you if you report a charge of sexual harassment.

Under the law, employers are responsible for taking reasonable care to prevent and resolve any incidence of sexual harassment. They may conduct an investigation and discipline the harasser.

If the harassment continues, you may file a charge with the federal or state government agency. To file a complaint on a federal level, you must file a charge with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) not more than 180 days after the incident, or 300 days after the incident if a state or local law applies. Employers liable under federal law include all businesses and federal, state, and local governments with 15 employees or more. The EEOC may pursue the charge or give you the right to sue your employer for damages.

Although you don't need a lawyer to file a charge of sexual harassment, it's often a good idea to seek legal counsel first. A lawyer can examine your case and guide you to the best course of action.

Additional Resources:

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Sexual Harassment

Workplace Fairness: Sexual Harassment - Legal Rights

Equal Rights Advocates: Know Your Rights - Sexual Harassment at Work

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