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Your rights under sexual harassment law

Your legal options if someone has sexually harassed you in the workplace.

Sexual harassment is a type of gender discrimination addressed in federal anti-discrimination laws. Find out what you can do if you believe that someone’s conduct at work constitutes sexual harassment.

What options do I have as a victim of sexual harassment?

Before you pursue a lawsuit for unwanted sexual conduct, you may want to file a formal complaint with your employer first. You can do so through your employer’s human resources department, or whichever person or department is equivalent to human resources.

If reporting the conduct to your employer does not help, the next step is to report the harassment to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)., This federal agency enforces federal anti-discrimination laws in the workplace. Additionally, check with the state agency that enforces your state’s anti-discrimination laws. They may have their own process for reporting sexual harassment.

Normally, you'll only be able to file a lawsuit in court after you file complaints with the EEOC and the relevant state agency. The EEOC will issue a “right to sue” letter, which allows you to file a lawsuit against the harasser and your employer for sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

You can also choose to tell the harasser to stop, whether verbally or in writing. You may prefer to confront the harasser in writing, not only because it may be easier for everyone involved, but also because it is important to document incidents as they happen.

Why is documentation important?

Documenting the harassment is important for several reasons.

First, it leaves a paper trail of what is happening, which supports your story when the time comes to file a complaint or a lawsuit.

Second, it also helps to avoid situations where people blame each other in “he-said, she-said” scenarios. Paper trails help you to prove your case in court if you end up filing a lawsuit, and could make your story more credible.

Finally, depending on the laws in your state or your employer’s policies, you may not even be able to file a report or a lawsuit if you do not first complain to your employer in writing.

What exactly should I document?

You should document as much information about the incident or incidents as possible, such as the following:

  • When and where the incident occurred
  • Who was involved
  • What was said or done
  • Whether you made any complaints to your employer or the harasser
  • What was said in your complaints and any responses to the complaints
  • Whether you had any meetings about the incident and what was said in those meetings
  • Whether anyone saw the incident
  • Who you told about the incident, including what you told him or her

Can my employer retaliate against me for reporting sexual harassment?

Retaliation happens when an employer takes action against you for reporting a violation of a law, or for participating in legal processes related to a violation of the law, including sexual harassment.

But the same laws that prohibit sexual harassment also prohibit your employer from retaliating against you for reporting sexual harassment. Even if someone other than you reports the incident, your employer cannot retaliate against you or the person who reported it.

Limits on employer liability

Unfortunately, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act does not cover companies with fewer than 15 employees, including state and local employers. Additionally, employers may not be liable under Title VII if the employer used reasonable care to prevent and correct the harassment.

The employer may also not be liable if you fail to make a complaint about the harassment, unless the decision not to complain was reasonable such as in circumstances where you fear retaliation.

You may still be able to sue under your state’s anti-discrimination laws, so be sure to check the laws in your state. An employment lawyer can also explain the specific rules in your state and help you address sexual harassment.

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