Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Examples and What to Do
Sexual harassment in the workplace is inappropriate and illegal. Employees who experience sexual harassment may experience a hostile work environment or even trauma at work. The effects of sexual harassment go beyond hurting your job performance or career prospects – they can also affect your mental and emotional states outside of work.
Fortunately, California employees are covered by strong anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws. This includes the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), which the California Civil Rights Department (CRD) helps enforce, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) helps enforce. If you suffer harassment at work, you could file a claim with one of these government agencies – or file a sexual harassment lawsuit against your employer.
Still, many employees don't realize what sexual harassment may look like, especially if it's subtle or deeply ingrained into their company's culture. One recent study found that victims of workplace sexual harassment often don't label those experiences as harassment.
If you're struggling with a toxic work environment, you may feel powerless to do anything about the sexual harassment you've experienced without fearing retaliation. You can empower yourself by learning about your rights, learning how to recognize sexual harassment in the workplace, and talking to an employment lawyer about your rights.Are You Being Sexually Harassed at Work?
What counts as sexual harassment in the workplace? The definition covers any unwanted or unwelcome actions or words based on someone's sex, such as:
- Sexual comments, jokes, proposals, or advances
- Offensive or sexual images or objects around the office
- Quid pro quo requests to exchange sexual favors for workplace perks
- A toxic or hostile work environment where subtle or overt sexual harassment is a part of the workplace culture that's ignored or even encouraged by management
Sexual harassment may happen repeatedly or as part of a pattern. But even a single incident could qualify as sexual harassment that's actionable and illegal under California law. You could file a legal claim and get damages or compensation for the negative effects you suffered.
In addition, retaliation is also illegal. Your employer cannot take negative action against you (such as demoting or firing you) for filing a sexual harassment claim or participating in the process of investigating a harassment claim – for example, by acting as a witness. Instead, your employer must take action to stop the sexual harassment, discipline the employees involved, and find ways to accommodate you so that you feel safe at work again.Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment can come in many forms. As an employee, you may experience harassment from a coworker, a direct supervisor, a superior from another department in your company, an employee or agent of another company or contractor, a client, a non-employee such as a visitor or a parcel delivery courier, or even an employee who is subordinate to you.
Below are some examples of subtle and overt sexual harassment in the workplace:
- Your boss offers you a promotion but only if you go on a date with them.
- Your coworker keeps asking you on a date despite repeatedly telling them no.
- A subordinate keeps "accidentally" brushing up against you with their body.
- Your boss exposes themselves to you or shares explicit photographs with you.
- Your colleagues question or insult your sexuality or sexual orientation.
- A repeat client keeps making sexually offensive comments or gestures.
- Another employee has an explicit poster up on their desktop or office wall.
- A group of coworkers is known for sending lewd emails or text messages.
- Another worker keeps following you or physically blocking your movements.
- A subordinate keeps staring at you and making suggestive facial expressions.
- Your boss comments on your body and how you should dress for sex appeal.
- Your work team takes off-site trips involving sexually explicit venues or activities.
- A coworker sabotages your work because you rejected their sexual advances.
- You get demoted, fired, or reassigned after complaining about sexual harassment.
Isolated incidents, minor insults, and slight irritations do not count as harassment that rises to the level of unlawful conduct. To qualify as illegal harassment, the behavior must usually be part of a pervasive pattern or a single incident that is particularly severe.
Workplace sexual harassment can be illegal even if it doesn't just affect the targeted victim. This type of unlawful conduct could affect anyone in the office, even if the harassment isn't directed at you. You may overhear lewd jokes or stories among your coworkers that have nothing to do with you. Even though you're not the one targeted, you could still file a claim for sexual harassment.
What can you do if you're experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace? Unfortunately, you have to remember that your HR department ultimately works for your employer – their job priority is to protect the company. So you may have to look for outside help on your claim.What Can You Do If You're Being Sexually Harassed at Work?
You deserve a dignified working experience in a workplace free from sexual harassment. There's absolutely no excuse for this type of illegal conduct in California. If anyone at your job is making you uncomfortable with their behavior – verbal or physical – you can take action.
First, start by writing down all the instances of sexual harassment, including the date, time, and location of the incident and any employees who were involved or witnessed the incident.
Make your own copies of any communications between you and your employer – not just about the incident, but also your employment and performance records. You want to make sure you're covered in case your employer tries to claim you had a history of poor performance to retaliate against you for filing a harassment claim. If you feel safe doing so and your company has a procedure, report the harassment to your supervisor, boss, or HR department.
As soon as you report sexual harassment to your employer, it is responsible for protecting you against additional sexual harassmentandprotecting you against retaliation. Your company must also find ways to accommodate you – for example, by disciplining the employee who harassed you and potentially transferring them to another position.
If your company fails to take action to protect you against sexual harassment at work, you can reach out to an employment lawyer about your rights. It's important to act fast – before you can file a sexual harassment lawsuit, you must also timely file an administrative charge and obtain a notice of right to sue from the appropriate government agency, such as the CRD. The sooner you speak to a lawyer about your case, the better.
At Yash Law Group, we can help. Contact us now for your free consultation.