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Sexual Harassment: Actions You Can Take

If you believe you are the victim of sexual harassment, know that you are not alone. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a situation that happens more often than many realize. It is a serious situation and can cause you to feel many emotions, like sadness, anger, and shame. Any unwelcome action can, but is not required to, involve physical touch or abuse in order to be considered sexual harassment.

Importantly, you do not have to succumb to sexual harassment. There are actions you can take against it once the harassment has occurred, and there are steps for individuals and employers to take to help prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place.

At California Sexual Harassment Attorney, we have years of experience guiding victims of sexual harassment through the justice system. There are laws in place that allow you to respond to your harasser and your employer.

Of course, the first step to fighting back is to know your rights. The following information provides a brief overview of actions you can take against sexual harassment in the workplace. This information should not be used as legal advice, as each individual’s case is different.

Understanding sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is one type of workplace discrimination. Discrimination at work is made illegal by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment includes actions and behaviors on a continuum, from milder yet sustained transgressions to very specific situations of sexual assault and sexual abuse.

Sexual harassment can begin in feelings of sexual attraction from the harasser, that is not necessary to qualify as harassment of a sexual nature. Instead, harassment can refer to the sex life and/or gender of the victim.

Often, sexual harassment is a situation in which the harasser is lauding his or her authority over the subject of his or her harassment. This can sometimes implicate a tangible action, such as “If you do this sexual act with me, I won’t fire you”. The threat does not have to be implicitly stated to be understood. Furthermore, the victim can voluntarily choose to succumb to the sexual harassment, but as long as the victim can indicate that it was unwelcome behavior, it is still sexual harassment. Another way of putting it is – even if the victim gives into the sexual harassment, particularly in a physical manner, it can still meet the legal definition of sexual harassment.

On the other hand, sexual harassment may not include a threat of physical or sexual action to still be considered sexual harassment. If a harasser is verbally taunting or making sexual requests repeatedly and consistently, this can result in a hostile work environment, which is another type of discrimination that employers are legally prohibited from. A hostile work environment is thought of as discriminatory because employees affecting by it have a harder time coming to work or doing their work in a positive manner.

Importantly, teasing, offhand or inappropriate comments, and isolated incidents are not illegal unless they are severe and/or sustained enough to contribute to a hostile work environment.

Some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Commenting in an unwelcome and/or offensive manner about an individual’s sex identity and sex life
  • Making sexual advances that are unwelcome
    • This can include actual physical touch or verbal requests and demands.
  • Requesting or demanding sexual favors
    • When this is linked to employment conditions, such as to maintain a job or earn a raise, this is seen as a tangible action situation, often known as quid pro quo, which means something explicitly exchanged for something else. In this case, it would be sexual favors in exchange for job security.

Sexual harassment: who, where, when, and why

For everyone involved, sexual harassment can be a very serious and complicated matter. There is not a one-size-fits-all definition for sexual harassment. Instead, it’s important to understand the many factors that go into it so you can understand whether you’ve been subject to sexual harassment.

Anyone can be a harasser or perpetrator. This person can be a boss or supervisor, including indirect – perhaps the harasser manages a different department or is your boss a few steps up the ladder. It can be a colleague on your team or in a different department or even a different office. A harasser doesn’t have to work for the same company even – a client or customer of your company who harasses company employees may be guilty of sexual harassment.

Importantly, sexual harassers are not limited to heterosexual men. While male-to-female sexual harassment is common, women can also sexually harass men. Likewise, women can harass women and men can harass men. The actions and behaviors do not have to be related to sexual attraction or sexual orientation to be considered sexual harassment.

Just as anyone can be a harasser, anyone can be the subject of sexual harassment. In fact, even in a traditional scenario in which there is a harasser and a subject of harassment, there may be victims beyond that: Those who are aware of harassment may be victims as well – a colleague, friend, supervisor who have witnessed or know about it may be unsure how to proceed. This situation can have an impact on their personal and/or professional relation with the harasser as well as the employer at large.

Sexual harassment can occur anywhere. It can certainly happen face-to-face in the office, but it can also happen outside the office, such as at a work event, conference, or even when two people run into each other getting coffee. Sexual harassment can also occur across offices – perhaps your harasser works in an office in another city and you’ve only met once, yet the harasser calls or emails unwelcome sexual advances, comments, or questions.

Sexual harassment can easily occur in a digital environment, too. Harassers can use email, text messages, phone calls and voicemail, instant messages (such as Slack, Gchat, and Skype), social media, and more to harass or threaten colleagues.

Because of the way we may communicate with colleagues and clients – outside normal business hours – sexual harassment can occur at any time.

Why sexual harassment occurs is complicated. There is no real answer. It may be a combination of a number of factors, include cultural power, sexual stereotypes, need to indicate authority, mental health issues, and more. It is important for victims to remember that sexual harassment has nothing to do with whether the victim or subject of the harassment deserved it. In fact, sexual harassment has significantly more to do with the harasser and is often a reflection of the harasser.

What to do when sexual harassment occurs

Knowing your rights is the first step to responding when sexual harassment occurs. It can be a very confusing time and you may be unsure what, if anything, you should do. Of course, as a victim of sexual harassment you are under no obligation to report the harassment or otherwise take action.

Here are some ways to respond when sexual harassment occurs.

  1. Say something. If harassment occurs and you are aware in the moment, you can say something to your harasser right away. Letting the person know that this action or behavior is unwelcome may stop the harassment.
  2. Write down any incident that occurs. Whether it’s a one-time situation or a series of events that are creating a hostile work environment, keep a written diary of the events in as real-time as possible. This can be as simple as a running document in your personal cell phone, a spreadsheet, or even a handwritten account in a calendar or journal. Include as many details as possible: who did it, what occurred, the time and location, and any words or threats you felt.
    1. Collect any evidence, if possible. Perhaps your harasser is in touch via email, text message, social media, or otherwise. Saving the examples of this can help build your case should you move forward with a formal complaint.
    2. Keep your records in a non-work environment. Storing documents on a work-only computer could risk your access to that document. Consider storing your notes on your personal cell phone or in a record at home.
  3. Review your rights. When you started your job, you likely signed an agreement to employee policies, which may include anti-discriminatory practices. Now is the time to review these documents, which should be openly accessible on an employee Intranet. You can also review your legal rights under the S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as well as the California Department for Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), both of which enforce laws that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. If you are part of a labor organization or labor union, review your contract with them, too. These documents should spell out how they treat sexual harassment, including the processes for making a formal complaint and what that could mean.
  4. Get in touch with a labor attorney. Speaking with a labor attorney can provide specific insight to your individual situation, whereas other documents provide more generic information. A labor attorney can advise you around which actions to take and will follow you through any formal process you may pursue.
  5. Speak with your employer. Once you have reviewed your policies, you may want to let your employer know that this harassment is occurring and that you are considering making a formal complaint and/or beginning a legal investigation. You will likely want to speak with whoever is in charge of anti-discriminatory procedures, often the Human Resources (HR) department. Know that employers are responsible to uphold the laws that prohibit sexual harassment, but they may not be aware of them until you speak with them. As the victim of harassment, you the sole responsible party for your rights.
  6. File a formal complaint. You likely have several ways to initiate a formal complaint – through your employer, or through the EEOC or DFEH. In the case of a complaint through your employer, make sure you understand the process involved and what potential outcomes may be. Know that it is illegal for either your harasser or your employer to retaliate once you’ve issued a formal complaint. You can also opt to file a complaint of discrimination with the EEOC and the California EEOC. These investigative processes can take upwards of a year.
  7. Find an ally. Regardless of whether you choose to make a formal complaint against your harasser, sexual harassment is an issue that can’t be ignored or taken lightly. It is common for victims of sexual harassment to feel a range of emotional and mental trauma, including sadness, anger, shock, frustration, and more. Look for an ally that you can share your thoughts and feelings with – this can be as informal as chatting with a supportive friend or more structured, like meeting regularly with a therapist who specializes in this sort of trauma.

Steps to prevent sexual harassment

While it may be impossible to completely prevent sexual harassment from occurring, employers are responsible to the law when it comes to prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace.

One way to prevent some episodes of harassment from occurring is to take pre-emptive action against it. Employers can start with these actions:

  • Building the prohibition of sexual harassment into anti-discriminatory policies and the employee handbook
  • Speaking openly that sexual harassment will not be tolerated
  • Developing and making accessible a process that shows what steps the employer takes upon complaint of sexual harassment
  • Providing additional resources for employees to explore on their own, such as federal and state laws as well as support groups
  • Educating employees regularly around what constitutes sexual harassment
  • Responding swiftly upon receipt of a formal complaint
    • This does not necessarily mean punishing the harasser immediately and without due process; instead, initiating the process, consulting with all parties involved, and beginning to understand the alleged harassment.

California Sexual Harassment Attorney has helped countless individuals fight sexual harassment across the State of California. With many years of experience in labor law and harassment protection, we professionally guide you through the process of deciding whether and how to prosecute your sexual harasser. Call 800-905-1856 today to learn how we help you get protection.

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