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What is Sexual Harassment?

The sexual bullying and coercion that is known as sexual harassment is a serious matter. People who are the subject of sexually harassment can bear physical, emotional, psychological and mental trauma as well as negative impact related to work, such as the loss of authority, position, or employment altogether.

When encountering sexual harassment, you may be inclined to ignore it and hope it goes away. It can be a scary situation that invokes embarrassment, anger, and fear. The important things to know are that you are not alone and that you have ways to fight back against sexual harassment.

California Sexual Harassment Attorney works with individuals across the State of California to processes cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. The first step to putting a stop to your sexual harassment is to understand your rights under the law.

The following information is intended as an initial guide into understanding illegal sexual harassment as well as the rights of victims to recourse. This is not legal advice.

The Legal Definition of Sexual Harassment

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes a section called Title VII, which is a federal law that makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national identity, and religion.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a violation of Title VII. Sexual discrimination can include, but isn’t limited to hiring, firing, transferring or promoting employees; compensation; recruitment and job advertisements; pay and retirement plans; other conditions of employment. This federal law applies to employers with 15 or more employees across many institutions, including:

  • Federal, state, and local governments
  • Labor organizations, like unions
  • Colleges and universities, both public and private
  • Employment agencies

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) prohibits the harassment of either an employee or applicant due to the person’s gender or sex.

Examples of Sexual Harassment

Workplace sexual harassment can include a range of actions, starting with mild transgressions to much more serious sexual abuse or sexual assault. Examples include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Making unwelcome sexual advances, including physical contact and/or verbal requests and demands
  • Requesting or demanding sexual favors
  • Linking conditions of employment to sexual favors
  • Physically or verbally harassing in a sexual nature
  • Making offensive comments regarding an individual’s sex and sexual life

The law does not prohibit teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are deemed less serious. However, when these situations are frequent and/or severe enough to create a hostile work environment or lead to an adverse employment decision, such as the firing or demotion of the victim, they are considered illegal.

Who Is Involved in Sexual Harassment?

Victims are not limited to a particular gender. In many sexual harassment situations, women are the victims, but victims can also be men or gender-fluid individuals.

Likewise, perpetrators are not limited to only men. A harasser is anyone who sexually harasses another person and can be a man or woman. A harasser can also be the same gender as the victim. A harasser could be a direct or indirect supervisor, a colleague, or even someone who isn’t an employee at the workplace, like a customer or a client.

Importantly, victims may not be the individual that the harasser intended to pursue. Anyone affected by the harasser’s offensive conduct may be a victim.

When Does Sexual Harassment Occur?

Sexual harassment can occur at any time. It can occur during regular workhours, or at events held outside the workplace or outside normal working hours, such as at a breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or an event. Sexual harassment can also occur via different methods of communication, such as via phone call, email, text message, or social media.

Effects of Sexual Harassment

People who are subject to sexual harassment in the workplace may try to downplay or trivialize the situation. A victim of sexual harassment may feel that once the incident has passed, he or she can handle the outcome or choose to ignore it.

Unfortunately, there are deeper and wider effects of sexual harassment.

A victim may begin to experience health issues, such as stress from anger or fear, and this stress can manifest as difficulty sleeping, a loss of appetite, and even longer-term issues such as increased blood pressure. These physical manifestations can cause a victim to call out of work or consider leaving the job.

Furthermore, a victim of sexual harassment may believe he or she is the only one affected by someone else’s words, threats, or actions. This may be a reason for a victim to ignore the harassment or choose to keep it quiet.

In fact, the effects of sexual harassment are often much larger than merely the relationship between two people. For instance, someone who sexually harasses an individual could have previously harassed others or go on to harass others, assuming the harasser feels he or she can get away with it. Perhaps there are or will be other victims of this sexual harassment.

But those who witness or are aware of harassment can become victims as well. Perhaps you’ve experienced sexual harassment and have told someone about it – a colleague, a friend, a supervisor – and they aren’t sure how to proceed or how to support you. This can have an effect on their relationships with the victim as well as their employer.

Are There Different Types of Sexual Harassment?

When learning about sexual harassment, you may hear a distinction in sexual harassment. There are typically two types: “quid pro quo” and hostile work environment.

  • Quid pro quo is a Latin term that generally translates to “something in exchange for something else”. In sexual harassment situations, the term typically refers to a harasser threatening a tangible employment action (firing, demotion, etc.) unless the victim submits to the harasser’s demands, sexual or otherwise. (A quid pro quo case can also be known as a tangible employment action case.)
  • In quid pro quo cases, the harasser often has an element of power to hold over the victim, whether by being a boss or supervisor (direct or indirect), a higher-level executive, or an employee with the ability to change the subject’s employment situation at the company.
  • A hostile work environment, on the other hand, is a situation that does not provide an inherent and tangible threat to employment. Instead, a hostile work environment harassment situation involves actions that are repeated, pervasive, and/or severe enough to create an abusive work environment.
  • This can include repetitive teasing, off-color comments, and even less-serious situations that, when added up over time, contribute to a negative or even abusive work environment for the subject.

Importantly, though employers and attorneys may distinguish between the two types of situations, the federal court of appeals has held up that they are not mutually exclusive claims. That is, a sexual harassment situation can actually be both a quid pro quo and a hostile work environment, and in fact they both often lead to the same outcome – sexual harassment in the workplace, violating Title VII. It isn’t a far stretch to see how one may lead to the other.

The courts instead hold that these two “types” of sexual harassment are more descriptors to describe how sexual harassment most often occurs instead of types of cases that must be tried in particular ways.

What Are the Legal Rights of Victims of Sexual Harassment?

Victims of sexual harassment are entitled to legal recourse as they see fit. You may start with your company. If a formal complaint/grievance system exists, you may start by filing a complaint there. Speaking with Human Resources can provide additional understanding about your rights within the company. They can file a complaint with the employer.

If you are employed by an agency that Title VII protects, you have the ability to file a form charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In order to file a lawsuit in a state or federal court, a plaintiff with the EOCC must have first tried all administrative remedies that the EEOC can affect.

Importantly, it is illegal for the company or harasser to retaliate on any victim or individual who makes a sexual harassment claim.

Filing a Complaint with the EEOC

When the EEOC receives a formal complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace, they initiate a formal investigation, which has many steps and can take time.

It is important to know that the EEOC looks at the entire record of facts, not just an isolated incident. This means that the EEOC examines the circumstances (the essence of the sexual advances) as well as the context of the alleged incidents (the who, what, where, when, and why).

Preventing Sexual Harassment

The best defense for sexual harassment is stopping it before it starts. In the workplace, the employer at large should take steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. Employers can show zero tolerance for sexual harassment in many ways:

  • Communicating clearly and often that sexual harassment is not welcome or tolerated
  • Explicitly incorporating the prohibition of sexual harassment into their company-wide anti-discriminatory policies
  • Setting up and making sure employees are aware of a formal process that allows individuals to privately report complaints/grievances regarding sexual harassment
  • Providing training to all employees that addresses sexual harassment
  • Setting up an effective complaint process
  • Responding immediately when an employee makes a formal complaint

For many victims, though, the occurrence of sexual harassment shows that complete prevention may not be possible. As much as possible without fear of retribution, the victim should tell his/her harasser quickly, directly, and clearly that the conduct is not welcomed and therefore must stop. The victim can also pursue legal recourse and/or any complaint or grievance system available in the workplace.

Debunking Common Misconceptions of Sexual Harassment

If you’re unsure whether you’re a victim of sexual harassment, the debunking of these common myths may provide clarity.

Only people in power can sexually harass people they have power over. This is false. A harasser holding power (an occupational threat, for instance) over an individual is a common situation, but it is not the only way that sexual harassment can occur. Sexual harassment can occur even if the harasser does not hold explicit power over the other person.

Men are harassers and women are victims. This is false. A common stereotype is the male colleague who sexually harasses a female colleague, but it is just as true that men can harass men and women can harass men and women.

People who have been sexually harassed should be ashamed. This is false. Indeed, individuals may feel shame or embarrassment as a response to sexual harassment, but it is not something that they caused, directly or indirectly. Sexual harassment is a structure that is controlled by the harasser, not the individual being harassed. As such, should anyone feel shame or embarrassment, the harasser should.

It isn’t harassment if it didn’t involve physical touch. This is false. Harassment certainly can involve physical touch, but mental and emotional harassment can exact short- and long-term impact on your environment and your ability to perform your work.

It didn’t happen at work, so it’s not workplace sexual harassment. This is false. Workplace sexual harassment extends to any person you may know or any situation you may be in because of your employment. This means it can happen at a conference in another city or state, it can happen with a client or non-employee of the company, and it can happen over the phone or the internet.

Sexual harassment is not a big deal because it happens to anyone. This is false. Sexual harassment is a serious matter regardless of the situation that It occurs. It is a denial of respect and fairness. Anyone who believes it isn’t a big deal is likely afraid of the consequences of taking action.  

In Need of a Sexual Harassment Attorney

At California Sexual Harassment Attorney, we have the years of experience in fighting sexual harassment in the workplace. We’ll provide you the knowledge, advice, and action you need to understand and respond to your employer and harasser. Give us a call today at 800-905-1856 for your first consultation – once we know your situation, we can provide specific legal help.

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We will give you a free, no-obligation consultation and can give immediate attention to your sexual harassment case.

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