What Are Sexual Harassment Laws?

Sexual harassment laws define what actions constitute sexual harassment. In short, they define conduct that involves sexual discrimination as outlined in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment is a major focus in workplaces, but can happen outside of workplaces as well. Examples of sexual harassment include:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature

Sexual harassment is a leading cause of concern in workplace development. The laws that were put in place to protect people against sexual harassment can be complex. Here is your guide to sexual harassment laws.

Sexual Harassment Laws in the U.S.

The primary sexual harassment law in the U.S. is Title VII. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is responsible for overseeing the enforcement of federal discrimination laws, including sexual harassment laws. Local and state agencies may also have their own laws that cover sexual harassment. These protections also focus on discrimination against people who have previously participated in sexual harassment litigation or complaints.

Title VII and Limitations

Title VII outlines protections against discrimination in the workplace. Essentially, it protects against discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Title VII is designed to be somewhat ambiguous in that it allows flexibility in determining sexual harassment. It is also limited to companies with 15 or more employees as well as government agencies of any size.

Because of the ambiguous nature of the law, what constitutes sexual harassment can change based on the actions and parties involved in the incident. The key to determining what is sexual harassment and what is not, in part, hinges on the wants of the "victim" or targeted person. However, discrimination in the workplace is always prohibited and is not subjective.

Common Practice

Sexual harassment is being addressed in the development of workplaces. However, many people still experience it in the workplace due to a variety of influences. In these cases, people facing sexual harassment have several options including:

  • Reporting incidents to the company's internal authorities.
  • Reporting incidents to law enforcement.
  • Filing civil lawsuits against other parties involved.
  • Filing civil lawsuits against companies that facilitate sexual harassment.

Despite these options, many people feel limited in their ability to respond to sexual harassment. This is because they feel that they may face reprisals from co-workers, leaders, companies, and communities. Sexual harassment is used to coerce people into accepting sexual advances to advance their careers. This leads to a hostile work environment where harassment can be commonplace.

Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is another form of sexual harassment that uses different types of violence to force another person into a sexual act. There are three forms of sexual violence:

  • Physical - sexual violence that uses physical force.
  • Coercion - sexual violence targeted at people who cannot understand or decline sexual advances.
  • Intimidation - sexual violence where people are intimidated into accepting sexual advances.

All three forms of sexual violence can occur simultaneously or in succession and are prohibited by law. Unfortunately, there are cases where sexual violence still occurs. Sexual violence can happen in the workplace regardless of the workplace conditions. However, intervention and prevention in the workplace can reduce the risk of sexual violence when implemented correctly.

Responding to Sexual Harassment

If you are facing sexual harassment in the workplace, there are several options that you can use to address the situation. If it is a non-violent situation and you feel that you can effectively and safely address the situation, then you can speak directly to the harasser. Use a strong but inoffensive tone keeping in mind that not all offensive behaviors are intentional.

You want to de-escalate the situation instead of making the other party defensive. Begin by explaining the situation from your point of view. Be sure to explain why the harasser's behavior is a problem. Then, ask the harasser to stop the specific behavior.

Take notes on the situation including the time and location, who said what, and what the result was. From here, you can decide on the next steps based on the result. If the behavior continues, consult your company's harassment policy to see what the next steps should be.

If it is a case of sexual violence, the initial thing to do is to remove yourself from the immediate situation. That way, you will be safe and can calmly think about your options. If you are injured or feel that legal or medical intervention is required, contact law enforcement officials immediately.

Once the immediate danger has passed, the first thing that you should do is to investigate your company's policies regarding sexual harassment. Most companies, regardless of their size, have specific policies and personnel that handle sexual harassment claims. You can find this information in the employee handbook, by contacting your immediate supervisor, or by contacting your company's HR representative. Follow the policy that is put in place by the company, which usually includes:

  • Creating written complaints.
  • Providing notes about specific details of the incident including the time and the location.
  • Take note of any witnesses.

Provide the appropriate person, persons, or department with copies of the information that you collected. That person should be able to tell you what the next steps will be based on the company's sexual harassment policies. Keep track of the handling of your harassment claim as well as any other incidents. The company should take action to resolve the situation quickly.

It is important to follow the procedures established by the company to handle sexual harassment. In many cases, it could lead to a quick and effective resolution for all parties involved. However, following the process is also important for future legal actions. If the company does not handle the situation, your next option is to take legal action.

In court, judges take into account the use of the company's procedures. If you don't attempt to use the system that is in place to handle sexual harassment, it is likely that any legal action that you take will not be successful. Judges prefer that you follow the initial processes before resorting to legal action. This does not apply to criminal charges though, as many cases involving sexual violence can progress directly to legal action depending on the way that it is handled.

Next Steps: Semi-Legal Actions

It is the company's responsibility to respond to a complaint in a timely and effective manner. If the company does not, you have several options before you get to legal actions involving litigation. You should file a sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). EEOC is a federal agency that investigates and handles Title VII discrimination complaints.

Under the guidelines, you have 180 days (roughly six months) to file a complaint starting from the date of the incident. Filing a complaint with EEOC is a semi-legal action which is a legal process that does not require legal representation. EEOC claims can be filed on the EEOC's website.

EEOC Response Options

When EEOC receives and processes your claim, it follows a series of steps to handle the incident. EEOC will then notify the employer about the complaint and the impending investigation. From there, EEOC can proceed in a variety of different ways based on its assessment of the situation. These possible options include:

  • EEOC may recommend mediation between the employer and employee.
  • EEOC may file a federal lawsuit against the company if an agreement cannot be reached.
  • EEOC may dismiss the charge based on the assessment.

Next Steps: Legal Options

While the EEOC can resolve the majority of its claims, it is not always effective. If EEOC cannot resolve the complaint, you will receive information from EEOC that can guide you in filing your own lawsuit.

At this point, it is your decision to pursue legal action against the company for failing to resolve your sexual harassment complaint. You will receive a right-to-sue letter from EEOC that outlines your legal rights and processes that you can take to protect them. You can also request the right-to-sue letter from EEOC during its resolution process if you decide that you would rather move to legal action against the company.

Employer Liability

There are specific liability concerns when examining a Title VII discrimination complaint. The key to understanding liability is to determine who is liable for sexual harassment. Liability can be directed at individuals and companies depending on the case.

Title VII is applicable to companies that have more than 14 employees. In these cases, companies are liable if they meet the following conditions:

  • Sexual harassment is conducted by an employee of the company.
  • The company responds in a way that hurts the victim (demotions, firing, etc.).
  • There is a hostile work environment before or as a result of the incident.
  • The company should have known or knew about the harassment but did not respond.

While the company can be held liable under these conditions, that liability may not hold if the company follows the appropriate procedures. These procedures include:

  • The company responds to the incident appropriately according to laws and its policies.
  • The company takes reasonable actions to prevent sexual harassment.
  • The company tries to respond appropriately, but the employee refuses to cooperate.

If the company is not found liable for the sexual harassment, the harasser may be held liable. There are few, if any, protections for someone that commits sexual harassment. Therefore, criminal or civil legal action can be taken against the harasser.

Companies Outside of Title VII

Since Title VII only applies to companies that have 15 or more employees, there is a large segment of companies that are not covered by Title VII restrictions. However, these companies may still face legal regulations regarding sexual harassment. Local and state governments routinely create laws that reflect the same regulations in Title VII. In these cases, the victim can follow much of the same process including following the company's processes and conducting legal actions against the company or the harasser.

Repercussions From Legal Actions

Companies can be found liable for sexual harassment, which carries a variety of penalty options. In criminal cases, the result is often jail time for individuals. However, civil and criminal cases can result in:

  • Monetary losses
  • Reimbursement for pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages

The reimbursement and damages will be determined by a judge at the time of sentencing after the case has been resolved. There may or may not be predetermined amounts set for settlements by regulations. However, it is important to keep requests for financial compensation to a reasonable amount for the company. If you ask for an amount that is unreasonable for the company to be able to pay, that amount will be reduced by the judge if it is awarded.

Concerns About Retaliation

One of the reasons that fewer people take action against sexual harassment is because of possible retaliation. The government has regulations in place to prevent retaliation against employees. However, there is still a significant chance of facing some kind of retaliation from the company after legal actions. It is important to establish a strong defense even if you are the victim. To protect yourself, you should:

  • Keep copies of your legal records pertaining to the legal action that you took.
  • Keep copies of your personnel file.
  • Keep copies of any documentation that you provided to the company about sexual harassment.

Who Is Covered by the Law?

Title VII provides protections for employees of private, state, and local governments. Educational institutions, employment agencies, labor organizations, and joint labor-management committees that provide training are covered as well. These companies must employ more than 14 people. Individual states and localities can implement laws that cover smaller companies and other specific types of companies. In these cases, local laws may provide more comprehensive protections for the local population.

Compensation for Victims of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment victims are entitled to compensation by their harassers. These compensation efforts are designed to make a person feel "whole" again. In essence, these efforts are made to restore the victim to the condition that he or she was in before the sexual harassment incident. In these cases, several different forms of compensation can be provided. These include:

  • Back pay from missed work
  • Compensatory hiring or promotion if harassment interfered with employment or advancement
  • Monetary compensation for punitive damages
  • Coverage of legal fees
  • Any other action dictated or supported by the presiding court judge

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