Know Your Rights: It doesn’t need to be physical;
if it is severe or pervasive, it is illegal
What Constitutes Illegal Sexual Harassment?
Are you being sexually harassed at work? Let’s define it. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination in the workplace, though it’s sometimes referred to as gender discrimination in some city or state anti-discrimination laws. Sexual harassment is unwanted behavior in the workplace that happens to you because of your sex, in other words, because of who you are as woman, or much less frequently, because of who you are as a man.
In other words, if you weren’t a woman, your boss would not have subjected you to unwelcome sexual advances. Ask yourself, would this be happening to me if I were not female? If the answer is no, and the sexual attention is making you uncomfortable, then it’s not your fault—that’s sexual harassment.
Sexual Harassment Defined by the EEOC
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Sexual harassment includes:
- Unwelcome sexual advances
- Requests for sexual favors, or,
- Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,
And it happens when:
- Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions, or is made a condition of employment (sometimes called quid pro quo sexual harassment), or harassment resulting in a tangible employment action, such as your firing, or,
- Such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment (sometimes called hostile work environment sexual harassment), although as a practical matter these distinctions are no longer important.
In plain English, if you feel that this uncomfortable workplace situation or severe hostility would not have happened to you if you were a man, then you’re experiencing sex discrimination, and it’s illegal.
You Must Complain. And Don’t Quit.
The important practical point to remember is this, if you can nip the sexual harassment in the bud by speaking to the harasser and by communicating your discomfort, by all means do so. If it’s clear that the harasser isn’t picking up on your hints, body language or if he is not responding well to you when you politely decline to play along with his flirtations or sexualizing behavior, you must formally complain to the company—to the human resources person if there is one at your company and if not—then to the CEO or president or any other person at the top of your company’s food chain.
Documenting Your Case of Sexual Harassment
A formal complaint of sexual harassment means that it is in writing so you can prove that you made the complaint later on, if necessary. Send the complaint letter by FedEx, UPS or USPS Priority or Certified Mail so that you can have a record of when your letter was received by the company. If the harasser happens to be the head of your company, you can write the letter to him. The point is to have a record—a paper trail—of your discrimination complaint filed with the employer, because then the company is responsible for investigating and correcting the situation giving rise to your protected complaint of sexual harassment, and your company is not allowed to treat you worse because of your complaint, as that would be illegal retaliation against you simply because you filed a sexual harassment complaint.
If your company fails to properly investigate your complaint and resolve the issue in your favor, then seek legal advice before you file a complaint with the EEOC or a state administrative agency, And whatever else you do during these challenging times, don’t resign or quit; you’ll lose most of your power and legal leverage, and to add insult to injury, you won’t even be able to collect unemployment benefits, so don’t quit!