As a New York sexual harassment law firm, one of the questions that we are most frequently asked is “what should I do if I’m being sexually harassed at work?”
If you’re being sexually harassed at work, you may wish to consider:
- Asking the person who is harassing you to stop, if you feel comfortable doing so
- Looking at your company’s policies and the complaint process
- Thoroughly documenting what happened, and write down everything in chronological order
- Reporting the conduct to HR, your boss, or someone with managerial power.
- Having your complaint taken seriously and investigated.
- Asking your employer what will happen and who will know about your complaint.
- Contacting an experienced sexual harassment lawyer if your matter is not sufficiently addressed to your satisfaction.
- Filing a federal EEOC complaint (and a corresponding state complaint).
- Testifying as a witness or participating in an investigation by the EEOC or other government agency
- Determining if you would like to bring a state or federal lawsuit against your employer after any waiting period has expired.
Each of these items is discussed in more detail below.
Alternatively, you may wish to do nothing. It is an entirely acceptable choice to do nothing about the sexual harassment you experienced. It is all your choice whether to speak up and complain about your experiences.
Actions to Take if You’ve Been Sexually Harassed at Work – More Information
Asking the Person to Stop Harassing You, If You Feel Comfortable Doing So
You can do this verbally (in person or on the phone) or in writing by letter, text message, or email. If you put it in writing, keep copies in the event that you need proof of your opposition to the harassment later. If you make this request verbally, consider asking a trusted co-worker to accompany you to serve as a witness.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking or writing to the harasser directly, you should still keep detailed notes about your interactions and the unwanted sexually harassing experiences you’ve suffered. Keep your notes in a safe place outside of work, like at home or in a private journal, on your personal cell phone, or in your personal, private email account.
Look at Your Company’s Policies and the Complaint Process
Most employers provide an employee manual to employees when they are first hired. Review this to find out what policies might be in place to protect you. If you never got a copy or lost it, ask for a new one. Look for the sections that mention harassment or discrimination, which often include information about how to report the harassment, sex discrimination or misconduct. If there is no information about how or who to report to, see if there is a phone number for your company’s HR, or employee or labor relations.
Thoroughly Document What Happened and Write Down Everything in Chronological Order
If you believe that you have been sexually harassed at work, try to write down as much information as you can about what has happened. Here is a list of things that might be helpful to record for your sexual harassment attorney:
- What was said or done?
- When did this incident or these incidents happen?
- Who harassed you?
- What role do they have in your employment?
- How does their level of seniority compare with yours? (e.g., supervisor, co-worker)
- Who, if anyone, witnessed this incident or these incidents?
- Who, if anyone, did you tell what happened?
- How has this incident or these incidents affected your ability to perform your job?
- What, if any, physical symptoms and/or emotional distress have you suffered as a result of this incident or these incidents?
- Did you report the incident to any management or HR personnel?
- What, if anything, has been done about your internal report?
Ideally, it will be best if you can:
- Write down what happened when the sexual harassment occurred, including the dates and times, where the harassment occurred, what exactly was said or done, who said and did the harassing acts and statements, what you said or did, and any witnesses who were present. Include as much detail as possible and keep notes about every time it happens. If it happens again, write down the details again immediately, while your memory is fresh.
- Keep notes of any conversations or meetings you have about the sexual harassment, including with HR, your supervisor, or the person who’s harassing you. Record the time, date, and place of the meeting, and who was there. If you’re comfortable doing so, ask any witnesses to write down what they heard or saw to support your factual account.
- Keep all notes in a safe, private place at home, in a journal or notebook, on a personal email account, or in another safe place not at work, but remember that it is important to share your complaints and experiences with your company so that they can investigate your complaints and take remedial action, as your “case” is not against the harasser; it is the employer that must stop the harassment and respond appropriately to your complaint.
- Others may later read these written accounts as part of the investigative, administrative or judicial process, so it’s important to stick to the facts and be as objective as possible.
- Take screen shots of any harassing text messages or emails in case you lose or change your phone or cellular service provider.
- Keep copies of complaints or correspondence with your company and all their responses.
- Keep copies of any other documents related to the sex harassment and any responses.
- If you believe that your employer has retaliated against you, keep detailed notes of every adverse employment action that happened, when, where, and if there were any witnesses.
Reporting the Conduct to HR, Your Boss, or to Anyone Else at Your Company who has Managerial Power.
We understand it’s not always possible to feel comfortable or safe at work after telling your company about the sexual harassment that you’re suffering. Yet, we strongly recommend reporting the harassment to someone at work who is in a position of authority, because it is more difficult to make your employer take corrective action unless you report the harassment internally first.
Make Your Complaint in Writing, if Possible
Reporting the Harassment in Writing
We highly recommend reporting the harassment in writing, whether you send it by email, or by a formal letter sent by FedEx or Priority Mail to your company’s HR or upper management so that you will have tracking information and can prove that your company received your complaint (your goal should be to keep a paper trail of your protected complaints and your company’s responses). Be sure to keep copies of your report(s) in a safe place outside of work, at home, or on a personal email account. For an example of what to write in your complaint letter, see our Notice for Reporting Sexual Harassment at Work.
If Your Complaint is Made Verbally (in person or on the phone)
If you report the harassment verbally (in person or on the phone), we recommend taking notes about the conversation and then sending a follow-up email or letter confirming what happened and what was said during the conversation. For example:
Dear [name of Supervisor or Human Resources Staff],
I’m writing to confirm that we met today [insert date] to discuss the fact that I am being sexually harassed by [name the coworker or manager].
As we discussed, the sexually harassing behavior has included [description of the harassment], and occurred [X number of times], and has been happening since [insert date]. You told me [description of employer’s response and what they committed to do to investigate your claims and what they will do to protect you].
Thank you for taking the time to meet with me about this serious workplace harassment issue that is degrading the terms and conditions of my employment and causing me to suffer severe emotional distress. Sincerely, [Your name]”
If You Report the Harassment Anonymously
While it is best for your own protection and legal leverage to report the harassment directly as you, if reporting the harassment is not an option that feels safe or comfortable, you could make an anonymous report to HR or a manager. Some employers operate helplines or have other ways for you to report problems anonymously, such as an employee assistance program or through an ombudsperson or union delegate.
- But Consider: If you only report harassment anonymously, and don’t say when, where, and to whom this harassment happened (or how you have personal knowledge of it), your employer may not be able to properly investigate or correct the sexist behavior.
If You Want to Report the Claim Through Collective Action
You could also align yourself with one or more colleagues to demand a meeting with your employer, submit a group complaint or petition, or take some other action.
Going Through a Union
If you’re a member of a union, you could speak with your union delegate, representative, shop steward, business agent or union attorney, and consider filing a grievance. Ask about the collective bargaining agreement and see if it includes provisions about sexual harassment or other discrimination (it certainly should). If you go to your union with a complaint about sexist, racist, or any other kind of discriminatory harassment, the union has a duty to assist you. This is true even if the person you’re complaining about is also a member of the union.
Have Your Complaint Taken Seriously and Investigated.
Legally, your employer must take complaints about sexual harassment seriously and investigate those “protected” civil rights grievances. As soon as your employer is notified about and is aware of the sexual harassment, the law requires them to (1) take immediate action to stop it, and (2) adequately protect you or the person who’s being sexually harassed or otherwise discriminated against in the workplace.
Ask your Employer What Will Happen and Who Will Know About Your Complaint.
You will likely want to keep your complaint confidential but understand that investigations usually involve interviewing the sexual harasser, the person complaining about sexual harassment, and other employees who may be potential fact witnesses to the sexualizing statements or conduct.
Talk to an Experienced Sexual Harassment Lawyer if Your Matter is Not Addressed to Your Satisfaction
If you would like to speak to an employee rights lawyer about your options, the legal advocates at Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser may be able to assist you. We offer a free and confidential case evaluation when you’re ready to find out about your best strategic legal options. Please contact us by phone or email so that we may arrange to speak with you in total confidence.
File a Complaint with the U.S. EEOC and/or a Corresponding State Government or Local Government Agency
If you have experienced sexual harassment at work and your employer is aware but has not stopped it, ignored your harassment complaint, or retaliated against you in any way for complaining, or for supporting someone else’s complaint of sexual harassment, the next step may be to file a legal complaint with a government agency: either with your state or city’s anti-discrimination or civil rights agency, or with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which has offices throughout the country. As a sexual harassment law firm, we can assist in preparing this complaint.
- United States EEOC: Visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website for more information about filing a “charge” of discrimination with the EEOC.
- New York State: Visit the New York State Division of Human Rights website for more information on filing a complaint with the NYSDHR if you work anywhere in NY.
- New York City: Visit the New York City Commission on Human Rights website for information about filing a complaint with the NYCCHR if you work in New York City.
- We strongly recommend that you speak with a qualified sexual harassment lawyer before filing a charge with an administrative agency, because once your file, you have chosen a certain course of action that may not be in your overall best settlement interest.
- You may be able to resolve your claims with your employer before you take any legal action, which is generally the best way for employees and former employees to resolve sexual harassment and employment law claims, through alternative dispute resolution, such as pre-litigation attorney negotiations, or private or discrimination agency mediation.
- There are strict deadlines for filing with these agencies (see below).
- Important Note: If the government agency decides to investigate your complaint, they will likely interview you, and the alleged harasser, and the investigator may tell them about your claims. They could also interview your supervisor(s), coworkers, people in HR, and others who may have witnessed the harassment or know about your complaint.
- Government agencies often take months to assign each case to an investigator, so the whole process could take many months or even years to complete. If you don’t want to wait for the agency to do or conduct and complete its investigation (and the result is often disappointing), you may be able to request a “Notice of Right to Sue” (NORTS) so that you can file directly in federal court. The rules on receiving your NORTS are different depending on whether you filed with the EEOC or a comparable state or city agency.
- If the sexual harassment or discrimination occurred in New York, you can always file a lawsuit in state court under the state and/or city Human Rights Laws without first filing with any administrative agency, but filing first with a state or city administrative agency may limit your ability to pursue your claims in state court later on, so this why it is so important to get legal advice from a qualified and experienced sexual harassment lawyer before committing to a particular legal strategy and plan of action.
Testify as a Witness or Participate in an Investigation by the EEOC or other Government Agency.
Your employer cannot prevent you from providing evidence, testifying at a hearing, or communicating with a government agency that is investigating sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination at your workplace. Even if the investigation eventually finds that there was no harassment or discrimination (which is the result in more than 90% of administrative cases, unfortunately), your participation is still a protected civil right, meaning that your employer cannot retaliate against you (punish you) for cooperating with a government investigation.
Please also note – If you are fired or retaliated against for taking any of the above actions, it is illegal, and you could take legal action. Retaliation includes being fired or demoted, cutting your pay, changing your shifts, hours, benefits, or responsibilities, being told to take time off, or any other action that has a negative effect on you or feels like punishment for your protected civil rights complaint.
You Could File a Lawsuit Against Your Employer in Federal or State Court
In all cases there will be critical deadlines and requirements, including filing a charge with a government agency, filing a lawsuit, and other matters, including in some instances receipt of a Notice of Right to Sue letter. If any of these deadlines in missed, you may forfeit your right to seek compensation (which is why we strongly recommend retaining an experienced employment lawyer).
Suing in Federal Court and Key Federal Deadlines
Depending on the state you work in, you either have 180 days or 300 days from the last discriminatory, retaliatory, or harassing act, to file a discrimination “charge” with the EEOC. (Sexual harassment is considered sex discrimination by the EEOC). Check the EEOC’s website to find your state’s filing deadline.
Before suing in federal court, you must first file a charge of discrimination with the US EEOC and then wait to receive your Notice of Right to Sue, which typically takes at least 6 months from the date of EEOC filing. Yet, even if you plan to represent yourself in court (i.e., without an attorney, which is never a good idea), we strongly recommend that you consult with a sexual harassment lawyer well before you file a lawsuit in court.
If you then receive a “Notice of Right to Sue” (NORTS) from the EEOC, you will only have 90 days from receipt of the NORTS to must file a complaint in federal court, which is one of the reasons it is best to take your time and strategize with an employment lawyer regarding the best path to take to accomplish your goals.
Suing in New York State Courts and Key New York Deadlines
The filing deadline for starting lawsuits in all the trial courts throughout New York State is three years from the last sexually harassing, discriminatory, or retaliatory act. There are no other conditions precedent (or, prerequisites) before you’re permitted to start an action in state court. In other words, you don’t need to first receive a “Notice of Right to Sue” letter before bringing a lawsuit in New York State Courts.
However, it’s important to note that if you file a complaint with the State Division of Human Rights and they find “no probable cause” to believe that you were discriminated against, you will lose your right to sue your employer in court under the state’s Human Rights Law, which is another good reason to first consult with a qualified, Plaintiff-side employment lawyer before committing to filing a lawsuit with a federal, state or city administrative agency.
The filing deadline for filing a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, is three years for all gender-based claims, including sexual harassment, and one year from the last harassing or discriminatory act for all other forms of employment discrimination.
If the City Commission finds against you and in favor of your employer, you may still be able to file a lawsuit in state court under the New York City Human Rights Law thereafter.
If your employer has at least 15 employees and you file with either of the New York state or city agencies, ask the intake specialist to “dual-file” your complaint with the EEOC, which these agencies commonly do, so that even if your complaint is dismissed by the agencies, you will still receive your Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC, which will allow you to sue your former employer in federal court, if your case merits litigation, and if you’re up for the battles to come.
Call Us for a Free Consultation and Case Evaluation
If you decide you are ready to talk and seek confidential advice, we are ready to listen. Click here to speak to a client support advocate about your different options for taking action and to find out how a Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser sexual harassment lawyer can help.