Sexual harassment, according to the EEOC (Equal Opportunity Employment Commission), is uninvited or unwanted advances or conduct that unreasonably interferes with job performance or makes the workplace intimidating, hostile or offensive. It might involve anything from dirty jokes to lewd comments about appearance to actual physical contact. The out-of-bounds conduct varies, but the law always prohibits unwelcome physical contact. Sexual harassment is wrong. It’s never the price for getting, keeping or advancing at a job. If you’re being harassed, you can leave and make the offender pay. But, before you quit, gather the evidence to nail down your claim.
For companies with 15 or more employees, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 governs. State law controls smaller companies. Most states base these statutes on federal law, but some state codes are even stricter. If someone is harassing you, check with your state’s governing agency or commission. Find that office by doing an online search or by calling your state’s public information office or bar association. Under the Federal system, you must first report claims to the EEOC. That agency must issue a right to sue letter before you can sue. A local employment lawyer should be able to walk you through the process.
There are 2 types of actions under the federal statute; quid pro quo and hostile work environment. The hostile claim considers various fact specific elements like: (1) the type and frequency of the conduct; (2) the number of perpetrators and whether they were superiors or coworkers; (3) if the acts were offensive; and (4) if they were directed at you or at a group. The victim will have to prove that he or she believed the acts were hostile, abusive and offensive and that a reasonable person would have believed the same. A quid pro quo claimant will have to prove that a supervisor required him or her to tolerate harassment to get their job, keep their job or to get ahead at their job. If you’re facing this traumatic situation, take a moment and realize that you must prove either claim. That should start long before you leave -unless your safety is in jeopardy. No job or job claim is worth risking your life or health.
How do you gather proof? Here are a few suggestions:
- Start a log or journal. Keep it on your cell phone if you have access at work and back up the phone to the cloud. If you don’t have access at work, buy a small notebook and tuck it in your purse. Make the entries at your first safe and private opportunity. Note details of time and place, those present and what each said and did.
- Tell the offender to stop. Say it verbally at the time of the event. Follow up later with an email that confirms what happened, how it upset and offended you, and that you told him or her to stop. Emphasize that you felt like a target and won’t allow him or her to make you feel that way again.
- Text a best friend, your boyfriend or spouse. It’s natural to keep these folks updated about important events at work, especially those as serious as harassment issues. Each time there is an act or event, text this group about it, giving at least some brief, shorthand details.
- Email a family member periodically describing what you’re going through at work and how it’s affecting your life.
- Complain to your doctor. An event that impacts so much of your everyday life could impact your physical and mental health.
- Tell one or two coworkers, preferably at lunch, dinner or drinks after work and off premises. Ask if this happened to them or any coworkers. Seek their advice for handling it because this makes your confidence more of a request for help than an accusation. Co-workers will be more likely to be open.
- File a complaint with HR. Do this later, especially after you’ve talked to coworkers to check on any prior victims.
No one can force you to endure unwanted sexual conduct or contact. You should exit without delay if you feel unsafe. If safety isn’t an issue and you want your employer to pay you what you deserve, gather your proof before you leave. You owe your employer loyalty and competence, but the company owes you respect and a level playing field. If you’re being victimized instead of appreciated, it may be time to change the rules.