5 Things to Know About Sexual Harassment

 

Someone at work is making you uncomfortable.  You feel sexually harassed.  Employees have the right to be free from sexual harassment.  Many people struggle when deciding to complain to or sue their employer.  What should you know when making these decisions?

 

1. Sexual harassment is a type of illegal employment discrimination. 

 

Sexual harassment is discrimination in employment on the basis of sex.  A key aspect of discrimination on the basis of sex is that the harasser would not have treated someone of a different sex the same way.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) is the federal law protecting employees from sexual harassment, and the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) is the state law counterpart.

 

2. In Washington, there are two types of sexual harassment. 

 

Under the WLAD, state courts recognize “quid pro quo” and “hostile work environment” sexual harassment.  A hostile work environment claim requires the harassment be because of the victim’s sex, unwelcome, that the conduct or language was so offensive or pervasive that it affected a term or condition of employment, and that the employer can be held responsible.  Many inappropriate incidents in a relatively short time period makes a case stronger.  In a quid pro quo claim, a term or condition of employment, such as a promotion or termination, is conditioned on the victim complying with a sexual demand.

3. A sexual harasser need not be of any particular sex or sexual orientation, and may not even express sexual desire.

 

A common form of sexual harassment involves a boss making lewd comments to, groping, or demanding a sexual favor from an employee of the opposite sex.  However, members of the same sex and of any sexual orientation can discriminate on the basis of sex.  Someone of the same sex as you can create a hostile work environment without any sexual desire involved if the severe and pervasive behavior is aimed at you because of your sex.  Under the WLAD, a hostile work environment can be based on sexual orientation or gender identity as well as because of biological sex.   

4. You should understand your employer’s sexual harassment policies and procedures.

 

Employers often have procedures in place informing you who to contact if you feel you are being sexually harassed.  If reasonable procedures are available to remedy sexual harassment and you do not use them, the employer will likely not be held liable.  Complaining to your employer about harassment at work can be difficult and you may want to consult an attorney or other counselor when making the decision to do so. 

5. You are protected from retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment. 

 

Complaining to your employer about your boss sexually harassing you might make you fearful for your job or of other retaliation at work.  It is illegal to retaliate against an employee who reasonably believes she is opposing illegal sexual harassment or participates in a proceeding that is investigating sexual harassment allegations.  However, some courts find that complaining about a single inappropriate incident may not qualify as a reasonable belief.  You should speak with an attorney if you feel retaliated against.

 

Please Note: If you feel you are being sexually harassed at work, you may file a charge with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) and/or Washington State Human Rights Commission (WSHRC) to investigate.  The EEOC has a strict deadline to file a charge, and you may not pursue a sexual harassment claim under Title VII without a Right to Sue letter from the EEOC.  No such state exhaustion requirement exists.