Sexual Harassment Laws: Federal Laws Governing Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment can be defined as sex discrimination under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines workplace sexual harassment in two ways: 

  • First, as any unwanted sexual advances/ requests for sexual favors that implicitly or explicitly affects the individual’s employment, and 
  • Second, like any other verbal/ physical conduct of a sexual nature, including unreasonable interference with an employees’ work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment, submission or rejection to which, will explicitly/ implicitly affect the individual’s employment.

Sexual Harassment at Work

The sexual harassment laws have been in place much before that, but we continue to face discrimination based on “sex.” The laws against sexual violence were recognized in the late 1980s when the supreme court interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) to be more inclusive. The law now applies to any private employer with 15 or more employees and the government and labor organizations. 

EEOC registered 6,500 sexual harassment cases filed for the financial year 2020. There is a drop in the number of cases from 2019, but it could be for various reasons, including remote working locations during the pandemic. 

What Are the Federal Laws Governing Sexual Harassment?

  1. Sexual Harassment is Illegal

According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work by anyone else, irrespective of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Title VII is designed to hold employers accountable to provide a safe and secure work environment, free from sexual harassment and any other kinds of discrimination or misconduct. 

However, it does not make sexual harassment illegal but only makes it illegal for employers to allow harassment to occur/ fail to take corrective measures. So this civil rights law only gives you the right to sue your employer.

  1. Retaliation is Also Illegal

You cannot be punished/ or retaliated for reporting or speaking out against sexual harassment at work, or participating in an investigation/ legal action related to sexual harassment. The punishments/ retaliations include being fired from office or demoted in position, receiving pay cuts or a reduction in working hours/benefits, being assigned a different shift/location/ position, or being asked to take time off without pay. These retaliations may be subtle (iced out by co-workers), building up (being left off of communications/ meetings), or getting worse over time. 

  1. The Employer Cannot Ignore or Retaliate To Your Report of Sexual Harassment

If the authorities are aware/ should be aware that you are sexually harassed, they are legally bound to take prompt action to immediately stop the behavior, investigate the issue and take steps in the right direction to avoid such incidents in the future. The actions need to be justified as appropriate and effective, i.e., the actions must result in the harassment coming to a stop without harming you or putting you in a vulnerable situation where the actions can be retaliated.

If even after the complaints of sexual harassment to your boss/ HR or any authority, they fail to take immediate necessary actions or made the situation worse, you can consider taking a legal course. 

Types of Sexual Harassment Claims

There are two types of sexual harassment claims that are recognized under federal laws:

  1. Quid Pro Quo

When a person in authority or a seniority level, say a supervisor, demands that subordinates tolerate sexual harassment as a condition of getting or keeping a job or job benefit, including promotions and raises, it is called a quid pro quo. A single instance of sexual harassment is enough to sustain a quid pro quo claim against the supervisor. 

  1. Hostile Work Environment

Hostile work environment claim requires a pattern of harassment for it to be grounds for legal action when the physical/ verbal conduct is unwelcome, based on sex, and severe enough to create an abusive or offensive working environment. The elements that court analyses to determine a valid hostile environment claim includes frequency of misconduct whether;

  • The conduct was hostile or patently offensive, 
  • The alleged harasser is a colleague or supervisor, 
  • The harassment is directed towards more than one individual or the victim has been singled out, etc., among others.

Employer Liability 

Employers with 15 or more employees are subject to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), and for the employers with less than 15 employees, state law governs. Most states have enacted laws covering sexual harassment at the workplace. If a quid pro quo or hostile work environment sexual harassment claim is proven, employees are liable to compensation for monetary loss, pain and suffering, and punitive damages. 

The liability of the employer will also depend on whether the harassment was committed by a superior or co-worker and the company’s response towards corrective measures. 

In case the harassment is committed by a superior:

  • For Quid Pro Quo Cases: The employer is liable to take tangible employment action, i.e., firing, demoting, negative changes in assignments or responsibilities.
  • For Hostile Work Environment: The employer’s defense to liability is exercising reasonable actions to prevent sexual harassment and taking the prompt corrective response to stop it, once made aware of the issue. 

In case the harassment is committed by a co-worker or co-workers in an office, the employer is liable if they knew or should have known about the harassment and/or unless the employer took immediate corrective actions.

Steps to Stop Sexual Harassment in Workspaces

Whether you are personally facing sexual harassment or you are a witness to sexual harassment at work, you must take these necessary steps into account:

  • Personally, Informing the Harasser Are Offensive

It may be one of the hardest steps for a victim of sexual harassment to take. Still, it is important, and there is a fair chance that the harasser is not even aware that their behavior is offensive. You can check unsolicited comments/ jokes early on before it crosses the boundary. If you feel uncomfortable talking to the person, you may write an email and inform the authorities about it. This way, your complaint will also be documented in the company email address.

  • Inform the Authorities

Communicate your complaint following the chain of command and company procedures at your organization. Compile and record all communications concerning your complaint and the authority’s response to it.

  • Write It Down

Complaint within the company, document it, and keep backups in files away somewhere safe away from the workplace. It will help you in your claim in court. You should write down each instance of harassment with specific information, such as date and time, people involved, any witness, and their reactions. Also, include how the event made you feel and affected your work and well-being to strengthen your case and allow you to recall events clearly without worrying about forgetting or misremembering details.

Employees are subject to disciplinary actions against sexual harassment. However, not every inappropriate behavior may fall into the category of sexual harassment, so it is better to take legal counsel before filing a claim at the EOCC.

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