Sexual Harassment

What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual Harassment is a form of illegal discrimination that violates the Washington State Law Against Discrimination, RCW 49.60, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual Harassment is a term that is frequently used to represent a number of different situations. However, a majority of the public does not understand what the legal term “sexual harassment” actually entails. Sexual harassment is not a single instance of name calling, a request for a date, or a leering look. Rather, in order to make a legal claim of sexual harassment, you must show that you have been subjected to unwelcome conduct that creates a hostile environment based on your sex that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of your employment.

Almost 50 years ago, the U.S. Congress passed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Although on its face Title VII appears to only cover discrimination, such as when your employer disciplines or discharges you based on your sex or religion, courts have interpreted Title VII to also prohibit harassment.

But what does harassment actually mean? Courts are constantly struggling to define what constitutes sexual harassment, and sometimes that definition can result in confusion. A clear example that courts have agreed upon, is that, whether you are a man or a woman, if you are subjected to a steady stream of unwelcome and offensive conduct that is based on your sex and you report the harassment to your employer, and your employer does nothing to remedy the situation, you will arguably have a legal claim for sexual harassment.

Harassment may include but is not limited to:

    • Unwelcome Comments, Jokes, or Gestures
    • Offensive or Threatening Words
    • Pictures or Displays in the Work Place (i.e. on clothing, sent by email or other media)
    • Unwelcome Touching
    • Unwelcome Bodily Contact (including: grabbing, slapping, shoving, pinching or interfering with an individual’s freedom of movement)
    • Unwelcome Sexual Advances (i.e. requests for dates or flirting
    • Derogatory comments or language against one gender

What To Do if You Are Experiencing Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can be committed by a supervisor or one of your co-workers. It is critical to make this distinction as the identity of the harasser can determine your legal rights and remedies.

1. If the Person Committing the Harassment is your Co-Worker

Generally, if one of your co-workers is harassing you, you have an obligation to report the harassment to someone in authority, typically a manager or someone in your company’s human resources department. In many companies, there are company policies that spell out what you must do if you feel you are being sexually harassed. If your company has a policy, follow the policy requirements, a failure to do so can limit your rights. If your company does not have a policy, inform someone who has the authority to handle the matter. Do not ignore the harassment, or assume that the company knows about it. If you do not inform someone in authority, you run the risk losing the right to file a claim.

2. If the Harassment is Committed by a Person in Authority

If the person committing the alleged sexual harassment is your supervisor or some other authoritative figure, then your claim may be easier to establish as it is not necessary for you to have filed a complaint or followed the company’s policy in order to establish a sexual harassment claim, although filing a complaint is always helpful.

Filing a Complaint with the EEOC and Federal Sexual Harassment Claims

If you do complain, and the company does not take prompt remedial action, you have the right to file a sexual harassment charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC is the federal agency which investigates all claims of employment discrimination. Once you file a charge with the EEOC, the EEOC will investigate your charge, require your employer to respond to it, and, in some, cases, it will bring the parties together for a voluntary mediation session to try to settle your case. If your case cannot be settled, the EEOC will, in most cases, close the investigation of your case and send you a letter providing you with the right to sue. This provides you with the right to file a federal sexual harassment lawsuit and have a jury trial to decide your claims.

Filing a Complaint in Washington with WSHRC

In Washington the Washington State Human Rights Commission (WSHRC) enforces Washington’s State Laws Against Discrimination (RCW 49.60). Washington’s laws against discrimination prohibit all of the same forms of discrimination prohibited by Title VII and apply to all Washington employers who have at least 8 employees. In order to file a complaint with the WSHRC the complaint must be made within 6 months of the last alleged discriminatory act. After a complaint is filed an investigation will be opened to determine if a violation has occurred. The WSHRC will notify your employer of the complaint who will be required to respond to the complaint within 15 days. If an illegal violation is found to have occurred the WSHRC will first try to initiate a voluntary agreement between the parties. If no agreement can be made the WSHRC can bring a formal complaint in front of an administrative law judge.

Retaliation For Making a Sexual Harassment Claim is Prohibited

Many people are hesitant to complain about sexual harassment for fear of having their employer take adverse action. Although this is certainly a legitimate fear, the state and federal laws do provide protection from retaliation. If you do file a sexual harassment complaint with the WSHRC or the EEOC, your employer is prohibited from taking any retaliatory action against you, or anyone who participates in the investigation.

An adverse action can include:

    • Being Fired from Your Job
    • Reduction in Pay
    • Transferring you to a Different Location or Further Location
    • Changing Your Hours to Less Desirable Shifts

If a retaliatory action has been taken against you, in addition to your sexual harassment claim, you may have a claim for retaliation against your employer.

Sexual harassment is not the only type of harassment that is illegal. The employment discrimination laws covered by Title VII and RCW 49.60 protect you from harassment on the basis of age, race, color, religion, national origin, or your disability. Whether your injuries were the result improper touching, un-welcome comments, or a retaliatory action; if you are the victim of sexual harassment we can ensure that you recover the compensation and protection you are entitled to receive. The attorneys at Dann D. Sheffield & Associates have over 35 years of experience representing sexual harassment victims. Our attorneys can help hold arrogant and aggressive employers or co-workers accountable for their actions.

Harassment may include but is not limited to:

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