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Workers should be immersed in an environment that allows them to feel confident and capable of advancing their careers. Unfortunately, illegal behavior in the workplace such as sexual harassment or sexual assault can be devastating to a worker’s ability to thrive as well as, a threat to their safety. Whether faced with unwanted attention at your first job or well into your career, a victim of sexual harassment may have trouble knowing how to respond.

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Sexually assaulted or sexuall harassed at your first job? Know Your Rights!

Recognize sexual harassment and know how to take action

Often, sexual harassment is not corrected or punished because victims may feel intimidated or powerless to their harasser. Often, the abuser starts off slowly and incrementally becomes more aggressive. Victims of sexual harassment also often do not report the harassment for fear that they may be retaliated against. When facing these difficult circumstances, workers should know how to recognize harassment and when to take action. They need to begin documenting everything the moment that they sense someone is acting inappropriately. Every case of sexual harassment is different, and the right approach will depend on your particular situation. Consider the following information to help you decide how to respond when faced with sexual harassment at work.   

Woman dealing with sexual harassment at work

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can include unwanted sexual touching, sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal, physical, or visual harassment in the workplace. Sexual harassment also includes gender harassment and harassment based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions, such as breast-feeding. Illegal sexual harassment can be perpetrated by a supervisor, coworker, or even a non-employee if the employer knew or should have known about the conduct and does not take immediate and appropriate corrective action.

Generally, sexual harassment can take two forms:

1. Quid pro quo harassment, which occurs when an employment benefit is conditioned, expressly or implicitly, on the submission to an unwelcome sexual advance. This would include, for instance, an offer for a promotion or a raise in exchange for a sexual favor.

2. Hostile environment harassment, which occurs when a victim’s work environment is made hostile or abusive as a result of the sexual harassment. The harassment must be so server or pervasive such that any reasonable person in the victim’s position would find the harassment to be hostile or abusive.

What would not be considered sexual harassment?

Infrequent or random remarks of a sexual nature may not meet the legal standard of severe or pervasive, even if they are explicit, offensive or just plain ignorant.

When to speak up?

It is common for joking, banter and socializing to occur in the workplace. Whenever someone makes a comment or behaves in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, however, you should clearly state that such behavior is unacceptable and demand it to stop. This is particularly the case when the comment is directed toward you. The more of us who do this, the less we will have to do it as we shift the culture.

A legal requirement for the classification of sexual harassment is for the behavior to be “unwelcome.” Rather than ignoring the behavior, you should immediately communicate to the harasser that such behavior is unwelcome.

Sometimes, simply saying, “You’re making me uncomfortable, please stop” will be enough to get your message across. You can also threaten to report them. If your harasser sees that you are treating the situation seriously, they may too. But if the behavior continues, you may have to take further action.

Write it down

On your home computer or other non-company owned personal device, write down the details of the harassment, including the dates and locations where it occurred, and the names of any witnesses. If possible, ask witnesses to make a written account of the incident as well. Be as accurate and objective as possible, and store your record of the incident where you can remember it and access it later.

Gather your work records

Some harassers may try to defend themselves against your claim by attacking your job performance. As an active form of defense for any issues that may arise, you should gather copies of your personnel file, performance reviews and/or other letters documenting the quality of your work in order to keep evidence of your job performance. If your company policy does not allow you to make copies of your personnel file, you should take notes of its contents.

Report the behavior to your supervisor and Human Resources

If you are being harassed by someone other than your supervisor, report it to your immediate supervisor. This is important because if your employer is not informed of this behavior, they may escape legally responsiblility for it. It is best to inform your supervisor in writing by including the details of the events that took place, and ask for a meeting to discuss it in person. However, if you only report it verbally, this should still trigger your employer’s duty to investigate. After you report the harassment to your supervisor, you may also report it to Human Resources, if your employer has one.

If or when you make a report to your supervisor and/or to Human Resources (HR), be sure to keep a copy of anything that you provide to your employer for your records.  If you are asked to sign a statement of your complaint on company forms, make sure you ask for a copy of the form for your records. If your employer refuses to make a copy, inform them that you are going to take a picture of it and do so.

If there are witnesses to the sexual harassment, you may want them to sign a written statement about what they saw. Additionally, it can strengthen your case if you have spoken with other victims, if any, of the person’s harassment. Perhaps they have filed claims against them in the past.

Report Sexual Harassment to Senior Management

If your supervisor and HR fail to respond to your complaint, or if your supervisor is the harasser, you should report your claim to senior management. When doing so, best practice is to present your complaint in writing and include any evidence and documentation concerning the incident(s).

How Your Employer Should Handle Respond to Your Sexual Harassment Claim

Your employer is obligated to address harassment claims professionally and effectively. The following are the steps you should expect your employer to take when handling your sexual harassment claim:

Distribute a written anti-harassment policy

California law requires employers to distribute a written anti-harassment policy that expressly prohibits sexual harassment. This policy should also detail the steps that the employer will conduct in a fair investigation into any harassment cases. The investigations should be timely and maintain confidentiality wherever possible. If it is determined that harassment has occurred, the policy must require the employer to take appropriate and immediate corrective action. The policy should also offer the employee the chance to report the harassment to someone other than their direct supervisor, such as human resources.  

Sexual harassment training

Businesses with over 50 employees are required by California law to conduct mandatory sexual harassment training to supervisors every two years. Smaller companies, though not legally required to do so, should also offer sexual harassment training to their employees. Failure to do so may indicate that they do not take sexual harassment prevention seriously or will fail to respond appropriately if it occurs.

Prompt investigation

Employers should take action to investigate the claim within 24 to 48 hours of the complaint. The investigation should be unbiased and professional in order to properly determine whether the claim is credible. The best way to prevent bias is for a neutral third party to conduct the investigation. This should include interviews with the person filing the claim, the accused harasser and any witnesses of the harassment. The employer must also take action to deter the harassment from happening again. This can include administrative action to discipline and/or terminate the harasser if the claims are substantiated.

Documentation of sexual harassment claims

When an employee reports sexual harassment at work, the employer must keep written records of the claim. If they do not, this signals that the employer does not take sexual harassment seriously and/or does not intend to investigate the claim. If you reported sexual harassment at work, ask your employer for copies of their documentation.  Any time you sign or submit any paperwork to your employer, be sure to keep or request a copy for yourself.  

What to Do if Your Employer Retaliates Against You

It is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for complaining about sexual harassment. Retaliation can take the form of wrongful termination, an involuntary transfer to another department, demotion, job shift reassignment, salary reduction or other negative job action.

If you reported sexual harassment to your employer, and you believe that your employer is retaliating against you, the first step would be to address your concerns with your supervisor or Human Resources.

If your employer does not give you a legitimate explanation, complain in writing that you believe you are being retaliated against. If your employer refuses to correct the problem, contact the experienced sexual harassment team at Strong Advocates to learn more about your legal rights and options. You can learn more on our Retaliation webpage.

You have Found the Lawyer You Need

You deserve a skilled and experienced attorney who will empathize with you, and fight hard to achieve the justice and results you deserve. At Strong Advocates, we understand the pain and anxiety our clients face when they have been victims of sexual assault, harassment, or wrongful termination. We will make sure your rights are protected and companies or institutions are held accountable. Please contact us today at (800) 870-9886 to schedule a free, confidential consultation.

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