What should I do if I have been sexually harassed in the workplace?

What should I do if I have been sexually harassed in the workplace?

Article written by Illinois & Iowa Attorney Kevin O'Flaherty
Updated on
November 1, 2019

In this article, we answer the question “what should I do if I have been sexually harassed in the workplace?”  For some foundational information, check out our article: What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in Illinois.

If you have been sexually harassed in the workplace, it’s important to report the situation and document everything. Even if you aren’t sure whether or not the uncomfortable behavior qualifies as sexual harassment, reporting the behavior can improve your employment culture and create a more inclusive, safer work environment. To be illegal, sexual harassment has to be “unwelcome.” Unwelcome means unwanted, and it’s important for to communicate to the harasser that his or her conduct is unwelcome.

If you have been physically touched or harmed in any sexual manner, immediately report the incident to management. This includes coerced touching of the victim by the harasser, whether directly or through clothing. If you have been sexually assaulted, you have the right to call the police and report the incident as a crime. Do not feel guilty or make excuses for the assaulter; every individual deserves to work in a safe, hostile-free environment. If the assaulter gets away with one instance, he or she will most likely continue the violent behavior.

Here’s what do to if you believe you may have been sexually harassed in the workplace:

1.) Confront the harasser.The first time anyone makes an inappropriate gesture, immediately confront the behavior. Look the individual in the eye, and tell him or her to “Stop!” Say it loud, and be very clear. Do not worry about being rude, and do not apologize. Many people often don’t consider their behavior inappropriate, or they do not realize that their actions are offensive.

2.) Immediately document the situation.  Be sure to record exactly what happened, including the date, time, location, possible witnesses, your actions, and the harasser’s actions. Write down as many details as possible, and store the report in a safe, private place. Do not store the documentation at work.

3.) Read your employer’s anti-harassment policy. You can usually find this in your employee handbook or by asking someone in Human Resources. If there is a policy, follow the outlined steps exactly. It should give you various options for reporting the incident, including how to file a complaint. If there is no policy, speak to your supervisor. If you do not feel comfortable going to your own supervisor, or if your supervisor is the harasser, confide in another manager or person of authority who can do something about it. Do not confide in a colleague or direct report of your own. Explain what happened, and share your documented record of the incident with him or her. Add this conversation to your written records.

4.) Report the incident.  It’s best to put your complaint in writing. When you report the sexual harassment to your employer, do it in writing. Be as thorough as possible, and make copies of everything you send and receive from your employer.

5.) File an administrative charge with the appropriate governmental agency.  Typically, this would be the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under federal law, you have 300 days from the act of sexual harassment to file a complaint with the EEOC. Filing deadlines vary from state to state, so it’s imperative to file your complain as soon as possible. The governmental agency will investigate your claim and attempt to resolve the situation by negotiating with your employer. If the agency cannot resolve your complaint, but it confirms that your claim is valid, it will give you a “right to sue” letter. If you ever want to bring a lawsuit against your employer, you first have to file a complaint with the EEOC or state agency for employment discrimination laws. You do not have to have a lawyer to file a complaint.

6.) File a lawsuit.  Once you file a complaint with the appropriate governmental agency, or if it issues a “right to sue” letter, you may consider filing a lawsuit. If your suit is successful, remedies may include: reinstatement (if you lost your job), back pay (multiplied by three times) if you lost money or missed out on a raise, fringe benefits lost, damages for emotional distress, requirement that the employer initiates policies or training to stop and prevent harassment, etc.

7.) Seek professional help and support.  Sexual harassment can be devastating, both mentally and emotionally. Victims often blame themselves, suffering for several months after the incident. If you have been through a traumatic situation, consider joining a support group or attending professional therapy. Healing from the situation is important to a healthy future.

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