Frequently Asked Questions
- What should I do if I am a victim of sexual harassment?
Please see our Top Ten list of suggestions regarding what to do if you are a victim of sexual harassment.
- Can my employer retaliate against me for filing a sexual harassment claim?
Retaliation happens – but, it is likely illegal. Federal law as well as some state and city laws prohibit retaliation against employees who report unlawful employment practices or who file a claim for workplace discrimination or harassment. You may also be protected from retaliation for appearing as a witness in another employee's sexual harassment lawsuit.
- Is sexual harassment only men harassing women?
No. Sexual harassment is unwelcomed verbal or physical abuse that amounts to discrimination against a person because of his or her sex. Members of the same sex can sexually harass each other and women can sexually harass men.
- Is it sexual harassment if I ask a co-worker for a date?
Maybe. Some employers have responded to sexual harassment claims, or the threat of such claims, by enacting policies against dating or intimate relationships between co-workers – so called “anti-fraternization policies.” While there is no law that requires such a policy, in most states there is no law that forbids such a policy. If your employer does not have a policy against employees dating one another, it is best if you follow a "one strike and you're out" rule. If you ask a co-worker for a date, and the co-worker lets you know that he or she is not interested, don't ask again. Repeated requests for a date may constitute harassment, while a single, polite request probably will not.
- I had an intimate relationship with a co-worker but broke it off. If that co-worker harasses me, can I still bring a claim for sexual harassment?
A sexual harassment claim is based on unwelcome offensive conduct. If you have made it clear to your co-worker that you have no further romantic interest in him or her, any unwelcome sexual attention that is severe or repeated could be the basis for a harassment claim. You must make it very clear to your co-worker that the attention is unwelcome. If you do, your prior relationship will not excuse his or her harassment.
- If a co-worker or supervisor comments on my clothing or appearance, is that sexual harassment?
Maybe. Telling an employee to dress more professionally is unlikely to be considered sexual harassment. However, frequently suggesting to an employee that she wear more revealing clothes as a way to impress the boss, however, could be seen as sexual harassment. Likewise, an innocuous compliment, such as "that's a nice sweater," would not be harassment; but if it were followed up with a sexual reference (e.g., "it really shows off your body"), that type of behavior would be inappropriate. The key is whether the behavior, occurring because of the sex of the employee, creates a hostile or abusive work environment.
- I was denied a promotion, and I've learned that the promotion went to my supervisor's boyfriend. Is this sexual harassment?
Not necessarily. This is more akin to nepotism or sexual favoritism than sexual harassment. However, if the business exists in an environment where sexual favors are required of employees who wish to receive promotions or other favorable treatment from supervisors, this could be viewed as sexual harassment. But when a supervisor promotes his or her romantic partner in an isolated incident, that is usually not actionable under sexual harassment law.
- A fellow employee spends a lot of time downloading pornography from the Internet to his work computer. Is this sexual harassment?
It depends. Is this employee's computer screen visible to anyone who passes? Does he draw others' attention to what he has downloaded? Does he continue to download pornography after he has been told that others find it offensive? If so, this could be evidence of a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim.
- A fellow employee told me a joke that had mild sexual content. I wasn't offended by it, and we both found the joke to be funny. Today, we both got a memo from our boss saying our conduct was inappropriate and a potential violation of the company's sexual harassment policy.
While one joke alone may not be harassment, it could be contributing to a hostile work environment. In this situation, you need to remember that the question is not whether you or the employee who told the joke was offended, but whether a "reasonable person" would find it offensive. The other point to remember is that someone must have found the joke offensive enough to report it, causing the boss to send the memo. This should be a warning that not everyone you work with shares your opinion as to what is or is not offensive. Take it as a sign that you and your coworker need to be more careful with what you say at work.
- A regular customer of my employer makes offensive sexual remarks every time I see him. Is this sexual harassment?
Maybe. You should report the problem and give your employer a chance to fix it (for example, making sure you don't have to deal with this customer). It may be considered harassment if your employer knew about it and did nothing to correct the problem.
- When is sexual harassment a criminal matter?
The harasser's actions may be a crime, depending on the state in which they occurred. If the sexual harassment consisted of a physical attack, criminal sexual conduct, stalking, or threats, the harasser may face criminal penalties, as well as civil liability.