supervisor putting hands on female workers shouldersWhen you have been the victim of sexual harassment at work, you want to hold your employer accountable for allowing it to happen. That is certainly understandable, but, unfortunately, it might not be possible unless you take some steps when it first happens. As difficult as it can be to think clearly while you are being victimized at work, it's important that you are proactive to ensure that your employer is held liable.

Employer Liability for Sexual Harassment Under Federal Law

Employers are liable for the actions of their management team, so if you were sexually harassed by a supervisor, you should have a claim for damages against the company. If you were fired, denied promotion, or lost wages because of the harassment, you can take legal action against your employer. If the harassment creates a hostile work environment, but no adverse employment action was taken, your employer can avoid liability if they can show that they tried to prevent and correct the behavior, but you failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities they offered. For example, if an employee complains about a supervisor and is given the opportunity to transfer to a new department but chooses to stay where they are, the employer might avoid liability.

Employers are only liable for sexual harassment between coworkers if they knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to take action to protect the victim. In both of these situations, it is vital that the victim goes through the proper channels to officially file a complaint against the person or people who have harassed them.

How to File a Complaint and Document Incidents of Sexual Harassment at Work

Whether the harasser is a supervisor or coworker, employers are generally not liable for sexual harassment until a complaint is made. Even though they are strictly liable for the actions of managers and supervisors, they could have a defense against a lawsuit if they claim they would have stopped the harassment if they had known about it. So, what should you do to document the harassment? We encourage you to do the following as soon as possible after the first incident:

  • File an official complaint in writing. Your employee handbook should spell out the procedure for filing an official complaint about your treatment within the company. As hard as it might be, follow the procedure to the letter, even if it feels like you are reporting the harassment to the people who are allowing it to occur. Keep hard copies of your complaint and any follow-up communication.
  • Be specific and candid in your complaint. Do not hold out on providing specific details about the incidents, even if you find it embarrassing. Without uncomfortable details, a sexual harassment complaint can come across as just whining about an unfriendly or inconsiderate boss. You don't want to give your employer an excuse for not taking action by downplaying what happened. Do not make excuses for the harasser or express any thoughts on what you think should or shouldn't happen to them.
  • Document ongoing harassment. Once the complaint has been filed, continue to document ongoing harassment. Save emails, texts, DMs, and voice messages related to the harassment. If you keep a journal, focus on the actions of your harasser and how it makes you feel. Avoid complaining about unrelated incidents, as you could come across as generally disgruntled.
  • Call an experienced sexual harassment lawyer. If your employer does not take immediate action after you file the complaint, schedule a consultation with an employment rights lawyer. If they believe you could have a case against your employer, they will advise you further on documenting actions, identifying witnesses, and what to say in discussions with HR.

Blankenship Law has been representing victims of sexual harassment for over two decades. Call to talk to Seattle's most experienced employment law attorney as soon as possible.

What Is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

You can't hold a perpetrator accountable if you don't know what kind of behavior crosses the line. Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue, and both state and federal laws aim to prevent and address such behavior. Actions that are generally considered to be sexual harassment in the workplace according to federal law, particularly Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, include the following:

  • Unwanted sexual advances. Making unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
  • Sexual comments or jokes. Making sexually explicit comments, jokes, or innuendos that create an uncomfortable or offensive environment.
  • Display of offensive material. Displaying or sharing sexually suggestive or explicit images, videos, or objects in the workplace.
  • Inappropriate touching. Touching, grabbing, or other physical contact of a sexual nature without consent.
  • Sexual coercion. Using one's authority or power to pressure or coerce an employee into engaging in unwanted sexual activity.
  • Sexual comments about appearance. Making comments about an employee's appearance or clothing in a sexualized or objectifying manner.
  • Invasion of personal space. Invading an employee's personal space in a way that is sexual, unwelcome, or uncomfortable.
  • Explicit emails or messages. Sending explicit or sexually suggestive emails, messages, or texts to colleagues or subordinates.

Sexual harassment can fall under one of several categories, including:

  • Quid Pro Quo harassment. Conditioning job benefits or opportunities (such as promotions or raises) on the victim's submission to sexual advances or requests.
  • Hostile work environment. Creating or permitting an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment based on gender, which could include inappropriate jokes, comments, or displays of explicit materials.
  • Retaliation. Taking adverse employment actions, such as firing, demoting, or reassigning an employee, in response to their refusal of sexual advances or their reporting of harassment.

You do not have to be a civil rights lawyer to understand when a supervisor or coworker has made you feel so uncomfortable or unsafe that you can't perform your job. That's what we're here for. If you suspect workplace sexual harassment, file a complaint and then contact us for help.