How To Handle Sexual Harassment In The Workplace


Sexual harassment is not uncommon in the workplace. The victims aren’t all female, and the perpetrators aren’t only males. In fact, anyone can be a victim or perpetrator of sexual harassment. If sexual harassment happens to you, you may be wondering what you should do next. While every situation is different, here are some general guidelines you can follow to determine what your next steps should be.

1. Determine whether the actions meet the criteria of sexual harassment.

Chances are that if you have to ask yourself the question, then it does. However, before you take action and file a formal complaint, you should be absolutely sure that the actions meet the criteria to qualify as sexual harassment.

In order for actions to meet the conditions required for sexual harassment, they need to meet the following criteria.

  • The victim has to be offended. So, if you think the action is funny or harmless then it would not qualify as sexual harassment. When assessing whether a situation or remark is sexual harassment, the key question is to ask whether the sexual remark or action is “unwelcome.”

  • The remark or action has to be offensive to a reasonable person. Lots of questions would come up in this situation. What was their relationship like normally? Would a person observing from the outside think the comment or action was creepy or normal human interaction? The decision about sexual harassment is not always cut and dried.

  • The behavior needs to be pervasive or serious. For example, getting threatened to be fired if you don’t sleep with your boss is serious enough that one comment is sufficient for sexual harassment. Meanwhile a one time compliment of questionable appropriateness from a coworker you’re friendly with may not be enough to establish a hostile work environment.

As you can see, situations are not always easy to assess and people can differ in their opinion about what sexual harassment is and what it is not. Although, if you find yourself asking if another person's remark was sexual harassment or if their behavior was inappropriate, then the behavior has already met the unwanted, unwelcome standard.

2. If you determine the actions were sexual harassment, take the next steps.

It’s easy for an employee outside of the sexual harassment situation to downplay your experience. This can cause you to feel intimidated or become concerned that your job will be in jeopardy if you say something to a person who is senior to you. Whenever possible, you do want to ask the person who is sexually harassing you to stop. This action will leave the individual with no doubt that their actions or comments are offensive to you and unwelcome. This will play a role in the subsequent sexual harassment investigation if it gets to that point.

3. Follow your company's official sexual harassment procedures.

The first thing you should do after an incident is follow your company’s procedure for reporting sexual harassment. This protocol is usually outlined in your employee handbook. Most handbooks will tell you to report such behavior to your manager or to the companies HR department. Just don’t wait too long to complain about sexual harassment. The law varies from state to state but usually only allows 180 days from the incident. If you wait longer than that, your company may still act, but they aren’t required to take action.

4. Write a formal complaint letter about the sexual harassment.

While instances should always be reported in person, you should always follow up with a formal letter or email which should contain the following information:

  • Use the subject line, “Formal Sexual Harassment Complaint.” This makes it clear that you are making a serious complaint that requires action.

  • Include a timeline, with as many names, dates, and actions documented as possible. Any witnesses you can list will also be helpful in the event of any investigation that is conducted.

  • Detail what was said or done in depth.

  • Include whether this has been ongoing behavior.

  • Add any concerns that you have about how your situation will change as a result of this behavior. This could include how your relationships at work will change, or any changes in position or compensation that may commence as a result from your filing a report.

5. Decide whether you need to hire your own attorney.

If your company acts quickly and makes accommodations that resolve the incident, then you probably don’t need to hire an employment law attorney. However, in the unusual case that they don’t act, you can hire an attorney to file a complaint with the EEOC. This can cost a considerable amount out of pocket for you. However, some attorneys will work on a compensation split where they take a portion of any settlement funds that result from a law suit. However, before you decide to hire an attorney, make sure this is a path you are okay with going down. A decision like this could have implications on your current employment, future employment, and work relationships.

If at any point you experience what you consider retaliation because you filed a formal complaint with HR, do not hesitate to contact an attorney. Retaliation against you for filing a complaint is illegal. Most importantly, don’t be embarrassed or afraid to speak up if sexual harassment happens to you. You’re not alone, and the law is on your side.

6. Seek counseling.

If you feel like you were sexually harassed, it may be a good idea for you to seek counseling services. Talk therapy is a healthy way to cope with a traumatic event like sexual harassment. It can also help prove the severity of the incident and the emotional impact that it’s had on you in the event of a law suit. Click here to find a counselor who can help you process what you’ve been through.