HBO recently announced the new movie Confirmation, starring Kerry Washington, about Ms. Anita Hill’s epic sexual harassment case in 1991 against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The movie is fitting for the times as sexual harassment is a hot topic for many women battling sexism and wage gaps in the workplace. And with all the hype surrounding the film, many may be wondering about the best ways to deal with sexual harassment on the job.
A survey published in the Cosmopolitan magazine in early 2015 revealed that 1 in 3 women has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The survey also found that women are often reluctant to report the harassment with a mere 21 percent revealing they did so. This lack of reporting makes sexual harassment a tricky legal battle with many employers feeling entitled to continue or ignore a culture of undesirable behavior in workplaces across America.
Perhaps at least one of the reasons why women are hesitant to report sexual harassment is due to a lack of options and approaches to a touchy subject. Many may feel that speaking up is too much of a risk, especially if they are aware of an employer’s’ tendency to ignore sexual harassment allegations and complaints.
However, a number of options do indeed exist, and the employment discrimination law, in particular, offers a bridge of support for women who decide to assert their rights to a workplace free of harassment and sexism. The following is a brief synopsis of several of the best ways to deal with sexual harassment.
Understand what sexual harassment is and is not
The Cosmopolitan survey revealed that many women may not know that they are experiencing sexual harassment. Sixteen percent of the women who said they’d never experienced sexual harassment then said yes to having been exposed to sexually explicit remarks while at work.
The truth is that sexual harassment may be so deeply normalized in some workplaces that it may be hard for women workers to characterize certain behaviors as harassing. Courts define sexual harassment as unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. This means that even being called a “slut” or other derogatory terms could be actionable in court, even if doing so goes along with the general atmosphere of a workplace.
The court derived definition comes from a variety of legal resources. The EEOC in 1986 issued guidelines that helped shaped the legal definition of sexual harassment. The agency describes sexual harassment as two types of workplace conduct: 1) quid pro quo and 2) hostile environment.
Quid pro quo sexual harassment describes an employer’s conduct that conditions an employee’s job on the performance of sexual favors or acts. Hostile environment sexual harassment describes frequent or severe sex discrimination that has created an abusive work environment.
A seminal sexual harassment case, Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, also helped shape the way sexual harassment is defined in courts. In Vinson, the Court held that a woman who had been raped on several occasions after submitting in fear of her job, could indeed have been the victim of sexual harassment, unlike the trial court decided.
At issue was mainly the voluntariness of the female worker. The employer claimed that since she had submitted to the sexual advances, she should not have the protection of the law, and the trial court agreed. However, the Supreme Court reasoned that sexual harassment has more to do with the unwelcome nature of employer’s sexual conduct at work than with the amount of tolerance a woman demonstrates in the workplace.
Bottom line: conduct of a sexual nature at work rises to actionable under Title VII sex discrimination when it’s unwelcome, meaning the employee did not incite or invite the behavior, regardless of whether he or she consented to it.
Let the harasser know the conduct is unwelcome
With so much emphasis placed on the unwelcomeness of sexual conduct at work in courts, employees are wise to take definitive steps to inform their harasser unequivocally that offensive conduct is not welcome or acceptable. This step alone may be difficult for employees whose harassers are supervisors, managers or even clients.
Yet, such boundaries are essential. When the limits of your patience and work ethic are blurred, colleagues and supervisors may use the opportunity to take advantage. Instead, keep your boundaries clearly defined so that when they are are crossed, a definitive statement that the conduct is unwelcome can be documented and asserted later, in court, if need be.
While a female worker may be reluctant to expose a co-worker for sexual harassment right away, another essential step is to at least privately document each instance of sexually harassing behavior. Keeping a diary of the events helps keep track of the daily occurrences as they happen and places less pressure on a worker to recount and recall details that could be harder to remember later down the line.
A well-organized and clearly documented testament of sexul harassment can also help when or if an attorney is hired or should the EEOC become involved. Employment discrimination professionals will be on the alert for the severity and frequency of the noted incidences of sexual harassment to determine whether or not a worker has a good case against an employer.
File a grievance complaint through human resources
Again, it may be particularly difficult to take steps that would put the offensive conduct of a supervisor manager or even a co-worker on public display, but taking the time to file a grievance complaint with the HR department could be the best way to build a good case against an employer. In some instances, showing that a worker meticulously followed all the necessary steps outlined in the company handbook before filing a claim or a charge with the EEOC is a helpful benefit in a sexual harassment case.
Contact an experienced and well-qualified attorney as soon as possible
When things get out of hand at work, it may be difficult to go it alone. Especially in sexual harassment cases, where a worker’s job and career could be on the line, employees should take extra precautions in handling matters and use the expert of advice from an attorney skilled in employment discrimination law. Doing so may help avoid costly mistakes or bring to light new information that a worker may not be able to consider without trusted, professional help and guidance.