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Sexual Harassment at Work – Five Things Every Employee Should Know

Despite laws aimed to protect against sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual harassment remains a common workplace problem.  Unfortunately, employees (and even employers) often do not know the appropriate actions to take if faced with such a situation.  Here are five things that you should keep in mind:

(1) The Employee Handbook May Not Accurately Reflect the Current State of the Law: Many employers have an Employee Handbook (“Handbook”) that is distributed to its employees on the date of hire.  More often than not, the Handbook is not changed every time there is a change in the law, and frankly, the Handbook may never have been updated.  This is because the laws change frequently and employers may not have the time (or the resources) to keep the Handbook up to date. 

What does this mean for you?  Just because the Handbook does not define a certain action as sexual harassment, doesn’t mean that what happened to you is not sexual harassment.  Even subtle behaviors, such as staring or constantly being asked out on a date, can be sexual harassment under certain circumstances.     

(2) Sexual Harassment is Not Just Men Sexually Harassing Women: Although, a predominant amount of sexual harassment involves a male colleague sexually harassing a female counterpart, the law does not make such a distinction.  As Attorney Daniel J. O’Connell has explained “Men can be sexually harassed.  Women can sexually harass other women.  Men can sexually harass other men.  The sexual orientation of the harasser and the victim does not matter.  Under the law, as long as the conduct is sufficiently ‘severe or pervasive’ and it creates a hostile work environment, then it can be sexual harassment.”

(3) You Should Report the Harassment to Your Employer (Preferably in Writing): If a co-worker is sexually harassing you, you should put your employer on notice of the sexual harassment so that your employer has a chance to rectify the situation. You should make the report in writing (email works best) and be detailed and accurate in your report.  Your employer will need to know the facts so that your complaints can be appropriately investigated. 

Also, you should blow off the dust from that Employee Handbook (you know, the one you pretended to read on your first day of work), and check the reporting procedure.  A good Employee Handbook will give you a few options of individuals to report to (such as a Manager and/or the Human Resource Department).

(4) Legally, Your Employer Cannot Retaliate Against You for Bringing a Sexual Harassment Claim: The law prohibits an employer from taking what the law calls “adverse employment action” against you in retaliation for you bringing a complaint to your employer’s attention.  Common examples of “adverse employment action,” include: termination, demotion, pay decrease, but retaliation can take many other forms.

(5) You Have Rights if You Disagree with your Employer’s Decision as to Whether Sexual Harassment Occurred: You don’t have to just accept the decision made by your employer as to whether sexual harassment occurred.  If you are dissatisfied with the results, you have the right to consult an employment attorney of your choosing.  In fact, you always have the right to contact and retain an attorney to advocate for your rights at any point in the process. 

In short, you need to take steps to protect yourself from workplace sexual harassment.  If you have any questions about your legal rights, please contact us at 413-733-9111. 

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