What is Sexual Harassment Law?

State and federal laws protect employees from unlawful discrimination at work

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 31, 2023

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Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by federal and state law. When sexual harassment occurs at work, it is important to address it quickly and through the proper channels.

If you choose to take legal action against the responsible parties, it will be important to document everything and keep track of deadlines that may affect your case. You might find you would like to consult with an attorney to weigh your options. The following is designed to give you an overview of workplace sexual harassment so you feel confident speaking with a lawyer.


State and federal laws protect employees from sexual harassment at work. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Federally, sexual harassment is prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law acts as a baseline, and some states have enacted sexual harassment laws that are stricter. Under federal anti-discrimination law, there are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

Latin for “this for that,” quid pro quo sexual harassment exists where someone with the authority to take employment action or make employment decisions (for example, to hire, fire, or promote) requires sexual favors as a condition of employment. The power dynamic here is what’s important, and a coworker or non-decision-making supervisor cannot legally be said to have committed quid pro quo sexual harassment.

The specifics of what you must prove can vary by state, but you will likely need to prove at least the following:

  • A person with the power to make hiring or employment decisions made a sexual request of the individual
  • Job benefits, including hiring or promotion, were conditioned on the individual’s acceptance of the request, or
  • Negative consequences, including refusal to hire, demotion, or termination of the individual’s employment, accompanied the individual’s rejection of the request

An employer does not have the opportunity to present affirmative defenses and argue that, for example, they had procedures in place through their human resources department to prevent this type of harassment (such as training for supervisory employees). The employer may argue that the alleged action did not occur.

Hostile Work Environment

Hostile work environment sexual harassment exists where there are several instances of repeated and unwanted sexual advances, comments of a sexual nature, or requests for sexual acts. In contrast to quid pro quo harassment, there does not need to be any employee benefits involved. Instead, hostile work environment can exist even if the victim’s employment is never at risk. Additionally, a hostile work environment can be created by anyone, including coworkers or non-employees such as customers.

Depending on the jurisdiction, you might have a hostile work environment claim even if you are not the target of the harassment. For example, general workplace comments or jokes of a sexual nature may be enough to form the basis of a claim.

In these cases, it can be tricky to determine who is liable for damages because your employer will not always be responsible even vicariously for what happened. If a supervisor created the hostile environment, then the company will most likely be liable as the supervisor is its agent. If, however, coworkers or customers created the environment, you will need to show that the employer knew about the pattern and did nothing to stop it.

Common Questions

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney and getting legal advice for the first time.

  1. Can I sue my boss if a coworker harassed me?
  2. Before bringing a lawsuit, do I need to file an employment discrimination complaint with the EEOC or other government agency? How do I do this?
  3. As an intern rather than an employee, can I file a sexual harassment complaint?
  4. How do I determine who is liable for my hostile work environment?
  5. How do I know if I have a sexual harassment claim?
  6. Can I be punished for reporting sexual harassment?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for an employment lawyer with experience handling sexual harassment cases.

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Sexual harassment cases can be complex because some actions constitute harassment in some situations and don’t in others. It can also be hard to know who to hold liable for damages. A lawyer can review your case and help you weigh your options. Your lawyer will also conduct interviews of everyone involved so you have all the information you need to be successful.

A lawyer will be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

What do I do next?

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