How to Report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

An overview of employee rights and legal options

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on August 30, 2023

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Sexual harassment is a severe and pervasive problem. It can damage a person’s health, their emotional well-being, and even their career prospects. According to a 2018 study, as many as 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men reported experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their lives.

Victims of sexual harassment or workplace discrimination need to know how to protect themselves. Justice starts with reporting sexual harassment or wrongful termination. In this article, you will find an overview of sexual harassment and guidance for reporting the matter.

If you have specific questions or want to pursue legal action, you should speak with an employment lawyer for help.

What is Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Under federal law, it is unlawful to harass an employee or job applicant based on their sex.

As defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment is unwelcome or inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job or feel safe and comfortable in their place of employment.

Sexual harassment is not one specific thing. It can take a wide range of different forms—from rude and disparaging comments to thwarted sexual advances. There are two basic categories of sexual harassment:  

Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment

A Latin phrase meaning “something for something”, quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a business owner, supervisor, or other person in a position of power offers workplace benefits in exchange for sexual favors.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment is unlawful. An employee should never be required to engage in any type of sexual contact or behavior to gain a benefit (or avoid punishment) in the workplace.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment could be anything from a promise of a promotion or a raise in exchange for sexual favors to implicit or explicit pressure to accept sexual advances to avoid being terminated or otherwise punished.

Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment due to a hostile work environment occurs when an employee is made to feel unsafe or unwelcome because of statements or conduct based on their sex or sexual orientation.

A work environment could be made hostile because of rude comments, offensive jokes, intimidation, or other inappropriate conduct. To qualify as a hostile work environment under the law, the speech or conduct must be so severe or so pervasive that it would make a reasonable employee feel intimidated or unwelcome.

Employers have a proactive duty to provide protection to workers from sexual harassment. Certainly, a company or organization can be held legally liable if a supervisor sexually harasses a subordinate. That being said, an employer’s responsibilities extend beyond merely controlling their managers and supervisors.

As an employee, you can bring a sexual harassment claim against your employer if the harasser was a co-worker or even a client/customer.

Is Sexual Harassment a Form of Employment Discrimination?

Yes. Sexual harassment is a clear form of sex-based discrimination. It violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—which is the foundational federal anti-discrimination law in the United States.

A worker subject to quid pro quo sexual harassment or hostile work environment sexual harassment has been a victim of sex-based discrimination. It should be noted that many employees are also protected against sexual harassment under state law or even local laws. If you have questions about your rights under Title VII or any similar state statute, an experienced employment law attorney can help.

How to Report Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Every employee deserves safe and fair working conditions. Sexual harassment should not be allowed to persist. To protect your physical health, psychological well-being, and legal rights, it is important to report workplace sexual harassment as soon as possible.

Of course, doing so is not necessarily easy. Not only do sexual harassment victims have to deal with the trauma, but many have fears that they will not be believed or taken seriously. Worse yet, they may even be worried about retribution from an employer.

It is illegal for an employer to punish you for reporting sexual harassment. Here are four steps you should take when reporting workplace sexual misconduct:

1. If You Feel Safe, Tell the Perpetrator(s) to Stop

You have the right to tell the perpetrator(s) to stop the harassment.

As a general rule, telling the harasser to stop their behavior is the first step in reporting a sexual harassment complaint. However, this always depends on the specific circumstances of the case.

If you do not feel safe confronting the perpetrator directly, that is not a problem. Your health and safety always come first. You can skip this step and raise your initial complaint directly to your employer.

2. Document and Record the Sexual Harassment

To the best of your ability, you should document and record any sexually harassing behavior in the workplace.

Contemporaneous notes are a strong and persuasive form of evidence in employment law cases. As such, victims of sexual harassment should keep ongoing notes about what happened. Write down as much as possible, including:

  • The nature of the harassment;
  • The names of any witnesses; and
  • The adverse impact the experience had on your life. 

3. Submit a Complaint to Your Supervisor or HR Department

If sexual harassment is severe and if it continues to persist, you should report the matter to your supervisor or your company’s Human Resources (HR) Department.

Many businesses and organizations have anti-sexual harassment company policies in place to review and investigate these matters. If your company has protocols in place, it is generally recommended that you follow the procedures.

Once again, you should carefully document everything that you did to report the issue. Note any conversations you had with your employer or supervisors, including the time, date, and any key details. 

4. Consult With an Experienced Employment Law Attorney

Finally, you should seek legal advice from an employment lawyer or law firm with experience handling sexual harassment claims. Many attorneys provide free consultations to discuss your sexual harassment case.

Your attorney will be able to review the specific facts of your case, explain your legal options, and help you take action to get justice. For example, you may need to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state agency before filing a lawsuit.

Search the Super Lawyers’ directory to find an experienced sexual harassment lawyer in your area. To learn more about this area of law, see our overview of sexual harassment law and related content on wrongful termination legal claims.

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