Skip to contentNational Women's Law Center

Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Sexual Harassment

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. As a result, when it occurs on the job it violates the laws against sex discrimination in the workplace, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It is unwelcome behavior that happens to you because of your sex. Frequently the fact that it's sexual is a clear sign that, but for your sex, you would not have been targeted.

It includes:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Request for sexual favors, or
  • Verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature

When:

  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as the basis for employment decisions or is made a condition of employment (called quid pro quo harassment, or harassment resulting in a tangible employment action)
  • Such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive that it creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment (called hostile environment harassment)

2. Does sexual harassment have to involve sex?

No. Conduct that is sexual in nature but does not include any sexual activity is still sexual harassment. Behavior that is "sexual in nature" includes most situations people think of when they think of sexual harassment: sexual advances, repeated requests for dates, lewd remarks, pornographic pictures, or sexual jokes. Harassment does not have to involve any physical contact at all -- words alone may be enough.

3. What if the harassment is not sexual in nature, but is still directed at me because I am a woman?

Non-sexual conduct can still be unlawful if it singles you out because of your gender. For example, if your supervisor says he doesn't think a woman should have your job and deliberately insults or ridicules you or gives you impossible tasks because you are a woman, that is harassment and it is illegal.

4. Is it possible to be sexually harassed by someone who is the same sex as I am?

Yes. Males can sexually harass males, and females can sexually harass females. The key question the law asks is whether the conduct itself would have occurred if the victim had been of a different sex. If this has happened to you, report the misconduct to someone in a position of authority, and use your employer's internal grievance policy. Be aware, however, that Title VII does not apply to harassment on the basis of sexual orientation.

5. Is it possible to be harassed by someone who is not my supervisor?

Yes. The harasser does not have to be your supervisor for the harassment to be illegal. Employers have a responsibility to provide a workplace free from sexual harassment, whether the harasser is your supervisor, a supervisor in another department, a co-worker, a subordinate, or even a customer or client.

6. What should I do if I believe that I am being sexually harassed at work?

You should inform the harasser that you want the unwelcome behavior to stop, unless you fear it will jeopardize your physical safety or your job. Direct communication with the harasser is often more effective than merely ignoring the behavior. Make it clear what behavior you object to and ask that it stop. If verbal requests are not effective, write the harasser a memo asking him to stop. You can also tell someone else in a position of authority whom you trust.

You should also use your employer's internal complaint or sexual harassment procedures and promptly report any incidents of harassment. If you are part of a union, you can contact your union representative and ask about grievance procedures under your contract. Going through these internal procedures may not be enough to stop the harassment, but if you unreasonably fail to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by your employer, your employer may be able to avoid legal liability for the harassment, depending on the circumstances. Employers should also treat the complaint process as confidential, though the harasser and potential witnesses will have to be contacted in an investigation.

It is also a good idea to document the harassment and your work performance.

  • Keep a journal of the harassment. Keep a written record describing each incident of harassment, including what happened, where, on what date, and who else was present. Do this as soon as possible after the incident, and note the date and time you are writing it down. Keep updating the journal as new incidents occur. In some cases employers have destroyed journals left at work, so keep it at home. This written record can be important evidence in later internal investigations or legal actions.
  • Keep copies of any offensive notes or pictures and any notes or documents that relate to the harassment.
  • Keep copies of your work records, including copies of your performance evaluations and any memoranda or letters documenting the quality of your work. A harasser may try to defend himself by attacking your job performance.
  • Network with others. If you can, talk to others at work about the harassment. You may find witnesses, allies, or others that have been harassed by the same person or are concerned and would be willing to help.
  • Tell supportive friends, family members, and colleagues about the abuse. Telling others about the harassment not only can give you much needed support, but it can also be important evidence later.

If these steps do not end the harassment, you may want to consider taking legal action.

7. What can I expect if I internally report the harassment?

Internal procedures differ in individual companies, but these are some generalities:

You can expect your employer to promptly investigate your claim. It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for bringing or participating in complaints, so you should cooperate with any investigation. The investigator will need to know all the details of the harassment, however hard or embarrassing they may be to reveal, including information such as the names of any potential witnesses or other victims of the same harasser, a chronology of what happened and when, specific descriptions of the offensive conduct, and any reasons why you delayed reporting the harassment (if you did).

You should also expect your employer to take remedial action if it determines that sexual harassment or some other inappropriate behavior did occur. Disciplinary actions might include oral or written warnings, deferral of a raise or promotion, demotion or reassignment, suspension, or discharge. Your employer might also require counseling for the harasser. Be aware that just because an employer disciplines the harasser, that does not necessarily mean that the conduct is severe enough to legally qualify as sexual harassment.

8. Can my employer punish me for complaining about sexual harassment?

No. If an employer retaliates against you for bringing harassment to the attention of management or in response to your filing a complaint, that is against the law and is a separate violation of Title VII, in addition to the harassment itself. If you have an attorney, be sure to discuss the retaliation with him or her, and if you are filing a complaint or grievance, be sure to include any retaliatory actions.

9. What kind of injury do I have to suffer before I have a legal claim for sexual harassment?

You do not have to be fired, demoted, or suffer any economic, physical, or psychological harm before you can bring a claim for sexual harassment. Having to endure sexual harassment at your job is injury enough - it is discrimination and it is illegal.

10. When is my employer legally responsible for the sexual harassment committed by its employees?

An employer is always legally responsible if the harasser was your supervisor and tied the harassment to decisions about your job or the conditions you work in. The fact that the highest managers of the company did not know about the harassment does not make the company any less responsible.

If your supervisor created a hostile work environment, the company is also responsible, unless the company took care to prevent and correct harassment, but you unreasonably failed to use the company's policies. This defense is why it's important for you to use your employer's internal procedures as a first step toward ending the harassment.

If the harasser is a co-worker or someone else, your employer may be liable, but its responsibility is not automatic. It is liable if it knew about the harassment or should have known about it, unless it took immediate and appropriate corrective action.

11. What if I want to take legal action?

You have a right to file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title VII and has regional offices throughout the country. To be connected with the nearest EEOC regional office, call 1-800-669-4000. There are also state and local laws against sex discrimination, and state and local agencies with authority to enforce them. They may be listed under "human rights" or "civil rights" in the government section of your area phone book. Under Title VII, you must file a complaint with the EEOC and obtain a "right to sue" letter from the agency before you can file a lawsuit.

You may also want to consult with an attorney about going to court. You should keep in mind that legal actions may not be the perfect solution to sexual harassment. Finding an attorney may be difficult, especially if you need to hire the attorney on a contingency fee basis, so that the attorney gets reimbursed by your employer after winning the case. Law suits are also time-consuming, expensive, and often emotionally difficult. But if you are unable to obtain relief by confronting the harasser or pursuing internal procedures, taking legal action may be your best recourse. Although it is not necessary to have an attorney in order to bring a legal claim, it is extremely helpful. Be persistent when trying to find an attorney.

12. How much time do I have to file a sexual harassment complaint?

There are important time limits that apply to sexual harassment claims. If you are relying on Title VII, you have 180 days, or six months, from the date of the last incident of harassment to file a complaint with the EEOC or your state fair employment practices agency. There are some exceptions to this time limit: in some states, the time limit is 300 days, while federal and state employees often face time limits as short as 30 days. Using internal company procedures does not extend the time limit under federal law, although it may under some state laws. If you are relying on Title VII, contact the EEOC to find out the time limit that applies to you. If you are relying in state law, contact the state fair employment practices agency. You do not need an attorney to file a complaint with the EEOC, although a lawyer's assistance may be helpful. It is best to file any complaints promptly, because if charges are filed beyond the applicable time limits, you may not be able to obtain any legal remedy to the harassment.

13. What can I expect if I decide to take legal action?

The first step is filing a complaint with the EEOC or a state or local fair employment practices agency, which you must do before you can bring a court case. This is generally how cases are handled by the EEOC:

  • Filing the complaint. You do need not a lawyer to file one, although an attorney's assistance may be helpful. The complaint can be in the form of a letter and does not have to be in legal language. Remember that there are time limits on filing complaints, so file quickly and consult the agency to get the limit that applies to you.
  • Investigation. The EEOC or state agency will interview witnesses and collect evidence relating to your complaint. If you have already been through an internal investigation at your company, some of this may be repetitious. If you request confidentiality, the EEOC will keep your identity secret, though most state agencies will not.

Determination. After the investigation, the agency will decide whether there is reasonable cause to believe you have been illegally harassed. If it decides that there is reasonable cause, it will attempt to informally settle the case with your employer. If you are not satisfied with the settlement reached, the next step is a lawsuit. If the EEOC cannot reach an acceptable settlement, it may decide to file suit on your behalf, although that is unusual. More commonly, the agency will issue you a "right to sue" letter, allowing you to bring your own lawsuit.

If the agency decides that there is not reasonable cause, it will issue a "no cause" finding with a "right to sue" letter, which means the investigation did not find enough evidence to believe that you can prove a case of illegal harassment. You may appeal a "no cause" finding, or you may file a lawsuit in court. Receiving a "no cause" determination does not mean that you have not been not sexually harassed; many women have won in court after receiving a no-cause finding from the EEOC or state agency.

Getting your "right to sue" letter without waiting for a determination. Although a determination by the agency is supposed to be issued within 180 days after you file your claim, many such offices have a backlog of complaints and take much longer to complete an investigation and issue a determination. If you want to file a suit and do not want to wait longer than 180 days, you may ask the agency to issue you a "right to sue" letter, which stops the investigation and allows you to go straight to court.

Going to court. Once you have received a "right to sue" letter, you have the right to file a lawsuit in court. You must file your lawsuit within 90 days of receiving your "right to sue" letter. If you have not yet found an attorney and are nearing the end of the 90-day period, you may want to file a complaint yourself (this is called a "pro se" filing) and continue your search for an attorney. If you continue to be unable to find one, you may want to ask the court to appoint an attorney for you.

August, 2000