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Message #744 Sexual harassment: Workplace, what to do

Sexual Harassment at Work - What to Do? (mp3 file)

What is sexual harassment at work? It is conduct of a sexual nature outside of the scope of necessary job performance. There are two types of sexual harassment: (1) Hostile Work Environment; and (2) Quid Pro Quo.

Sexual harassment can even include conduct that is not sexual in nature, but is based on your gender. For example, comments that women do not belong in the workplace can also be sexual harassment.

Hostile Work Environment: If conduct of a sexual nature has invaded your work place so that it interferes with your job performance, then you may have a claim of sexual harassment. The conduct does not have to be directed specifically at you. It may be that the work place is so contaminated by conduct of a sexual nature, that you cannot get your job done satisfactorily. It can also be that an event happens in your workplace that is so severe that it interferes with getting your work done. In other words, the conduct has to be either severe or pervasive – it does not have to be both.

A hostile work environment can be created by anyone in the workplace. It can be created by co-workers, supervisors, even non-employees who are regularly in your work environment.

A hostile work environment can take many forms. It may be direct abuse, such as spoken insults, suggestive comments, or emails or letters of a sexual nature. It may include unwelcome sexual advances, sexual jokes, displays of offensive materials such as pornography, sexual pranks, leering or staring at you or comments on your appearance, clothing or body parts. It may also be physical acting out, by touching, patting, stroking, rubbing, pinching, or grabbing at you, and it may also involve attempted or actual rape or other sexual violation. It can also include sexual favoritism to co-workers who are having consensual affairs.

Quid Pro Quo: Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment is making you subject to sexual conduct that is unwelcome, and linked to the grant or denial of job benefits, or receiving favorable performance reviews or promotions. The sexual harassment may be a request for sexual favors, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature where your acceptance or rejection is either a requirement for your job, or a basis for an employment decision.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. In California, to bring a claim against your employer, based on the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), you must file an administrative complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) before you can file a lawsuit in Court. If you do not file the administrative complaint within a certain time period (called a statute of limitations) you may be barred from bringing a lawsuit later.

California courts have ruled that you may seek damages, for the sexual harassment in court. However, before you file a complaint with the DFEH or EEOC, you should first attempt to deal with the problem in the workplace.

First, if you are experiencing sexual harassment at work, try to stay on your job as long as you can. This will make it easier for you to gather enough information, to present a complete picture of what is happening to you at work. Staying on your job, will also help to establish your reputation as a responsible, serious, and professional employee. But if you are fired, or if you are forced to quit your job because the working conditions become intolerable, you may want to pursue the legal remedies that are available to you, such as applying for unemployment insurance benefits, and filing complaints with the DFEH or EEOC. If you are fired or forced to resign, you should also give your employer a written protest. For further information about legal procedures, review SmartLaw Message #745 to learn about legal remedies for sexual harassment.

Whenever an incident involving sexual harassment happens to you, be sure to write it down. Keep a record of the time, date, place, people involved, what happened, and who saw or heard what happened. Write down people's names and job titles. Get the names of witnesses to the incidents if you can, and ask other people where you work if anyone else has experienced sexual harassment on their job. Do not be discouraged if you do not get an immediate response or support from your co-workers. Keep at it. In time, they will seek you out. In most cases, you will not be the first person in your workplace that the harasser has targeted.

Tell the person who is sexually harassing you, that his or her behavior is not acceptable to you, and that you want it to stop. If the behavior continues after that, then notify the proper supervisor, manager, human resources department, or administrator of the problem, both in person and in writing. Many times there will be an employee handbook available to you that will outline the procedures you should take in order to report the offending behavior. Try to solve the problem with the people where you work, through a grievance procedure or any other means available to you. Notify your union officials, both in person and in writing. Write letters to key officials in your company, such as the president, the head of personnel, or members of the board of directors. Address your letters to specific people by name, and send your letters by certified mail, return receipt requested. In some situations, writing letters has solved the problem. Be sure to keep copies of all letters or notices you send to others, and all documents that you receive as well. If the employer opens an investigation into your complaints of sexual harassment, cooperate with the investigator, and ask for a copy of the investigation.

Once you have told your sexual harasser that you want the behavior stopped, then the second stage of sexual harassment will usually start. Your harasser will now concentrate on your work performance. Your competency as a worker will be attacked. This is called retaliation. You should continue to keep a written record of what is happening to you, and follow the recommendations that are described in this message.

Try to find moral support and practical help from your family, your friends, and from organizations to which you belong. Try to stay calm, and learn what your choices are where you work. Know what you want to do, and what your goals are. Do not just ignore any incident of sexual harassment. Do not let your attitude or your work performance be affected for the worse. Do not let yourself be sexually victimized by other people, and do not victimize yourself. You are not alone. Sexual harassment is a hazard for everyone in the workplace. But there are successful solutions to this problem. Your determination will help to put an end to sexual harassment where you work, for yourself and others in the workplace.

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