What to do if you experience sexual harassment at work
By now, nearly everyone has heard of the #metoo movement, an effort to fight back against the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. The movement has highlighted the reality that sexual harassment is very common at work. The laws prohibiting sexual harassment are complicated and, unfortunately, there are aspects that hurt victims of sex harassment. For instance, a recent article in the Star Tribune discusses the many hurdles that victims of sexual harassment can face in the courts.
Still, nobody should be forced to endure sexual harassment at work. The more employees talk about sexual harassment and fight back against it, the more we can all do together to help put an end to it.
Here are some tips for what to do if you are experiencing sexual harassment at work:
- Report it. This is not everyone’s immediate response. Many victims who contact us fear reporting harassment for several reasons. Sometimes the harasser is their boss or a boss’s friend. Or, sometimes a victim believes that reporting harassment to human resources will result in more harassment or retaliation. These concerns are valid and confirmed by thousands of cases across the country. Indeed, we routinely represent victims who report harassment and experience retaliation. Still, the law presumes that employees who experience sexual harassment would, and should, report it. If you report sexual harassment, your employer cannot retaliate against you for doing so. Reporting harassment gives your employer the opportunity to correct the illegal behavior. If it does so, that is good. But, if it fails to do so—or worse—punishes you for reporting it, then it will be legally liable.
- Do not quit. Many employees who experience sexual harassment want to quit rather than face the unbearable conditions at work. Being forced to work with a harasser, or in a workplace where harassment is condoned is awful. The problem is, if you quit, an employer may have no liability for the harassment or retaliation they caused. The law gives employers several defenses for harassment and retaliation claims. This is a complicated area of law, but, taken overall, the law frequently rewards companies when an employee quits his or her job. Employers can claim that they did not take any action against an employee who quits. Or, an employer may argue that an employee who quits caused their own harm or “damages,” meaning that an employee cannot sue in court to recover for the illegal conduct.
- Do not confront your harasser. While the law can have hurdles for victims of harassment, you are generally not required to directly confront a harasser. You should follow your employer’s policy to report the harassment. If there is no policy, then report it to human resources or to another boss.
- Do something—don’t let the harassment get worse. This might seem obvious, but many victims of sexual harassment avoid the problem, minimize the behavior, or just hope that it will stop or go away. Federal law and Minnesota law are clear: No employee should have to put up with sexual harassment. Report harassment right away, and, when in doubt, contact an experienced employment attorney about your options. In our experience, if an employee hopes that harassment will stop but does not do anything about it, the situation gets worse, not better.
- If you see someone else experiencing harassment, report it. The law also protects employees who report that a coworker is being sexually harassed. Of course, you want to be mindful of your coworker’s wellbeing. But employees should not be forced to endure a workplace where sexual harassment is allowed at all.
These are only some of the many factors to think about if you or someone you know is experiencing sexual harassment. It bears repeating that employment law, especially regarding sexual harassment, is complicated. You should always seek legal advice as soon as you suspect you or another employee are experiencing sexual harassment.
At Teske, Katz, Kitzer & Rochel, we fight for employees everyday, and hope that the current spotlight on sexual harassment helps put an end to a pervasive and disgusting problem facing too many workers today. Contact us to learn more.