Although sexual harassment has existed for a long time, recent allegations are encouraging more people to speak out about the crime and seek legal action. Recently, an increasing number of stories from victims are emerging to the surface. The many allegations in recent weeks against film producer Harvey Weinstein are bringing to light the large amount of sexual harassment that has existed as an “open secret” in Hollywood. The crime is not only a serious issue in the entertainment industry. Earlier this year, Fox News fired former host Bill O’Reilly as multiple sexual harassment claims became public, one which allegedly resulted in a $32 million settlement. There is also a growing amount of sexual harassment allegations in New York City’s restaurant industry. Current news is full of sexual harassment cases occurring in many different industries and settings, including sports, educational institutions, fashion, technology, airlines, hotels, government, and the military.

Every day women and men are telling their stories of sexual harassment and assault as part of the recent #MeToo movement. Recent reports are also resulting in legal consequences and the loss of employment of people committing these crimes. Increased activism against these crimes is helping to create working and living environments that do not tolerate this type of misconduct.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as a type of sex discrimination. The crime comes in many forms, but often involves the following: unwelcome sexual advances (both physical and verbal); requests for sexual favors in exchange for employment or career advancement; making sexual gestures; sending or distributing suggestive or obscene emails, texts, messages or photos; derogatory comments; physical touching; all forms of sexual battery. Harassment can also include offensive or derogatory comments about someone’s sex.

The crime can occur in any setting, including the following: work, educational institutions, daycare facilities, hospitals and other healthcare facilities, sports teams and leagues, military facilities, churches and other centers for worship (for example, abuse by clergy members or church staff), nursing homes. Any person can experience sexual harassment, regardless of age, race, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The victim and harasser can be of either sex, and both the victim and harasser can be of the same sex. Sexual harassment can also escalate to touching or sexual assault, a criminal offense.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Employees who experience sexual harassment in the workplace are protected under federal law. This type of harassment is illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many people who experience sexual harassment may be afraid to speak out and seek legal action in fear of retaliation and being fired from their jobs. Victims should know that Title VII also protects them from being fired for filing a harassment complaint. Employees are also protected under individual state laws.

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, but the EEOC divides harassment into two main categories. The first type is called “quid pro quo” (Latin: this for that) sexual harassment. This type happens when an employer or person in power requires an employee or potential employee to submit to unwelcome sexual favors in exchange for career advancement or employment. The rejection of these sexual favors may lead the employer to fire, refuse to employ, or demote an employee. These actions are also illegal under Title VII. The consequences of refusing the sexual requests may result in economic loss for the victim. Serious cases of sexual harassment may also result in psychological and emotional damage

Many of the recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein fall under this type of harassment. The term “casting couch” also provides other examples of this type of harassment, and it occurs not only in the film industry but in any industry. Favoritism by an employee to a certain gender in exchange for sexual favors also falls under quid pro quo harassment. A person does not have to experience multiple sexual advances to file a complaint about this type of harassment. One instance may be enough.

The second category of harassment is called “hostile work environment”. This work environment forms when an employee experiences unwelcome sexual advances, both physical and verbal, that interfere with the ability to do one’s job. The harasser creates an intimidating, threatening, and offensive work environment. Non-sexual, derogatory comments about a gender also fall under this type of harassment. Minor teasing or mild comments do not fall under this law.

There is also a great difference between consent and coercion. If sexual activity does take place between the victim and the harasser, the harassment can still be illegal. Agreeing to a sexual act in order to obtain, maintain, or advance employment is not considered consent by law. Coercing or forcing consent is still sexual harassment.

Other Sexual Harassment Cases

Although Title VII mainly covers workplace sexual harassment, there are other state and federal laws that criminalize sexual harassment in different settings. The many allegations that are becoming public span many different industries and contexts. There are also laws that protect victims of sexual crimes and sexual assault, which can occur when harassment escalates. Gymnast and Olympic gold-medalist McKayla Maroney recently revealed that she was repeatedly harassed and molested by former US team doctor Larry Nassar. He now faces accusations of similar nature from more than 100 patients. Other prominent reports of sexual harassment this year also take place in churches, government, and the military.

Sexual harassment and assault are unfortunately prominent issues in academic institutions. Sexual violence in schools is a large topic of public discussion. Title VII may also apply to colleges and universities. Sexual harassment in education is also illegal under Title IX federal law. The law defines harassment very similarly to Title VII, dividing the crime into two main types. Educational programs receiving any form of federal funding are subject to this law. Victims can file claims of sexual misconduct to their school’s Title IX coordinator, police authorities, or directly to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Taking Action Against Sexual Harassment

There are several steps a person should take if they feel they have experienced sexual harassment and are considering taking action. One action to take is to document all instances of the harassment. Targets should keep a detailed record of each event, recording the date, location details, and possible witnesses. One should also save emails, texts, voicemails, and other forms of correspondence. It is also important to preserve any type of letters or messages that evaluate the quality of one’s work as an employee, to show that one is skilled and competent at his or her job.

If an employee is experiencing harassment, they should review their company policies in order to start building a case and file a report through the proper company channels. Victims may also file a “Formal Complaint of Sexual Harassment” directly to the EEOC and should do so especially if an employer is not taking adequate action in responding to their claim. Anti-retaliation laws are in place to protect victims from unlawful employment consequences and termination. Sexual harassment that escalates to assault should be reported to the police.

The timing of a complaint is also very important, especially in filing complaints with the EEOC. In most cases, employees have 180 days (or 6 months) from the date of harassment to file a complaint and preserve their rights. After filing a complaint, the EEOC will begin an investigation and notify the employer. There are several different paths the Commission may take in response to investigating a claim. The EEOC may take the case to a mediator and try to settle the complaint. If both parties are unable to agree on a settlement, the EEOC may file a federal lawsuit. The Commission may also dismiss the charge if it cannot reach a settlement. In this instance, the EEOC will give the employee making the harassment claim notice of his or her right to sue in court. The employee may also file a lawsuit before the EEOC completes its investigation and process. To do so, one must request a “right-to-sue” letter.

One of the biggest takeaways in response to the large public discussion of sexual harassment is to take actions towards preventing harassment from occurring. Employers and people in positions of power have great power and responsibility in creating a healthy work environment and company culture where harassment is discouraged and not tolerated. Employers should have a clear sexual harassment company policy as part of their company handbook and rules. They should also provide sexual harassment training to employees. In addition, companies should be able to respond to claims of harassment competently with an immediate and thorough investigation. The investigation should result in appropriate consequences should someone be found guilty.

Seeking a Sexual Harassment Attorney

In instances of sexual harassment both inside and outside the workplace, another important action to take is to seek the services of a skilled attorney. This is especially important in cases where an employer fails to take action in response to a sexual harassment claim or does so inadequately or ineffectively.

If you are a target of harassment in New York City (Bronx, Manhattan, or any of the 5 boroughs), New York State, or Florida, you can seek representation from a sexual harassment attorney at the Law Offices of Thomas J Lavin. For three decades, our experienced Bronx sexual harassment attorneys will prevail in sexual misconduct cases. Our unwavering commitment to our clients will allow us to attain accountability and compensation from those at fault. Our law firm also represents employees who faced wrongful termination or other unlawful retaliation in response to reporting sexual harassment. We offer free consultations and do not charge a client until you receive compensation for your case. It is also important to take action sooner than later, as the law limits the time-frame for filing certain claims. To contact the Law Offices of Thomas J. Lavin, call 718-829-7400 or toll-free at 800-394-4216. You may also complete the form on our Contact Page.