I think I’m being sexually harassed at work. What should I do?
First, you should know that you’re not alone. Unfortunately, as the #metoo movement has demonstrated, sexual harassment in the workplace is all too common. In 2015, almost one-third of the charges received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency that administers and enforces federal civil rights laws against discrimination—were harassment claims. And a recent survey of over 200 women with more than ten years of experience in tech found than 60% had experienced unwanted sexual advances, with one in three reporting fear for their personal safety due to work-related circumstances. Other surveys and investigations have reported similar troubling findings in other fields, including the media and the restaurant industries.
Second, you should understand the conduct that is prohibited by California law. Review our sexual harassment practice area page to understand the two primary categories of sexual harassment (quid pro quo and hostile work environment), and how to recognize the different types of behaviors that may qualify as sexual harassment.
Finally, you are likely wondering, what steps should I take to protect myself? Although every situation is different, you may want to consider the following if you believe you are experiencing sexual harassment at work:
- Contact an employment attorney familiar with California sexual harassment law. As every situation is different – and what may be right for you is different than what may be right for someone else – it is generally wise to contact an attorney who is experienced in handling sexual harassment claims in your local area, for example, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, or wherever you live or work.
- Keep records. If the harassment is written – for example, over email or text message – save all records of the harassment. The same is true for voicemails or any other physical evidence of the harassment. If the harassment is verbal or physical, take contemporaneous notes of the harassment; that is, write down what is said or done as close in time to when the harassment occurred. Save your notes.
- It can similarly be beneficial – to the extent you feel comfortable – to confide in a therapist or trusted friend/partner about the harassment while it is occurring. For the same reasons as you may wish to save your contemporaneous notes, it can help show that the harassment occurred, as well as provide a witness to how the harassment affected your emotional state.
- You should recognize that, under some circumstances, if you do not report the harassment to your employer, it may not be liable for the conduct. For example, an employer is liable for harassment by a co-worker or a third party if it knows or should have known about the harassment and failed to take reasonable actions once it knew. However, in California, an employer is strictly liable for sexual harassment by supervisors. You may wish to consult with an experienced employment attorney to assist you in reporting the harassment to your employer, if you are considering doing so.
- To be considered unlawful sexual harassment, the harassing conduct must be unwelcome. As a result, employers often argue that harassing conduct was welcome or consensual as a defense—even when it was not. However, it can be very difficult for the victim of sexual harassment to express unwelcomeness given the power dynamics of many workplaces. For example, if a supervisor is sexually harassing a subordinate – and particularly if the subordinate is financially dependent on her job – it can be extremely challenging for the subordinate employee to express unwelcomeness without feeling that she may be jeopardizing an economically necessary job. That said, to the extent possible within your workplace, it will benefit you to express that the harassing conduct is unwelcome, to keep records of it. Again, however, every situation is different, and you should consult an attorney about your particular circumstances.
- Also keep in mind that, even if the harassing conduct may not violate California law, it may violate your employer’s anti-harassment policy and be grounds for disciplinary or other remedial action.
- There may be other steps to take depending on your particular circumstances, which is why, again, you may wish to contact an experienced employment lawyer if you believe you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.