Labor and Employment

Sexual Harassment FAQs for Employees

By Lisa Guerin, ​J.D., Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley
Learn what sexual harassment is, how to report it, and more.

Q: What is sexual harassment?

A: Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual or sexist nature directed at an applicant or employee. The conduct must affect or impact an individual's employment, unreasonably interfere with his ability to do his work, or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. The harasser may be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another department, a coworker, or even someone who is not an employee, such as a client or customer. For more information, see our article on sexual harassment in the workplace.

Q: What is "quid pro quo" sexual harassment?

A: Quid pro quo sexual harassment happens when a manager, supervisor, or someone else with authority within the company demands or implies that you must acquiesce to sexual demands in order to get hired, be promoted, avoid being fired, and so on. In Latin, "quid pro quo" means "this for that." In order to get the job or benefit you want, you must go out on a date, give in to sexual advances, or allow your manager to touch you, for example.

Q: What should I do if I'm being sexually harassed?

A: As long as you feel safe doing so, you should tell the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and you want it to stop. Sometimes, this simple approach is effective. You should also start documenting the harassment by keeping a record of any inappropriate comments or actions, including the date, time, place, and your response.

If you aren't comfortable confronting the harasser, look at your employee handbook for information on how to report the harassment, or talk to your supervisor or the human resources department about the situation. If your company has a complaint mechanism or grievance system available, be sure to use it. Your employer can’t stop harassment it doesn’t know about, and failing to report certain types of harassment could limit your employer’s liability if you decide to file a lawsuit later.

Once you report the situation, your employer has an obligation to investigate the harassment and take steps that are reasonably calculated to end it. If you think your employer didn't fulfill its obligation under the law, consider contacting your state's fair employment practices agency or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Q: What should I do if my manager is sexual harassing me?

A: Report the situation right away, using your company's complaint process. If the company process requires you to report harassment to your manager, make a complaint to your manager's manager, the human resources department, or a company officer (such as the president or CEO). Put your complaint in writing.

Q: Is there a time limit for filing a sexual harassment claim?

A: Yes. If you want to file a sexual harassment lawsuit, you must first file an administrative charge of sexual harassment with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or your state's fair employment practices agency. Depending on your state's law, you have either 180 days or 300 days after the harassment took place to file your charge.

The EEOC doesn't accept charges online. However, there is an online assessment tool to help you decide if the EEOC can help you. After that, you can complete an Intake Questionnaire that you may print and either bring or mail to the appropriate EEOC field office to begin the process of filing a charge.

Federal employees and job applicants usually must contact an agency EEO Counselor for the area in which they work or where they applied for a job within 45 days after the sexual harassment happened. Each federal agency must post information about how to contact the agency's EEO Office.

Once the EEOC or your state agency has received your complaint, it may take several steps, such as asking your employer to respond, investigating, and attempting to settle the charge. If it can’t resolve the dispute, or if you would like to move on to filing a lawsuit, it will issue you a "right to sue" letter. The letter confirms that you have met the legal requirement of filing an agency charge and allows you to file a lawsuit. Once you get this letter, you may have a very short timeframe—as little as 90 days—to file a lawsuit.

Q: I told my supervisor that I was being sexually harassed, but I asked her not to do anything about it. She's investigating anyway. Isn't she supposed to keep my confidence?

A: No. Your employer has a legal obligation to prevent sexual harassment and to promptly correct sexual harassment that has already occurred. Supervisors and managers are agents of your employer, which means they have a duty to report sexual harassment once they know about it, whether through witnessing the harassment personally or through an employee complaint, like yours.

Of course, your employer can't simply take your complaint at face value and discipline your harasser. Instead, the employer must investigate the situation, usually by interviewing the employees involved and gathering any relevant documents or electronic evidence (such as emails, a log of websites visited, or notes). Once the employer has investigated and come to a conclusion about what happened, the company must take action to stop any harassment it uncovers.

Your company can't stop harassment in the workplace if it doesn’t investigate employee complaints. This is why your supervisor's reporting obligation takes precedence, legally, over your request for confidentiality. Nonetheless, your employer should reveal your complaint only to those who need to know (such as the harasser and the investigator), rather than spreading it all over the office. If you think too many people are finding out about the situation, talk to your supervisor about it.

Q: Can comments and jokes alone be sexual harassment, or must there also be touching?

A: You don't have to be groped or touched to have a sexual harassment claim. Legally speaking, sexual harassment happens when you are subjected to sexual advances or other verbal or physical conduct that is sexual or sexist in nature that either results in a negative employment consequence for you or that is frequent or severe enough to create a hostile work environment.

Words alone can easily add up to sexual harassment. For example, if your manager constantly asks you out, comments on your appearance, and wonders aloud what it would be like to have sex with you, that would certainly be harassing. Similarly, if your coworkers constantly tell dirty jokes and sexual stories, refer to women as sex objects, and refuse to stop when asked, that would be sexual harassment as well. Employers are responsible for investigating and stopping verbal harassment, just like any other type of sexual harassment.

Q: Is my employer responsible for harassment if I don’t report it?

A: It depends. Employers aren't legally responsible for every action by every employee. To be held liable, the employer must have failed to meet its legal obligation to prevent harassment. The rules for proving this depend on whether the person who harassed you was a company manager and what the consequences of the harassment were.

If a company manager harassed you, and the harassment resulted in a negative job consequence for you, then your employer is legally responsible for it. For example, if your manager passed you over for promotion after you asked him to stop touching you and making lewd comments about your body, your employer would be liable. Generally, employers are responsible for job decisions made by managers, including decisions to withhold or bestow job benefits based on an employee's putting up with harassment.

If your manager harassed you in a way that didn’t result in tangible job consequences like these, or if you were harassed by a coworker, your employer is liable only if it was careless in failing to prevent or stop harassment from taking place. If you don’t report this type of harassment, your employer may not be legally responsible for it. Unless the employer should have known about the harassment anyway (for example, because it happened at a company meeting in front of senior executives), you must report harassment, using your company’s complaint process, to put your employer on notice. Once you complain, your employer will be liable for harassment it failed to stop or correct. But, if you don’t complain, your employer can use that as a defense to a later lawsuit.

Q: Is my employer responsible if I’m sexually harassed at a company-sponsored event outside of working hours?

A: The venue where harassment takes place doesn’t really matter in determining whether your employer is responsible. The rules are the same as for harassment taking place at work:

      • The company is liable for harassment by a manager that results in a tangible job action (for example, a demotion or firing).
      • The company is liable for managerial harassment that doesn’t have these types of consequences if it knew or should have known about it. If, for example, you already reported that your manager was harassing you, the company did nothing about your complaint, and the manager then groped you at the holiday party, the company would be liable.
      • The company is liable for coworker harassment only if it was careless in failing to prevent harassment from taking place. A court would look at factors like whether the company monitors the workplace for harassment, has a sexual harassment policy, takes sexual harassment complaints seriously (for example, by investigating and taking quick action against harassers), provides sexual harassment training, and so on. In a party atmosphere, a court might also consider how much alcohol was served, how managers and officers were behaving at the party, and so on. If the entire C-suite was engaged in drunken dirty dancing throughout the party, for example, the company is more likely to be liable for harassment.

Q: Is same-sex harassment illegal?

A: Yes. Harassment on the basis of a person's gender or sex is illegal, no matter who does the harassing. Although most sexual harassment cases involve men harassing women, women can harass men, men can harass men, and women can harass women. As long as the unwelcome sexual conduct is based on the victim's sex, it is illegal. To learn more, see Same-Sex Harassment: Know Your Rights.

Q: I've been accused of harassment. Am I entitled to know the name of my accuser and what I have been accused of?

A: It depends. Your employer has no legal obligation to reveal all the facts of the complaint to you. To perform a reasonable and effective investigation, however, the employer will almost certainly have to interview you and confront you with the allegations against you. In most cases, this will give away who complained and about what.

This doesn't mean, however, that the employer has to tell you who complained. For example, if someone complained that you made sexist and demeaning comments about women in meetings, the employer can ask you about this without revealing who complained. And, in some cases, the employee who is the target of harassment is not the employee who complains: Another employee may find the conduct offensive or may decide to speak up for a friend.

Q: I've been accused of harassment, but I don't think I did anything wrong. What should I do?

A: You should consider talking to an attorney. Your own opinion that you didn't do anything wrong doesn't carry any legal weight. From a legal point of view, what matters is whether your conduct was objectively offensive—that is, whether the average person would find it offensive—and whether the victim actually found it to be offensive.

Your employer has a legal obligation to investigate the harassment complaint. If the investigation reveals that harassment took place, your employer must take steps to stop the harassment. Depending on the severity of the conduct, these steps might include anything from a verbal warning to firing you. Even if the investigation can't determine to a certainty that illegal harassment occurred, your employer might decide that your conduct was inappropriate for work and discipline you on that basis. Talking to an attorney early in the process will help you understand your options and protect yourself.

Q: Is my employer responsible for sexual statements and actions by nonemployees, like vendors?

A: Depending on the circumstances, your employer might be liable for harassment by third parties you have to interact with for work, such as customers, clients, or vendors. The general rule here is that employers are legally liable for third-party harassment if they know or should have known of the conduct, but failed to take immediate and appropriate action to stop it.

For example, suppose you complain to your supervisor that the office's regular delivery person makes explicit sexual comments when dropping off packages. If your company doesn't do anything about it, your company would be liable for any harassment that continues after it became aware of your complaint. Similarly, if you are assigned to work with a client who the company knows has groped and asked out other female employees, the company would be liable if you are harassed. In this situation, the company was on notice that the client might act in a harassing manner and should have taken steps to prevent future harassment.

Q: My old boyfriend, who works at the same company with me, continues to make lewd comments and touch me. Can I file for sexual harassment?

A: Yes, you can file a sexual harassment complaint with your company. Assuming your ex is a coworker rather than your manager, the company is responsible for this harassment only if it knew or should have known about it. (If your ex is your manager, the company is liable for harassment that results in a tangible job action, such as a demotion or refusal to give you a raise; for harassment that doesn’t result in such a consequence, the company is liable only if it knew or should have known.) Once you complain, the company has a duty to investigate and put a stop to it.

In cases of sexual harassment between former romantic partners, the legal issue of welcomeness can come up. Conduct is harassing only if it is unwelcome to the victim. Because you have a romantic history with your coworker, he might argue that he didn’t know that his comments and touching were unwelcome. If you haven't already, you should clearly tell your ex that his comments and touching are unwelcome and that you plan to complain about them. This might nip things in the bud. If not, you should use your company’s complaint procedure to let them know about the harassment.

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