Standing up for Victims of Sexual Harassment at Work
Sexual harassment can arise at work when you least expect it and can cause a surprising amount of harm. That’s why many federal and state laws protect employees in the San Jose area and throughout California from harmful discrimination and harassment in the workplace. Specifically, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) protect you from discrimination and harassment based on your sex. Unfortunately, these laws do not prevent all employees from experiencing such discrimination and harassment—and sexual harassment is one of the most common workplace issues today.
Unlawful sexual harassment can take many forms and, making it often difficult to define or identify. Many work environments involve adults working long hours in small spaces, and many coworkers and their supervisors may form close relationships or get quite comfortable with one another. This can make it all too easy for them to cross lines and for people to harm each other—and even to violate the law. When behaviors at work rise to the level of sexual harassment, any harassment victims may suffer serious harm and may even feel they have no choice but to continue to endure it or resign from their positions.
Whether you are a woman or a man, you deserve to work free from sexual harassment and other forms of wrongful discrimination. Too many people don’t speak up because they are uncertain if what they experienced was actually unlawful harassment. You should never hesitate to discuss what you’ve experienced with a skilled San Jose sexual harassment attorney who can evaluate your rights in your specific situation. The legal team at Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP, is here to help, so please contact our office today to discuss your rights and options today.
What Constitutes Sexual Harassment at Work?
Most of us have experienced that type of co-worker—the one who genuinely believes off-color comments or jokes are humorous. While a sexually related comment may offend someone, does it rise to the level of sexual harassment? Because sexual harassment is challenging to define, even experienced attorneys need to evaluate each instance on an individual basis. The specific facts of what happened in your particular situation will determine whether you suffered sexual harassment.
Many people believe that sexual harassment will involve a supervisor soliciting sexual acts for promotions or other favors. While this is certainly one of the most egregious forms of sexual harassment, someone can sexually harass you at work in many other ways. Harassment can include:
- Verbal harassment, including sexually related comments, slurs, innuendos, suggestive comments, jokes, derogatory statements, inquiries into a person’s sexual history or activity, or accusations about a person’s sexuality or sexual activity
- Visual harassment, which can include making sexually offensive gestures, leering or staring at sexual parts of the body, or displaying sexually related posters, pictures, or objects
- Physical acts, including unwanted touching, imprisoning someone in a certain area, or sexual assault
- Clearly unwanted sexual advances
- Requesting sexual acts in exchange for certain employment benefits
- Threatening to terminate employment or other forms of retaliation if someone does not engage in sexual acts or if someone reports the harassment
Certain types of harassment are so serious one single instance will constitute an unlawful act. This specifically applies to acts referred to as “quid pro quo” harassment—acts in which a supervisor or someone else with authority wants sex or other sexual acts in exchange for something regarding your employment. This can involve someone outwardly stating that your job depends on your willingness to participate in sex or can involve a veiled threat. In many situations, a supervisor may insinuate that you may use sex in exchange for employment benefits without explicitly saying so. Just because a supervisor did not clearly state his terms does not mean that it does not constitute quid pro quo harassment. In addition to quid pro quo, it can be one severe act.
If you are made to feel pressured or required to respond to sexual advances to maintain or improve your employment situation, you have the right to take legal action against your employer. The law allows you to hold your employer strictly liable for quid pro quo harassment by a supervisor or another superior. In such situations, your employer does not even need to know the harassment was taking place for you to hold it liable for all of your harassment-related losses. Such losses can include lost wages from missing work or from retaliation, emotional distress, and more. If the company knew about the quid pro quo harassment and took no action to stop it, you may even qualify for punitive damages.
Hostile Work Environment
Not all sexual harassment comes in the form of a supervisor requesting sexual favors. Often, sexual harassment can stem from the acts of coworkers on the same employment level as you—or even from subordinates. This harassment usually does not involve threats or promises for sexual favors but instead the comments, gestures, and other conduct discussed above.
One single act, however, may not constitute unlawful sexual harassment. Instead, the law requires that the conduct in question create a hostile work environment in one of two ways:
- Someone engages in conduct that is so repeated and pervasive that the work environment becomes unbearable, and/or
- Someone engages in such a severe single act of sexual harassment—such as sexual assault—that it makes the work environment unbearable
Just because you may find a single act extremely offensive does not necessarily mean it was illegal harassment under the law. To determine whether a hostile work environment exists, your attorney will examine whether a reasonable person in the same situation would feel the environment was hostile, intimidating, or abusive. Review what happened with a knowledgeable attorney to help determine whether you were the victim of a hostile work environment.
A hostile work environment can victimize you even if the sexual harassment was not specifically directed toward you. For example, someone who constantly makes sexually offensive comments to the coworker who sits right next to you can make the workplace unbearable for you. Even if your coworker does not complain about the behavior, you have the right to do so.
Employers are not automatically liable for harm caused by hostile work environments the way they are for quid pro quo harassment. Instead, you must make your employer aware of the offensive conduct and provide your employer with the opportunity to stop it. Therefore, you should always follow the steps outlined in company policies to complain about the sexual harassment through the proper channels. In larger employers, this can involve making a human resources complaint. In other situations, you may need to report the behavior to your supervisor. Once you report the sexual harassment, if your employer does not take necessary action to stop it, you have the right to take legal action and hold your employer accountable if the hostile work environment persists.
Your attorney can help you through all of these processes. In fact, before approaching your employer about the sexual harassment you’ve experienced, make sure to speak with a lawyer with experience in dealing with sexual harassment claims. Your lawyer will advise you as to how to approach the situation in a way that will best protect your rights to take further action.
Many people are afraid to make complaints or reports of sexual harassment at work because they believe it may make their work environment more difficult. The law, however, also prohibits employers from engaging in any type of retaliation against employees for complaining about sexual harassment or cooperating with an investigation into sexual harassment claims. Prohibited retaliation can include any adverse employment action against the employee, which can include:
- Undesirable transfers
- Pay decreases
- Refusal of promotions
- Refusal of pay increases
- Additional harassment or mistreatment
If you made a report of a hostile work environment or quid pro quo harassment and experienced any type of adverse employment action, you can file an additional legal claim against your employer for unlawful retaliation. You can seek any damages incurred due to the retaliatory action. Our attorneys can review your situation and advise you as to whether we believe your employer engaged in unlawful retaliation.
Another complex matter that can stem from a hostile work environment is referred to as “constructive discharge.” If your employer fires you in light of a harassment situation, it can constitute retaliation, as discussed above. However, in some cases, your employer may not terminate your employment—but also may not do anything to stop the hostile work environment. In these situations, going to work may become so unbearable that you may feel you have no other choice but to quit your job. This is referred to as “constructive discharge.”
Constructive discharge is a form of wrongful termination under the law. Therefore, if leaving your job was the only way to get away from sexual harassment, you may also have a claim for wrongful termination.
Taking Action After Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment at work can leave you feeling hurt and confused. Too many people convince themselves that the harassment was not “that bad” because they do not want to put their employment in jeopardy or seem like problem employees. However, federal and state laws help ensure that no one has to endure such harassment at work—and you have every right to take action.
First, you should always report the harassing behavior to your employer. For situations involving a hostile work environment, your employer has the chance to stop the behavior to avoid liability. If the hostile work environment persists despite your complaints, you should not hesitate to call an experienced sexual harassment attorney (and in fact, an experienced lawyer can help you navigate the complaint process). For quid pro quo claims, on the other hand, you do not have to wait to see what happens next—you should contact an experienced attorney as soon as the harassment occurs.
In many cases, you or your attorney must first file a harassment complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or with the state of California to exercise your rights under the law. Never take these complaints lightly—always carefully prepare them to ensure they accurately and fully reflect what happened at your workplace. Our attorneys regularly work with these agencies and prepare complaints to best preserve the rights of our clients.
Many victims of unlawful sexual harassment also may file claims against their employers in civil court. You can seek damages for the many losses you sustained due to the harassment, any retaliation, or constructive discharge. Such damages can include:
- Lost wages
- Lost future earning power
- Emotional distress
- Punitive damages
Hire an attorney who not only can prove that you deserve to recover compensation but who can also accurately calculate and prove the full value of your claim.
If you think someone may have sexually harassed you at work, please do not wait to consult with a member of our legal team. Too often, such harassment goes on without any legal action or repercussions for the harasser or your employer. Laws protect you from such horrible work experiences, and you deserve to fully exercise your rights. We are here to help you through every step of your case and make the legal process as easy as possible so that you can move on with your life.
Contact a San Jose Sexual Harassment Law Firm for More Information Today
If your employer allows sexual harassment to take place or persist, you should hold it liable for the harm it caused you. At the office of Winer, Burritt & Scott, LLP, we know how sexual harassment troubles its victims, and that reliving the experience throughout the legal process can prove difficult. We have compassionate attorneys who will closely listen to your side of the story and advise you about your options and rights. All information is confidential and consultations are free.
If your employer unlawfully harassed you in a San Jose workplace, please do not hesitate to contact our office for help. Call (510) 433-1000 or reach out online today.
**We do not represent perpetrators of sexual harassment or those who are accused of sexually harassing behavior.