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Harassers Flying Under the Radar: What is Considered Sexual Harassment at Work?

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Workplace Sexual Harassment

Until very recently, sexual harassment  in the workplace was tolerated, joked about, and simply accepted. The term “sexual harassment” was not created until the mid-1970s. It did not become part of the Civil Rights Act until 1980 when new guidelines were added.

Employers must now adhere to laws that protect employees against sexual harassment and that provide remedies to sexual harassment victims.

Despite these advances, sexual harassment often overlooked or disregarded in the workplace. In 2020 there were 11,497 sexual harassment allegations filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Males filed 16.8% of those complaints.

The First Sexual Harassment Case

The first sexual harassment case to come before the U.S. Supreme Court was Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson in 1986. Michelle Vinson was a bank teller. Her claim focused on her boss pressuring her into a sexual relationship.

The lawsuit alleged that the boss regularly fondled the plaintiff and other female employees. The lawsuit alleged that the sexual harassment created a hostile work environment. Unwelcome or unsolicited sexual advances can give rise to a hostile environment claim claim.

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Anyone who sexually harasses another person at work has violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment includes an unwelcome sexual advance, a request for sexual favors, or any physical or verbal behavior of a sexual nature. 

In 1980 the EEOC issued guidelines to Title VII which establish ”sexual harassment” as a type of gender discrimination. Sexual harassment usually comes in two forms.

A Quid Pro Quo is when a person’s work is dependent on them providing sexual favors. This can include things such as being hired for a job, an assignment, or not being fired. 

A Hostile Work Environment is the other form of sexual harassment. It can be physical or verbal. To qualify, the sexual harassment must be severe or persuasive, meaning that it must create an offensive, hostile, or intimidating work environment.

  • If a supervisor commits sexual harassment, the employer is always liable.
  • If a co-worker committed the sexual harassment, and the employer had a policy in place for employees to report harassment and the victim failed to report it, the employer can raise that as a defense.
  • In all situations, if the employer knew about the sexual harassment and did nothing to stop it, it will probably be found liable.

Instances of Work Environment Harassment

Any person may be commit sexual harassment. Conduct of a sexual nature that is unwelcome and that affects the victim’s ability to perform their work is harassment. This includes behavior that is intimidating, hostile and causes the victim undue stress.

It is important to note that: 

  • The harasser may be a supervisor, employer’s agent, co-worker, supervisor of another work area, or even a non-employee.
  • Co-workers who witness sexual harassment of others can have a sexual harassment claim.
  • The conduct of the harasser must be unwelcome. If you are being sexually harassed, do not joke it off. Do not engage in banter with the harasser. Do not exchange text messages or emails unless they relate solely to your work or job duties.

Sexual harassment is unlawful even if it does not result in economic injury.

It is important for the victim to inform the harasser that their advances are not welcome and tell them to stop.  The victim should also report the harassment to human resources or a higher level manager and do so in writing.

The federal laws regarding sexual harassment set the minimum standards for protection. Title VII only provides protection to companies with 15 or more employees. State laws establish additional protections against sexual harassment.

Pennsylvania Sexual Harassment Law

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) is an anti-discrimination law that includes sexual harassment in the workplace. This law is very similar to Title VII except that it applies to employers with four or more employees.

Under state law, any conduct that makes submitting a request for sexual favors or sexual advancements a condition of employment is sexual harassment. Any sexual harassment that interferes with an employee’s work performance or that creates an offensive, hostile, or intimidating workplace environment is unlawful.

Pittsburgh Sexual Harassment Ordinances

Your employer has a legal obligation to know how to protect employees from sexual harassment. You have a personal obligation to become knowledgeable on your rights against workplace sexual harassment. Different laws and ordinances may apply under your city, state, and federal law. 

There are cities in Pennsylvania that have ordinances prohibiting sexual harassment, including Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. Companies with as few as 1 to 4 employees fall under these ordinances. 

In Pittsburgh, you can complete an online inquiry form to initiate an investigation. To file a formal complaint you must file with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations (PghCHR).

Inappropriate Conduct

Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between behavior that is annoying but not illegal, and behavior that  constitutes sexual harassment. To meet the criteria for sexual harassment the behavior must be unwelcome. It must be happening because of your sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Examples of inappropriate conduct:

  • Comments about your body.
  • Repeatedly asking you out.
  • Degrading comments based on sex, such as “women can’t handle this job”.
  • Asking personal questions about a person’s gender identity, gender expression, gender transition, or body.
  • Showing or sending unwanted sexually explicit text messages, emails, or photographs.
  • Linking a raise, shift change, job, or work hours, or other work benefits to a person's participation in sexual conduct.
  • Grabbing or groping.
  • Sexual assault.

Sexual harassment does not have to occur at your work location. If a supervisor or co-worker sexually harasses you at a social function or off-site event, the employer can still be held liable.

When Experiencing Sexual Harassment

The targets of sexual harassment sometimes feel that they are somehow at fault. You are never to blame for the inappropriate sexual conduct of another person at work. You have specific rights and there are actions you can take to protect yourself and prove your case. 

If you can do so safely, tell the harasser their actions are not welcome and you want them to stop.

  • Keep copies of your work records, performance evaluations, etc.
  • Keep a journal of all inappropriate actions, including the date, time, place, and specifically what happened
  • Keep copies of any text messages, emails, photographs, or any other material that is harassing

Confide in those you trust. Tell a co-worker, your spouse or close friend, your pastor or your doctor.  

Report Harassment

Check your employer’s sexual harassment policy to learn how to report inappropriate conduct. If your employer does not have a written policy, report the conduct to a supervisor or check with the HR department.

Once you report sexual harassment, your employer has a duty to investigate your claim. This includes speaking with the harasser and witnesses.

If the investigation confirms your allegation the employer must take appropriate action to make the sexual harassment stop. Employers often drop the ball here so keep good records. If the employer doesn’t investigate your complaint, or if it doesn’t communicate with you, or if its investigation is cursory, then you may have a legal claim.

If an employer hires or retains someone that they know or should have known is dangerous, and then that person sexually harasses or assaults a person at work, the employer can be found liable. In this instance, your employment attorney may be able to file a lawsuit for negligent hiring or negligent supervision.

The law provides protection from retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint. You have the right to take legal action if your employer retaliates against you for opposing sexual harassment.

If you have been sexually assaulted, contact the police and go to the ER. They will take a statement from you and help you obtain a rape kit.   

If you believe you were drugged during the assault, those substances only remain in the body for 12-72 hours. Get tested for any unknown substances as soon as possible.

Workplace Sexual Assault and PTSD

Victims of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace may suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

When you suffer a sexual assault or harassment, you may initially be in shock or denial. You may suffer an impact on your self-esteem and ability to function. Over time you may experience intrusive memories, negative changes in mood and thinking, and changes to your emotional and physical health.

The combination of these reactions and feelings impacts the areas of your brain that regulate your attention, awareness, and flight or fight response. It is important to seek treatment for your PTSD from a counselor that specializes in sexual harassment. They will help you overcome the impact of workplace harassment trauma.

The cost of therapy is one of the damages your attorney will seek when filing a workplace harassment lawsuit.

Filing Deadlines

To file under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act you must submit your discrimination complaint within 180 days of the harassment. Remedies under the law include damages for economic losses, pain and suffering, punitive damages and an award of attorney fees and costs.

Federal government workers only have 45 days from the time of harassment to contact the agency’s EEO counselor. You have up to one year following the harassment to file a complaint with the city of Pittsburgh.

It is important to contact an employment lawyer quickly. The attorney will analyze your case and can help you with filing legal complaints with the EEOC, PHRA, or through your city.  

What Is an Employment Law Attorney?

Employment law provides protection against all areas of harassment and discrimination. This includes sexual harassment, age, pregnancy, race, gender, national origin, religion, and both physical and mental disability.

When violations of your civil rights occur, you have legal remedies available to you through the court system.

By filing a civil lawsuit, your employment lawyer can help you recover damages. This includes emotional stress, loss of wages and benefits, and attorney fees. In some cases, an award of exemplary or punitive damages can also be recovered.

Punitive damages are assessed to punish a defendant for outrageous conduct. The intent of exemplary damages is to set an example that deters others from similar behavior.

Lamberton Law Can Help

If you are suffering sexual harassment in the workplace do not hesitate to contact experienced Pittsburgh employment law attorney Charles A. Lamberton. We are an employment law firm specializing in workplace laws. We will analyze your case and advise you on the best course of action.

Depending on the details of your case, you may have claims in a variety of areas. This includes sexual harassment, retaliation, wrongful termination, and discrimination. Don’t hesitate to call us today at (412) 258-2250 to schedule a free consultation.