woman holding a sign #metoo related to Sexual Harassment

By Jay Chatarpaul, Esq.

In June 2016, the United States Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency responsible for investigation and enforcing federal anti-discrimination laws, released a study of workplace harassment, which concluded that up to 85% of woman have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, but most go unreported. According to another EEOC report, 75% of employees who reported sexual harassment or workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation.

Sexual harassment comes in many forms, such as sex for promotion or career advancement (often referred to as “quid pro quo”), unwanted touching, unwanted sexually coercive behavior, offensive sexual jokes, sending of sexually suggestive photos/videos, masturbation, grabbing of crotch in plain view of employee, and other offensive sexual remarks and conduct.

Why do most women fail to report sexual harassment?

The most obvious reason for not reporting sexual harassment is FEAR – fear of retaliation, fear of termination, fear of not advancing in one’s career, fear that no one would believe the victim, fear that co-workers would treat the victim negatively, fear that the victim would be blamed for creating sexual harassment by her behavior or choice of clothing.  Other factors include shame, guilt, cultural norms, or not being aware of legal rights.

Who is most likely to commit acts of sexual harassment?

The person who commits acts of sexual harassment is ordinarily (but not always) a person in the position of authority towards a subordinate, such as an employee or someone who looks up to the alleged harasser. A subordinate is often vulnerable to sexual harassment because she is dependent on the harasser for job security, career advancement, etc.

What are some of the effects of sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can have a devastating impact on the harassed person, including creating an intimidating and abuse work environment, serious emotional and physical pain and trauma, depression, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, lowered self-esteem and self respect, sexual dysfunction, and in severe cases, suicide.

How to report sexual harassment at the workplace?

Unwanted and unwelcomed sexual harassment, whether by co-worker or a manager/supervisor must be immediately reported to a higher-up manager and to the employee’s human resources (HR) department. If sex assault occurred, a police report should be immediately filed.

What protection do you have against retaliation for reporting sexual harassment?

Federal law (as well as most state laws) make it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee who files a complaint alleging sexual harassment. An employer may not terminate or otherwise discipline the employee complaining of harassment, nor may an employer alter the terms and conditions of the employees’ employment in a negative manner.

What should you do if the harassment continues despite reporting it?

If the harassment continues and the environment in which you must work becomes oppressive, uncomfortable, hostile, unfriendly or antagonistic, then you should file a charge or lawsuit against the employer and the harasser.

Most states and federal laws permit the employee being harassed to obtain relief for any emotional distress suffered, as all as for lost past and future earnings, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and costs of the lawsuit.

Under federal law, before you file a lawsuit, you must first file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days from the date of the harassment. States law differ. In New Jersey, for example, the employee can elect to go directly to the courts and file a lawsuit if alleging violation of New Jersey anti-discrimination laws.  The statute of limitations under New Jersey law is two (2) years where the claims allege violation of New Jersey anti-discrimination laws.

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