Workplace Sexual Harassment and What You Should Know
Sexual harassment is a hot topic in today’s headlines. Hollywood’s elite, politicians, athletes, journalists, musicians, and sports figures alike are under fire amid allegations of inappropriate behavior and unwanted sexual conduct. These are public figures so their salacious behavior makes the news. Sexual harassment doesn’t just happen to public figures, it happens in the workplace to everyday people too.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
The EEOC is the government agency responsible for enforcing the federal laws prohibiting discrimination. Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and the EEOC takes such complaints very seriously. According to the EEOC, almost one-third of the 90,000 complaints they received in 2015 was related to sexual harassment. This number does not reflect instances of sexual harassment because the EEOC estimates about 75% of workplace harassment does not get reported.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The aforementioned is sexual harassment when this conduct “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” (EEOC) Sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Sometimes, sexual harassment can be vague because workers are often friends who joke around with one another in the work environment. However, the difference between joking around with a co-worker and sexual harassment is that sexual harassment is non-consensual; it has a victim and a perpetrator.
Workplace Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment can come in many ways, shapes, and forms. Sexual harassment can be verbal, such as requests for sexual favors, threats of sexual activity, or sexually offensive comments. Physical harassment includes touching or preventing someone’s movement. Written harassment can occur by way of suggestive or sexually graphic emails, notes, or other means of written material; and visual harassment can come in the form of sexually graphic pictures.
This conduct is considered unlawful when a reasonable person finds the behavior in the workplace intimidating, hostile, or offensive. Any behavior which is consensual is not sexual harassment, such as dating a co-worker, complimenting a co-worker in an innocuous and non-offensive manner, and sharing details about your life as long as it is a mutually consensual conversation.
Sexual Harassment and the Law
Under the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act, it is the public policy of the state to protect and safeguard the right of all persons to seek, obtain, and hold employment without discrimination based on sex. NC Gen. Stat. Sec. 143-422.2. The Act applies to all private employers of 15 or more employees. Employers with 15 or more employees are also covered by the federal fair employment law which prohibits sexual harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
There are two types of sexual harassment. Quid Pro Quo, meaning something for something in Latin, is when a person in authority, such as a supervisor, suggests by way of a hint, or directly offers, something in exchange for something. For example, John is your immediate supervisor and while he places his hand on your thigh, he promises to give you a raise if you can “help” him out. He then squeezes your thigh when he asks, “Do you understand what I am telling you?” This is quid pro quo harassment.
Hostile work environment harassment is when someone’s conduct in the work environment conduct is unwanted, and it occurs frequently enough to create a hostile work environment. For example, John and Joan are co-workers who hold the same position and status at their place of employment, and neither of them is in a position of authority. John continuously tells Joan how sexy he thinks she is and also makes comments about her physical appearance. Joan has repeatedly asked John to stop making such comments because it makes her very uncomfortable. John does not heed to her repeated requests and continues to make unwanted and offensive comments to Joan. This is hostile work environment harassment.
Who is Liable for Sexual harassment in the Workplace?
Because Title VII only applies to employers with 15 or more employees, state law, where applicable, governs those employers with less than 15 employees. Employers can be liable for monetary losses, pain and suffering, and punitive damages if sexual harassment can be proven.
Other factors play a role in an employer’s liability, such as the position the victim and victimizer respectively held in the workplace. Was it quid pro quo sexual harassment? If so, did the employer take the appropriate corrective measures when allegations of sexual harassment were made against a supervisor, or did the employer ignore allegations of sexual conduct by a supervisor?
In a hostile workplace environment in which harassment claims are made between co-workers, the employer may not be responsible. Did the employer know, or should he/she have known, about the sexual harassment? Did the employer take corrective measures?
The EEOC laws preclude employers from retaliating, or in other words punishing, an employee for exercising their rights to be free from sexual harassment. Exercising these rights is called protected activity. An employer may not retaliate against an employee for reporting sexual harassment; for filing a complaint; for participating in an employer investigation regarding alleged harassment; for resisting sexual advances, or for assisting others filing a complaint. This is not an inclusive list of protected activity, but participating in the complaint process is protected from retaliation under all circumstances. (EEOC)
How Do I file a Claim in NC?
North Carolina is not like most other states in that there is not a state administrative agency that will process sexual harassment complaints for non-state or non-county employees. The complaint must be filed directly with the EEOC. Conversely, state and county employees can file sexual harassment complaints with a state administrative agency, which is the Civil Rights Division (CRD) of the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings.
There are strict time limitations in which you can file a sexual harassment claim with the EEOC and CRD. Do not delay in contacting an attorney once you have endured sexual harassment and/or retaliation. Missing deadlines may result in being forever barred from any compensation.
Please contact us to discuss your situation with one of our attorneys. There is no fee for an initial consultation.