How to Handle Sexual Harassment in the Office

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Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination in the workplace and is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as, "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature ... that affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment." If you are a victim of sexual harassment, you are not alone: The EEOC reports that it received 13,867 charges for sexual harassment in 2008. As a victim, you are protected under federal law and have rights to protect you in the workplace. You can handle sexual harassment successfully by following a few important steps.

  • Tell the offender to stop. No employee should ever feel uncomfortable at work by unwelcome sexual behavior, or hostility that results from saying no. It's possible this person does not know her actions are making you uncomfortable, so be sure to make your position clear. It is best to use a written form of communication such as email so you can prove you have told the individual to stop.

  • Keep a paper trail. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with communication you are receiving from a co-worker or supervisor, it is important to keep a record. Save emails, voice mails, hand-written notes, gifts, and anything you have received from the perpetrator that will help prove your allegations. Also keep a written timeline that includes dates, times, places and potential witnesses to occurrences of harassment. Do not keep these things in the office.

  • Report the behavior if your efforts in saying no have not worked. Laws on sexual harassment policies vary by state, but most large employers are required to have a written policy with annual training for supervisors and employees. Review this policy, which will usually be available on your company's website or in an employee handbook, and follow the steps outlined in the policy. Start with your supervisor, unless your supervisor is the perpetrator. In that case, go directly to your human resources director. Be sure to take any written or physical evidence of the harassment when you report the behavior.

  • Comply with the investigation. Once you make a formal complaint, your employer will conduct an investigation. Though it may be difficult to discuss the harassment with investigators, it is important that you be open and honest about what has happened and cooperate with due process.

  • Report the sexual harassment to the EEOC if your employer fails to resolve the situation, or if you suffer retaliation for reporting it. You cannot bring a lawsuit against your employer unless you have done this. Be sure to follow the deadlines for reporting. The EEOC says on its website that you have 180 days to file an official charge. Federal employees have 45 days. The EEOC does not accept charges online, but the website provides detailed instructions for making a claim. You must file in person at a local field office, but you can get the process started by calling 1-800-669-4000.

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