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Knowing Your Rights: Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

An act of sexual harassment is considered to be a type of sexual discrimination that lawmakers say violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the broadest sense of the term it comes in the form of unwelcomed sexual advances or requesting sexual favors from coworkers as well as other ill conduct of a sexual nature whether physical or verbal. Title VII on a federal level prohibits any kind of discrimination in employment for protected groups and it applies to companies with 15 or more people under its employ. This includes government workers from federal to state and all the way down to local.

Despite the law many people still deal with sexual harassment at work. Below you’ll some instructions and guidelines that will help you know what the next step is if you feel like you’ve been a victim.

Are there different types of sexual harassment claims?

Yes. In general there are two main categories for type of harassment,

1. Quid pro quo:

These are unwelcome advances or requests that ask for sexual favors that offer employment favors in return. This may include an offer for a promotion or a coveted assignment or even favors in the schedule. It could even involve a threat that could result in you receiving a demotion, cut in benefits, or even lose your job for refusing to submit to the request. These are clear quid pro quo when submission is compulsory and dependent on terms of employment or when reject or acceptance of the request is used to determine employment related decisions.

2. Hostile work environment: the sexual harassment makes your workplace environment intimidating, hostile, or offensive

These include unwelcome advances, requests for granting sexual favors, or other behavior either verbal or physical that could be construed as sexual misconduct. This is specifically tantamount to a hostile work environment when it affects employee performance or creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile environment to work in. Courts will consider a number of factors to determine this including:

1. Whether conduct was solely verbal or physical or a mix of the two.
2. How often it occurred
3. Whether conduct was actually hostile or offensive
4. Whether the coworker played a supervisory role to the employee’s
5. Whether more than one employee was involved
6. Whether it was directed at a group or only an individual

What types of behavior might be labeled sexual harassment?

So sexual harassment what is it and what it not? It often depends on the situation as well as the people who were involved. It could mean anything including sexual advances that were unwelcome, requesting special sexual favors, threats or bribes either directly or directly made, displaying illicitly sexual material or visuals, comments on physical appearance or sexual life, and even a dirty joke can all be considered sexual harassment.

Does Title VII protect men from sexual harassment? What about same-sex harassment?

It doesn’t matter if you are male or female or if the harassment is performed by members of the same sex. The victim or perpetrator could be any combination and all instances are equally protected under the law. Sexual harassment doesn’t even only apply to supervisors, coworkers in the same department, or even employed by the same company. What matters is the result but how the employee is negatively affected by the incident at work.

Can one incident still be sexual Harassment?

In these cases it tends to vary by constitute. In a case of quid pro quo for example it would if the incident happened in a way that the harassment was linked to denial of an employment opportunity, a wrongful termination, or even something affecting employee benefits or other employment terms.

In other cases one incident generally requires evidence of a pattern of the negative behavior or harassment. An isolated incident of misconduct usually won’t make it to the sexual harassment stage unless it is an extreme case, particularly if physical contact we’re involved. The worse the case of the harassment the less need there is to demonstrate a repetitive pattern.

Can my employer punish me because I complained about sexual harassment?

Nope. This would strictly be forbidden under Title VII, which forbids any retaliation against employees for filing harassment complaints. It furthers goes on to protect you in the same way when partipating in an investigation or legal proceedings on a coworker’s behalf if they believe themselves to be a victim. Never be afraid to speak up if you witness this negative behavior at work.

Are there other laws besides Title VII that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace?

In some states yes, if you believe this may be the case in yours check with a local lawyer.

What should I do if I believe I am facing sexual harassment at work?

Each situation will be different so remember to keep your unique case in mind so you can know the right steps to take and what your rights may be.

1. First check your employee’s handbook for your specific corporate policies that may be laid out for you on a company level. Remember to be specific in your complaints and if possible have notes ready and logged for the incident and always file the appropriate paperwork. Also keep track of times and dates
2. If you’re going to confront the person first explain to them calmly and politely that behavior has made you uncomfortable. Be specific about what they did to offend you. Tell them the attention their giving you or the way they’re acting is bothersome to you. Then finally ask them to stop and not repeat the behavior in the future.
3. Inform your immediate supervisor about what’s going on and explain what steps you’ve already taken to address it. If you don’t feel comfortable with a direct confrontation you may ask HR or your supervisor for a sort of mediation.

4. You could also file a grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You have the right to file if you believe you’ve been a victim of discrimination. The EEOC serves as an agency that enforces Title VII that in most cases gives you six months to file a charge from the incidents. Their website gives you easy instructions for filing so you won’t need an attorney to do so.

What will they do after I file a charge?

Once you’ve filed your grievance the EEOC will let your employer know that you’ve done so and an investigation will begin into your claim. They will then pursue a number of different options. They may attempt to settle the matter or refer you to a mediator who will do so for you between you and your employer. If they are unable to set it there in the case of employers in the private sector they will most likely file a lawsuit against them. They may also dismiss the charge completely but will afterwards notify you of your right to sue if you decide to take the matter to court. If you choose to practice this right they will provide right-to-sue letter for the process.

I’m not sure yet if I want to file an EEOC charge or make a formal complaint to my employer. What steps can I take to protect myself?

1. If you believe these behaviors are taking place keep careful records of them including date, time, and details of the incident as well as those involved.
2. Check the handbook for policies and procedures in place for dealing with sexual harassment that may provide some useful alternatives to filing suit or complaints with EEOC
3. Make sure not to appear as a disgruntled or low-quality employee. Keep coming to work every day on time and giving it your best. Then keep records to prove it including any performance evaluations, letters or memos that indicate the work you do, awards, etc. Always keep copies at home.
4. Always seek support from loved ones to get you through this stressful and difficult time
5. The EEOC fortunately provides counselors you can speak to directly that can listen to the details of your case and help you decide if you have a case and whether or not to file a complaint. Ask them for valuable advice and information
6. In all cases timing could be everything. Usually you’ll be given a full 180 days after an incident to file a charge for harassment or discrimination.

Why You Need An Employment Attorney

When Do You Need An Employment Lawyer?

In the majority of states unless you have a specific contract saying otherwise you will almost never have a case for wrongful termination. In many cases in fact an employer will as part of the preliminary paperwork define your employment as “at will” meaning you can quit whenever you want and they can fire you whenever they want. So what would you need an employment lawyer and how can you know if in your instance, you have a case?

Why Look for an Employment Lawyer?

There are a few instances where an attorney might be able to lend a hand if you feel you’re being treated unfairly at work. Let’s look at a few:

Legal Deadlines

Most employment laws come at you with barrage of deadlines that can be both confusing and overwhelming. You’ll be required to follow these for filing suit and if you try to go it alone they’re very easy to miss. Speaking to an attorney is probably your best bet to prevent this from happening.

When Claims get Confusing

The many and complicated employment laws can not only overwhelm but also confuse you if you’re not studied up. There might even be a number of laws and loopholes you don’t even know exist. If you have a gut feeling that you were terminated unfairly or some kind of unethical or unlawful practice happened at work, it’s always best to consult a lawyer to know for sure.

To Show You’re Serious

In most cases unless you have legal representation your employment will have no reason to take you seriously and your issue will easily be brushed aside.

When direct confrontation Isn’t for you

Many people are uncomfortable with confrontations and unfortunately this is almost always going to be part of the process when you’re negotiating the terms of your employment or the included severance package. It’s always good to have someone to fight on your behalf if this is the case. Chances are your employer isn’t going to be as uncomfortable so this could cause an unfair advantage.

When is it Absolutely Needed?

If any of these situations become a reality you should contact an attorney ASAP:

  • Your employer threatens to sue you.
  • You’ve been asked to sign on to terms you don’t completely understand, especially if it seems incomplete or if it relates to confidentiality, arbitration, or other employment terms.
  • You’ve been accused of a crime, though in this case you’re better off pursuing a criminal defense attorney rather than an employment lawyer.

When is a Lawyer “Nice to Have”

You might want to have a lawyer even if it’s not urgent, but if any of the following situations arise

  • If you think an employer (current or former) has violated any employment laws.
  • You saw retaliation after filing a workplace grievance, especially as it relates to discrimination or harassment or an employer legal violation.
  • If you’re not being paid fairly and as agreed upon when hired.
  • If you’ve falsely fallen into the classification as a contractor or some that does not qualify for overtime.

When is an attorney NOT needed

Hiring a lawyer is probably an unnecessary step if:

  • You need to file a complaint or grievance with your HR department and all policy is followed by you in the process.
  • When you must attend a disciplinary meeting, but DO take careful and don’t sign anything other than an acknowledgment form as “receipt only” and ALWAYS read before signing.
  • When signing simple and comprehensive documents you have no problem understanding.
  • When filing a union grievance if you’re in a union, that’s what your union reps are for.

So do You have a Case

Below is a checklist that will help you determine if you could be eligible and have a case in court. You’ll of course want to contact an employment lawyer if the situations apply to be sure.

Termination, demotion, or suspension without pay:

To start did any of the below occur shortly before the said disciplinary action?

  • You filed a workman’s compensation form.
  • Reported or refused to conform to illegal practices of discrimination in the company.
  • You recently underwent surgery and/or revealed a previous unknown medical condition or pregnancy.
  • Your employer falsely stated something as a fact about to someone outside the company including future potential employers.
  • You recently performed jury duty.
  • You recently served in the armed forces.
  • You recently took family or medical leave.
  • You recently testified in court or provided evidence for a lawsuit or to EEOC.
  • You recently participared in activities that benefited coworkers as it applied to terms of employment.
  • Your employer failed to compensate you as agreedfor all hours or worked or failed to pay overtime benefits you deserved.

Discrimination claims

Unfortunately you can’t sue someone for discriminating against you as an individual. If you feel you have been discriminated against the law will provide for and describe discrimination as having to do with:

  • age
  • sex
  • ethnicity or national origin
  • disability
  • pregnancy
  • Color
  • Genetic information
  • Retalation for objecting to discrimination
  • religion

The first question you will have to ask is if your employer has 15 or less employees, as many of these laws unfortunately won’t allow for the same standards to be applied to smaller businesses. If, however, you can compare your treatment to those of different circumstance (your race, etc) and find that your treatment was different you may have a case. You should also make sure that it wasn’t a different case for someone who had the same circumstance as you. Some states and localities also have provisions that expand discrimination laws to also apply to other circumstance such as marital status or sexual orientation.
Didn’t see your Case?

Unfortunately there are instances where employees can be convinced that their employees broke the law, but sadly didn’t. You’ll be surprised to find that in some cases the law offers no provisions for the following:

Breaks:  There is no federal law that requires any breaks at all. That’s right not even a lunch break. Some states have these requirements in place, but not near as many as you’d think, not even the majority.

Workplace harassment and Hostile Environment: Harassment is only illegal is if it relates to the discrimination of protect groups (age, race, sex, etc.) but in general harassment, bullying and hostility, while against most corporate policy, is not at illegal or against any laws.

Freedom of Speech: While protected in your personal life under the 1st amendment, you have no freedom of speech at work, not legally. There are some protections in place for government workers but even those are few and far between.

Privacy: Work email and internet usage are completely fair game, your employers can spy all they want. There are some light restrictions on monitoring phone calls and of course medical information is somewhat protected. There is not even a federal law against publicly display your social security number at work and only two states offer some limited protection against it.

Right to work:  Not all states are right to work, but some are. Right to work does NOT mean that an employer can’t make you sign a non-compete agreement and it does not mean they can’t restrict your right to work for competitors while in employment with them. All it means is that they can’t force you to join a union as part of your employment. Don’t listen to any employer that tries to tell you that non-compete agreements are useless or unenforced.

Retaliation:  No laws prohibit retaliation from an employer if you report or object to either policy violations, ethics violations, bullying, hostile work environments or anything other than discrimination and/or illegal practices.

If you are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt, or are even just in question on whether you have a case or not (even after reading this and doing your homework) the best thing you can do is contact a local employment lawyer and see what they can do for you.