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Sexual harassment in the workplace: How career sabotage can be evidence in 2023

Sexual harassment in the workplace: How career sabotage can be evidence in 2023

Retaliation in the workplace can be an awful experience whatever the reason is, but especially when it is retaliation for rejecting an offer to trade sexual relations for advancement at work, or when it comes for complaining about improper sexual comments or attacks in the office, store, or factory.

For example, actor Julia Ormond, who had the starring role in Sabrina with Harrison Ford and also starred as Guinevere alongside Sean Connery’s King Arthur, has used a slowdown in her career as evidence that sexual harassment resulted in retaliation in the workplace.  In 2023, she sued the movie producer Harvey Weinstein, alleging that he retaliated against her by sabotaging her career after she rejected his sexual behavior in 1995.  She also blamed The Walt Disney Co. for not ensuring a better culture at the film studio Miramax that Weinstein founded, and which Disney bought in 1993. 

What is sexual harassment in the workplace

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination due to sex, race, religion, color, and some other factors.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission brings lawsuits under the Civil Rights Act, but employees can bring their own complaints without the commission in appropriate cases. In 1980, the EEOC clarified that “sexual harassment” is one type of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Act. Its “administrative interpretations” has been accepted by the federal courts, and the Supreme Court concluded in a prominent case involving the City of Boca Raton, Florida, that a “hostile” work environment due to acts of a supervisor can be sex discrimination that gives a right to seek damages from the employer.

In New York, the Division of Human Rights enforces the state human rights law, which is like the Civil Rights Act for all New York employers.  “Sexual harassment includes harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, self-identified or perceived sex, gender expression, gender identity, and the status of being transgender,” is how the State of New York defines it.

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment can be of at least two kinds

Quid pro quo harassment was part of the original concept of sexual harassment.  It is the demand or request for sexual activity or contact as a condition or in connection with workplace benefits like a promotion, protection from being terminated, favorable hours or positions, or being shielded from harsh or undesirable hours, shifts, roles, treatment, or punishments. 

Sometimes an employee feels like they cannot go on working given the way they are being harassed at work.  This can rise to the level of constructive termination, or being forced out of one’s job, sometimes.

Hostile work environment is a serious interference with one’s ability to work.  It may not involve demands or offers in connection with a raise, continued work, or a promotion or position.  It does often relate to common or offensive remarks or treatment that makes it difficult or scary to come to work or to deal with certain people or situations in the workplace.  The victim and the people making the remarks or treating the victim in a certain way can be any gender or the same gender.

The Human Rights Law is a source of rights to equal and fair treatment where certain protected grounds are concerned.  These grounds include “age, creed, race, color, sex, national origin, marital status, domestic violence victim status (in employment only), pregnancy-related condition, military status, favorably resolved arrest record, conviction record, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, predisposing genetic characteristics, familial status, and lawful source of income (in housing only).”

The Supreme Court has said that the Civil Rights Act, its Title VII, applies to discrimination or harassment on sexual orientation grounds. Sexual orientation discrimination (as well as gender identity discrimination) is a form of sexual discrimination.  New York law makes this even more clear.  It clarifies that sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited and it relates to actual or perceived homosexuality, bisexuality, or asexuality, as well as heterosexuality.

Effects of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

One in five workers report being treated badly in the workplace.  A survey released in 2018 showed about three in four women report verbal sexual harassment, not always at work.

Sexual harassment may be associated with depression.  Poor mood, lack of energy, and feelings of hopelessness may be symptoms.

Another effect of sexual harassment may be bad sleep.  Worry, fear, and stress along with an unstable financial or career trajectory may make it difficult to fall asleep, or stay asleep.

Remedies for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 2023

Federal and state law may provide compensatory and punitive damages for employment sexual harassment at work. There are certain caps on monetary awards at the federal level, such as for firms or government agencies with 15-100 employees, $50,000, for those with 101-200 employees, $100,000, and for those with 201-500 employees, $200,000.

New York state law has different higher monetary award levels, because punitive damages are available in certain cases. New York City harassment law may allow punitive damages to deal with employers who know or don’t care that the harassment in their workplace violates the law. In 2018 the Human Rights Law was changed or made more clear as to independent contractors, consultants, vendors, subcontractors, and other nonemployees working without a salary.

In New York, every employer is supposed to prohibit sexual harassment in its own workplace.  There are minimum Department of Labor/Division of Human Rights standards for doing this. 

Under the standards, a employer is supposed to provide its own workers with examples of prohibited conduct that would constitute unlawful sexual harassment, educate employees about the federal and state statutory laws and remedies concerning sexual harassment, give employees a complaint form and a process for triggering a confidential investigation of complaints that ensures due process for all parties and is not delayed too long, and inform supervisors and managers that they may be subject to discipline for knowingly permitting sexual harassment. 

Also very importantly, employers have to “clearly state that retaliation against individuals who complain of sexual harassment or who testify or assist in any investigation or proceeding involving sexual harassment is unlawful.”  This and the other disclosures should be in writing.

Next Steps

It is important to know your rights when it comes to sexual harassment and retaliation for making a complaint or asking for an investigation. A free consultation can help you understand your rights and take action to protect them, including by contacting human resources or the government. 

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