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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Knowing Your Rights and Legal Options

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Knowing Your Rights and Legal Options

Sometimes the environment at work is not quite right. It can seem unwelcoming, unfair, or even hostile. When the environment is hostile, discriminatory, or imbued with unfair treatment for employees who assert their rights to equality or freedom of speech, it can be illegal.

Employees have enforceable rights to enjoy open and equal access to job opportunities and promotions. But this access is not always provided fairly. Oftentimes supervisors or even co-workers lash out at employees who demand to be treated in a modern way, with equal and just standards at work. So employees often file lawsuits for discrimination on the basis of sex or some other protected ground, or for a hostile work environment, retaliation, or retaliatory hostility at work.

Victims of illegal discrimination, hostile environments, or retaliation definitely have legal options. An attorney or law firm can help them gather and preserve the actual evidence that could persuade a jury that an employee was discriminated against, faced an illegal working environment, or was treated with wrongful hostility or adverse decisions after she or he had complained about unlawful discrimination.

Federal and state law recognizes that discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are illegal. City and county law also has provisions on such workplace offenses in many regions of the country.

Examples of sexual harassment in the workplace may be varied. They have to be really serious, or periodic or regular in terms of happening more than once, if not so serious. Some examples include physical attacks of a sexual nature at work or a work event, demands for sexual contact or dating in exchange for hiring/hours/promotions/protection from layoff, and widespread display of sexually explicit images. Sexual harassment can emerge in different ways, and is somewhat fact-bound as a subject of court decisions. Using respect and being civil and fair is one way that employers teach their supervisors and workers to prevent such behavior.

The rights of victims include both court cases and options outside of court. Outside of court, human resources departments, supervisors, or human rights commissions at the city, state, or county level may be able to correct some issues. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is also able to file legal papers on behalf of employees who were subjected to harassment because they were women, because of their gender identity, or because of issues of unequal power or improper advances by members of any sex or gender identity. The courts get involved when victims file complaints for sexual harassment, employment discrimination, retaliation, or retaliatory hostile work environment. Complaints may be filed individually (pro se) or using a lawyer.

A lawyer may be able to use advanced legal techniques to phrase complaints in certain ways, and to gather evidence via mediation or court orders that may persuade a jury that a victim was subjected to unacceptable conditions at work, was treated unfairly in a way the law can correct, or had an objectively reasonable belief that she or he had complained about discrimination or harassment before suffering retaliation or worsening conditions. A lawyer may need to gather evidence of an adverse employment action, any employer or supervisor action that is negative and not “minor,” or that “could well dissuade a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.”

Law firms also help victims to respond to employers’ claims that nothing happened or that there were lawful reasons for what happened, such as a workers’ termination, being driven out of a job, never being hired, not benefiting from raises, or not being promoted. An employer may claim that management investigated the victim’s complaints and concluded that there was no discrimination, but there may be contrary evidence in an employer’s files that is being covered up or withheld. A victim may carry some burden to prove that the employer was in the wrong.

To prove her or his side of a case, a victim or her or his legal team may need some evidence, whether “direct” or not, from which a judge or jury could believe that an employer’s excuses are lacking or that an improper discriminatory or retaliatory reason shaped the workplace. It is not always illegal for an employer to be “wrong or mistaken,” but it may be illegal for it to act based on weak, unbelievable, or contradictory reasons with regard to men versus women, people within the same sex that have different gender identities, or people of different sexual orientations. Treating people differently in an illegal way can include harassment as discussed above.

Employment discrimination law allows victims to access compensation for lost pay, lost health insurance or other benefits, lost retirement account contributions, and even “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, loss of enjoyment of life, and other nonpecuniary losses.” 42 U.S.C. § 1981a(b)(3). The accounting for these items of compensation does not have to be exact but does need to be “reasonable.” In instances of emotional distress, like fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, sleeplessness, damage to personal relationships, etc. there should be some reason to link the seriousness or timing of these feelings to what happened at work. For example, a victim may: cry at work or before or after work, feel hopeless or sad, not want to get out of bed, suffer from fears/phobias or anxiety attacks, see a therapist or take medication for bad or anxious moods, lose sleep, take unpaid leave, lose custody of one or more children, get divorced, suffer from infidelity, get charged with a crime linked to a mental illness, or experience other things.

It is important to know your rights when it comes to sexual harassment, employment discrimination, and retaliation for making complaints including hostile environments as retaliation. A free consultation can help you understand your rights and take action to protect them.

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