A hostile work environment is one of the most common forms of employment discrimination, but many employees suffer from harassment in the workplace for long periods of time before anyone reports the harassment to human resources or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Intimidation is often a part of workplace harassment, with employers retaliating against employees who complain to scare other employees who have faced similar harassment out of filing their own complaints. Harassment of employees is against the law, and federal and state laws include sexual harassment within the definition of discrimination based on sex, which is a protected characteristic. The Houston sexual harassment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP can help you document instances of sexual harassment in your workplace and file a complaint with the relevant parties.
Seeing Past the Stereotypes About Sexual Harassment
Through the popular media and several high-profile cases, the public tends to have a mental image of sexual harassment in which older men in positions of authority in the organization harass younger female employees within their organization through unwanted flirtation and sexual advances. The women targeted by this harassment do not complain about it out of fear that they will lose their jobs and that their former supervisors will give them negative references when they apply for other jobs. In fact, this is only one of the many possible manifestations of sexual harassment. Any behavior directed at an employee because of the employee’s sex, gender presentation (perceived masculine, feminine, or androgynous appearance or behavior), or sexual orientation is sexual harassment if the people engaging in the behavior know that the behavior makes the targeted employee uncomfortable. The following are just a few examples of sexual harassment:
- A supervisor tells an employee that he will only give her a promotion if she kisses him (or sends him a nude photo of herself or goes on a date with him, etc.)
- Coworkers spread rumors about an employee being sexually promiscuous because of how she looks or dresses
- Coworkers tease an employee of either sex about being a virgin
- A gay man constantly criticizes a straight woman who works with him about her appearance
- A woman continues flirting with a man with whom she works closely, even though he has told her that he is married and does not welcome this flirtation
- Men in the workplace made lewd jokes in the presence of female coworkers, who never laugh at the jokes or reciprocate with jokes of their own
The first example is called quid pro quo sexual harassment. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “this for that.” Quid pro quo sexual harassment involves threats of retaliation, but other types of sexual harassment are equally disruptive to the work environment.
Importantly, the aggressor and the target of sexual harassment can be of any gender or sexual orientation. Do not assume that the behavior you are experiencing is not sexual harassment just because the person doing it is not someone with whom you could theoretically match on a dating site. For example, straight women can be the targets of sexual harassment by straight men, but they can also be the targets of sexual harassment by anyone else.
At What Point Does Unpleasant Behavior by Coworkers Become a Hostile Work Environment?
A hostile work environment is one where intimidating or offensive behavior is so frequent or pervasive that it interferes with the employee’s ability to fulfill his or her job duties. For example, if a coworker’s crude jokes or flirtatious behavior make you uncomfortable, and the coworker modifies her behavior after you tell her directly that it makes you uncomfortable, then the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) will probably not tell you that you have grounds for a sexual harassment complaint. If your work supervisors are obviously aware of the harassment and do nothing to stop it, or if they even participate in it, this is a hostile work environment. It is also a hostile work environment if the harassment worsens or the intimidation escalates after you complain to human resources.
How to File a Sexual Harassment Claim
The procedure for filing a claim about sexual harassment is the same as for filing a claim for any other kind of employment discrimination. The first step is to contact the EEOC, and the deadline for doing this is 45 days after the discriminatory event. In the case of sexual harassment, the discriminatory event could be a sexually suggestive email from a colleague or a conversation with a supervisor in which she threatened to fire you if you did not cheat on your wife with her, to name just a few examples. After a series of conversations between you and your EEOC counselor, the EEOC will determine whether your sexual harassment claim is strong enough to warrant the EEOC to pursue an investigation.
If the EEOC decides to conduct an investigation, it will attempt to corroborate your claims and find other evidence of sexual harassment in your workplace. Based on the outcome of the investigation, it may or may not authorize you to file an employment discrimination lawsuit. Only then can you file the lawsuit against your employer in court.
In employment discrimination cases, as with almost any other legal matter, the decision to represent yourself or to hire a lawyer belongs to you. Hiring an employment discrimination lawyer to represent you in a sexual harassment case is not a legal requirement, but it is a wise choice. The earlier you consult a lawyer, the better. The best time to contact an employment lawyer about sexual harassment in your workplace is before the first time you contact the EEOC. If you have already started communicating with the EEOC, hiring your own lawyer is still a good idea.
Contact HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP About Sexual Harassment Claims
The Houston employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys, LLP can help you file an employment discrimination claim related to sexual harassment in your workplace. Contact the employment lawyers at HKM Employment Attorneys LLP in Houston, Texas, to set up a consultation.