Victims of harassment have legal recourse
Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious matter. It can affect people's careers, safety, quality of life, and even their physical health. That's why victims of sexual harassment have protection under both federal and West Virginia law.
However, the process to report sexual harassment can be confusing and even frightening. If you are a victim or witness to sexual harassment in the workplace, here's what you need to know.
How to recognize sexual harassment
Sexual harassment is an umbrella term for a wide variety of unwelcome sexual behaviors in the workplace, ranging from jokes and comments to unwanted touching and other sexual behavior. Generally speaking, sexual harassment falls into two categories:
- Hostile work environment: a pattern of sexualized behavior in the workplace that makes the working environment unwelcome, offensive, or abusive. Hostile work environment claims can include jokes, comments, display of sexually explicit materials, innuendo, and more. The key is the pattern of behavior; usually, a single incident isn't enough, unless it is truly egregious.
- Quid pro quo: literally "this for that," quid pro quo sexual harassment involves a person in authority requesting sexual favors in exchange for a job benefit (promotion, raise, etc.) or to avoid a detriment (firing, demotion, etc.). Unlike a hostile work environment, a single incident is usually enough to support a claim for quid pro quo harassment.
Remember, sexual harassment can travel up, down, and across the organizational structure, and both the harasser and the victim can be of any gender and sexual orientation.
First, report the harassment internally
If you're considering taking legal action in response to sexual harassment, you need to report it internally first. If your employer has an established complaint procedure, follow it. Otherwise, tell your supervisor. If your supervisor is also the harasser, or if you otherwise have reason to believe that your supervisor won't be a safe person to report to, then you can talk to their supervisor or to human resources.
Reporting sexual harassment internally is a way to put your employer "on notice" that they need to put a stop to the harassing behavior — and you can hold them legally liable if they don't. It's best to put this in writing, both so that the company can't claim ignorance later, and to protect yourself from retaliation.
You have the right to ask what will be done to address your complaint. You can also ask for confidentiality, but bear in mind that once you report sexual harassment, your employer is legally required to act on the report, and it may not be possible to keep your name confidential as they investigate the report. It depends on the circumstances.
File a report with the appropriate federal or state agency
Violations of the federal Civil Rights Act's Title VII sexual harassment prohibitions are investigated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If your employer has 15 or more employees, you can file a complaint with the EEOC.
Violations of the West Virginia Human Rights Act, which prohibits sexual harassment, are investigated by the West Virginia Human Rights Commission (HRC). If you work for a private employer with at least 12 employees in West Virginia, or for any public employer in the state, then you can file a complaint with the HRC. Note, however, that the HRC cannot accept complaints against employers that are agents of the federal government; those complaints have to go to the EEOC.
Talk to an attorney about your legal rights and options
Usually, filing a report with the appropriate agency is a necessary step before you can take legal action. However, you can talk to an attorney before you file a report — in fact, you can even talk to a lawyer before you report the harassment internally. We've walked with many victims of sexual harassment through this difficult process. We can listen to your story and help you understand your rights and options.
Our discussion is fully confidential, and there's no obligation to file a report or take legal action. If you've been sexually harassed at work, contact us to speak with an experienced sexual harassment lawyer.