If there is one report that has consistently come up in the workplace globally, it is that of sexual harassment. A great number of women have reportedly been victims of one form of sexual harassment or the other. The situation has gotten to such a worrying capacity that in 2015, the EEOC received over 28,000 harassment claims for both private and public employers.

But what indeed is workplace sexual harassment? According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC), workplace sexual harassment is defined as an unwelcome sexual advance or conduct of a sexual nature which unreasonably interferes with the performance of a person’s job or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

For an action to be considered as sexual harassment, it must be unwelcome by the receiving party or the victim. It is helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and he or she must stop. This aspect is usually considered first whenever a sexual harassment dispute is filed.

Sexual harassment does not always have to be of a sexually suggestive nature. An action can be considered sexual harassment if it is based on your sex or gender. If you are a woman working in a male dominated environment, and you are often singled out for harsh criticism and verbal abuse even though your job performance is the same as your male co-workers, the law sees it as sexual harassment, and you should too.

Sexual harassment in the workplace can manifest itself in any form, from unsolicited touching, to persistent offensive sexual innuendos. Though women are the most obvious, and i dare say, most outspoken victims of sexual harassment, but a good number of men have also been victims of this issue.

Sexual harassment is also seen as a form of sex discrimination, as outlined under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under Title VII, there are two recognized types of sexual harassment – the quid pro quo and the hostile work environment.

The quid pro quo form of harassment usually involves someone in authority, usually a supervisor, or maybe a small business owner who expects a subordinate or employee to accept sexual harassment as one of the conditions to keep his or her job, promotions and raises. Hostile work environment harassment on its own part usually involves unwelcome conduct based on sex, and it is severe or pervasive enough to create an abusive or offensive working environment.

It really doesn’t matter who carries out the act; it may be a manager, co-worker, or even a non-employee like a client, contractor, or vendor. What matters is that if the person’s conduct creates a hostile work environment or interrupts an employee’s success, it is considered unlawful sexual harassment.

Forms of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is never limited to making inappropriate advances. For you to be able to fight sexual harassment, you ought to know what constitutes workplace sexual harassment in the first place.

It usually includes;

  • Sending sexually suggestive letters, notes, or e-mails
  • Displaying images or posters that connotes sex in the workplace
  • Requesting sexual favors
  • Telling lewd jokes, or sharing sexual anecdotes, and or making someone the victim of it
  • Making lewd sexual gestures
  • Following a person around
  • Staring at a colleague in a sexually suggestive or offensive manner
  • Whistling in a suggestive way at a co-worker
  • Sharing sexually inappropriate images or videos, such as pornography or salacious Gifs with co-workers
  • Making sexual comments about appearance, clothing, or body parts
  • Inappropriate touching, including pinching, patting, rubbing, or purposefully brushing up against another person
  • Asking sexual questions such as inquiries about someone’s sexual history or their sexual orientation
  • Making offensive comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • Impeding or blocking someone’s movement
  • Inappropriate touching of a person’s body or clothing
  • Kissing, hugging, patting or stroking
  • Assaulting (touching someone against her will or without her consent)
  • Looking up and down or staring at a person’s body;
  • Making derogatory gestures or facial expressions of a sexual nature
  • Repeatedly asking a person to socialize during off-duty hours when the person has said no or has indicated that he or she is not interested
  • Giving gifts or leaving objects that are sexually suggestive for the person
  • Off duty, unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that affects the work environment, etc.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but the bottom-line here is that if your actions or words spoken with sexual connotation affect an employee’s ability to work, or create an uncomfortable atmosphere, then it is considered sexual harassment.

It is also worthy of note that victims of sexual harassment may not only be the target or the person directly affected by the offense, but anyone who is affected by the inappropriate behavior. That is, a co-worker standing nearby when the sexual comments were uttered may be affected, even if the comments aren’t directed toward them.

A need to know

A lot of sexual harassment cases usually don’t get reported because the victims fear retaliation either from the workplace or from their harasser, especially if he or she is a superior. But one thing you should know is that if you report sexual harassment, you are legally protected from retaliation. This means that your employer cannot sack you, demote you or take away your job responsibilities, especially if he or she has never had any prior issues with you on that.

Again, it is most preferable to report sexual harassment as soon as possible after it happens. This does not mean that you should go directly to the human resources office immediately it happens; it just means that you should report it within a reasonable time frame.

This is because legally, you have one year from the last act of harassment or misconduct to file a state claim, and 300 days from the last act to file with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Different states have different deadlines, and they may vary if it’s a claim against a public or federal employee.

But regardless of how long the incident took place; your company is still required by law to investigate it in order to save other employees from same fate. Even if you don’t work at a company anymore, you can choose to send them a mail or a letter informing them of the employee and his or her actions.

How to Report Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment has endured in the workplace because most people don’t know what constitutes harassment, and even if they knew, they do not know what to do about it. It has been found out that sexual harassment if reported, is enough to stop the person from carrying on with his or her pranks, and thus save other workers from further torment.

For people who are going through one form of sexual harassment or the other, here are a few steps you can take to report it.

  1. Make sure the action is unwanted

One of the things that make actions, words and suggestions sexual harassment is if they are unwanted. If you feel you are being harassed but you say nothing to your offender, he or she may take it that you like it, and no court of law would uphold your claim if you have never spoken up against a harassment.

So, the first thing to do when faced with harassment is to speak up against it. Say ‘No’ clearly and mean it. Tell the person that his or her behavior offends you and firmly refuse all invitations made to you unless they are work related. Though this action may not stop someone intent on sexual harassment, but it would help you put a foot in the door when reporting your case.

2. Document everything

When you experience actions that can be termed sexual harassment, and telling the person to that you do not like his or her actions doesn’t seem to be yielding any fruits; then you have to start jotting everything down. This is done because there is every likelihood that you would need the evidence.

You should write down the dates, places, times, and possible witnesses to what happened. Where it is possible, ask any witnesses around to also write down what they saw. It is a good idea to keep the record at home or in some other safe place to avoid it falling in the wrong hands, or to avoid you misplacing it. Do not keep the record at your workplace.

3. Go to a higher authority

When the harassment has gotten to the point that it affects your peace of mind at the workplace, then you have to consider coming out of your shell and reporting to a higher authority.

This higher authority might be your supervisor, your human resources department or some other department or person within your organization who has the power to stop the harassment. You may be asked in some instances to put it in writing to make it more official.

This stage is where some people may start developing cold feet, and start wondering if the action of the person is enough to warrant going to a higher authority; or if reporting them would threaten their jobs. But you have to know that if nothing is done about harassment, it would go on forever.

4. Keep a Paper Trail

When you report the sexual harassment to your employer, you have to do it in writing. Describe the problem and how you want it to be resolved. This creates a written record of when you complained and what happened in response to it. Keep copies of everything you send and receive from your employer.

5. Find out your office policy on filing grievance and complaints

A lot of employers have laid down procedures on how they handle grievances and sexual harassment complaints. To find out your employer’s policies, look for or ask to see a copy of your employee manual, any written personnel policies, and/or speak to someone in the human resources department, if one exists.

Most times, it is possible to use these procedures to stop the harassment and resolve the problem. Following your employers complaint procedures would make them know that you have a genuine case and you are also serous about taking it to any level if it is not resolved.

6. Get the union involved

If the above forms of resolution are not proceeding as you would like, then it may be time to involve the union in you workplace; that is if you have them. You should file a formal grievance through the union and try to get a shop steward or other union official to help you work through the grievance process.

Have it at the back of your mind that if you use your union’s grievance procedure, you would still file a complaint (or “charge”) of discrimination with a government agency before filing a lawsuit in federal or state court.

The union could help you go through the collective bargaining document that was signed with your employer to see if your grievance was treated there. If it was treated, then they would simply use the methods outlined there to resolve the issue.

7. File a Discrimination Complaint with a Government Agency

Because you filed a grievance with your union, filing a discrimination complaint with a government agency is the next logical step to follow. This procedure is usually followed if your grievance is yet to be resolved.

If you want to file a lawsuit in federal or state court, you must first file a formal sexual harassment complaint (or “charge”) with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at www.eeoc.gov. If you are a federal employee, follow federal guidelines on how to file a sexual harassment complaint.

8. Act fast

There are such things as legal deadlines for filing a formal complaint or charge of discrimination with government agencies. Under federal law, you have 300 days from an act of sexual harassment to file a complaint with the EEOC.

Under your state’s fair employment law, if one exists in your state, you may have as few as 180 days to file a complaint. Again, you cannot bring a lawsuit against your employer unless you have first filed a complaint with the EEOC or the agency that enforces your state’s employment discrimination laws.

This shows that you have less time on your hands, and the more time you spend twiddling your fingers and wondering if you are doing the right thing, the more time slips away from you and you may not get the opportunity to obtain justice for the infringement of your rights.

9. Go to court

After you have filed a formal complaint with the EEOC and/or your state’s fair employment agency, you may also consider filing a lawsuit. The remedies or relief you can seek in a lawsuit will differ one way or the other, but can include money damages, getting your job back (if you’ve been fired or transferred to another position), and/or making your employer change its practices to prevent future sexual harassment from occurring. If you are thinking about filing a lawsuit, you should contact a lawyer to assist you.

Ajaero Tony Martins