Legally, workplace sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination, so sexual harassment is illegal across the country. Generally, these federal (national) laws apply only to employers with 15 or more employees, but your state might have better laws that cover smaller employers.
- Sexual harassment is illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) makes it illegal for employers to allow anyone to be sexually harassed at work by anyone else, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.
- Sexual harassment can happen to anyone. It is about power, not sexual desire. So for example, men who identify as straight can sexually harass other men – for example, by teasing or bullying those men for being “too feminine” or “acting gay.” (For examples of sexual harassment, see the What Is It? section above.)
- Title VII applies to employers. It is designed to make employers accountable for providing a work environment that is free from harassment and other kinds of discrimination. It does not make it illegal for someone to harass someone else. Instead, it makes it illegal for employers to allow harassment to occur or to fail to stop it once they know it’s happening. So this civil rights law does not give you a right to sue an individual person – unless that individual person is your employer.
- Retaliation is also illegal. It’s illegal for someone at work to retaliate against (punish) you for reporting or speaking out against sexual harassment, or for participating in an investigation or legal action related to sexual harassment. Examples of retaliation in the workplace include being fired or demoted, receiving a pay cut or a reduction in your hours or benefits, being assigned a different shift, location, position, receiving new or different duties, or being asked to take time off without pay. Retaliation can also be subtle, build up, or get worse over time. Examples include being iced out by coworkers, no longer being invited to meetings, or being left off of communications you were formerly on.
- If you report sexual harassment, your employer cannot ignore you or retaliate against you. If a boss or someone in HR knows about the harassment, or should know that you are being harassed, legally, they must take prompt action to try to stop the behavior, investigate the harassment, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The action also has to be “appropriate” and effective, meaning it has to actually make the harassment stop, without harming you or allowing you to become a target of retaliation.
- If you complained or told your boss, HR, or another manager about sexual harassment, and they failed to do anything to make the situation better (or made it worse), you could consider taking legal action.
- To speak with a legal advocate about your options for legal action.