Suing Your Boss for Sexual Harassment
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
Sexual harassment is more common than people like to think. If the #metoo campaign has told us anything it has told us that. In light of the recent disclosures, many people – mostly women – might feel more empowered than ever to pursue claims against their abusers. Thus, the question emerges: can a person sue her employer for sexual harassment? As a matter of fact, yes, an employee can file suit against her superior for sexual harassment, but in order to do so effectively, there are a few basic steps that should be taken at the outset.
Tell the Harasser
To begin with, it’s important to address the issue head-on. In some cases, the harasser may not even know that he is harming you. Bringing it to his attention might embarrass him to such a degree that he ceases the problematic behavior. Others might be well aware of the offensive conduct. Broaching the subject with these people can, at the very least, put them on alert and perhaps prevent further occurrences.
Of course, some people are more persistent than others. If they don’t get the hint, the next step is to review your company’s employee manual. Larger organizations usually keep a manual on hand. Take this book home and study it. It’s better to be equipped and ready than lost and confused. Of course, in a just world, the onus would be on the harasser – and not the person who has been harassed – to take the appropriate measures to stop the abuse.
Reporting the Event
The manual should contain instructions on how to file a complaint. This could come in handy if you end up needing to file a claim. First, you may want to bring the incident to the attention of the Human Resources department. If that’s not a possibility or if your harasser is your superior, you should notify someone higher on the food chain. By telling someone else, you’re arming yourself for potential litigation in the future. Failure to report the event could reflect poorly on you in later proceedings.
In addition to verbally reporting the incident, you should file a formal complaint, using the manual as your guide. Once again, this will come in handy down the line if you decide to pursue legal action against your employer.
One of the most important things to do – when it comes to harassment litigation – is to keep thorough records of anything pertaining to the event. If you have exchanged emails or text messages with this person, keep these. If you have a recording of the incident, log it away. If there are witnesses, approach them and ask them if they’d feel comfortable corroborating your story. Also, be sure to maintain records of the initial complaint. That means keeping track of who you told and when.
At any point during the process, the harasser may choose to stop his offensive behavior. If the behavior continues, you should consider filing a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commissions (EEOC). If the EEOC confirms that your claims are valid, it will likely send a Notice of a Right to Sue. If that happens, you can begin the process of filing a lawsuit. You should know that the EEOC has fairly strict standards for what counts as actionable harassment. The EEOC website lists two criteria:
- The harassment is a condition of employment
- The harassment is “severe and pervasive” enough that the work atmosphere is rendered “intimidating, hostile, or abusive.”
For this reason, it is always advisable to consult with an experienced employment law attorney early in the process.
Federal Court Ruling
We have, in part, a federal court case to thank for this state of affairs. In the 90s, a federal judge ruled that a woman who suffered consistent harassment at work did not have grounds for a lawsuit. The perpetrator – a supervisor – attempted to kiss the woman, asked her out on dates, wrote inappropriate cards and placed them on her desk, used derogatory language to describe her, and touched her inappropriately. The judge’s ruling was upheld on appeal, and ever since then, courts have used that case as a reference point.
If you’ve been harassed and want to pursue legal action, it might be a good idea to consult with a sexual harassment attorney who understands your state’s procedures. A competent lawyer can help you obtain compensation for emotional injury, lost income, reduced benefits and other related costs.