Sexual harassment is unfortunately still very prevalent in many workplaces, and being the victim of discrimination, especially when it affects your job and livelihood, can be devastating. If you’re wondering or worried if you’ve been the victim of harassment at work, this legal guide will help explain it. If you need help with suspected discrimination or just have a question, do not hesitate us to schedule an initial consultation (don’t worry — it’s free).

How does the law define “sexual harassment”?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gives you the right to work at a job that is free from harassment or discrimination because of your gender. This means that you should never be subjected to unwelcome sexual advances or demands for sexual favors. While those are the most obvious forms of sexual harassment, more innocuous, offhand comments can be considered “harassment” if they occur so often that they create a hostile work environment.

Who can be the harasser?

The harasser can be a man or a woman and does not have to be someone of the opposite gender. The harasser also does not have to be your supervisor; he or she can be a co-worker, client, or customer as well.

How can I enforce my rights under Title VII?

Title VII is only applicable to employers with more than 15 employees. If your employer is subject to Title VII, you must file a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) within 180 days of the discrimination. If the harassment is part of an ongoing practice, the 180 day limit starts on the last day of any such practice. EEOC filing is done online at this site.

Once you have filed your charge, the EEOC will alert your employer within the next 10 days that it is investigating your claim. EEOC will advise you if the charge is eligible for a proceeding called mediation. You can learn more about the mediation process at our legal guide here.

Your employer then has a chance to submit a position statement in response to your claim. Following the EEOC’s receipt of your employer’s position statement, the investigator may choose to pursue additional steps, including an on-site visit or request witness interviews. On average, it takes the EEOC 10 months to complete its investigation. Ultimately, the EEOC will make one of three determinations:

  • Dismissal and Notice of Rights – the EEOC was unable to conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that harassment occurred. The investigation will be dismissed and you will be given a Notice of a Right to Sue.

  • Letter of Determination – the EEOC determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that harassment occurred and is inviting the parties to resolve the dispute in an informal process called “conciliation”.

  • Notice of Right to Sue – If conciliation has failed and the EEOC has decided not to litigate, it will issue you a Notice of Right to Sue.

I have my Notice of Right to Sue. Now what?

Once you have received your Notice of Right to Sue, you may file a lawsuit in federal court within 90 days of its issuance. You cannot file a lawsuit for sexual harassment without first filing with the EEOC.

The EEOC is dragging its feet, can I get a Right to Sue letter earlier?

Yes. If the EEOC hasn’t issued a determination within 180 days of your filing, they are required to issue a Notice of Right to Sue upon your request.

If you request a Notice of Right to Sue before 180 days have passed, the EEOC may still issue the Notice if they will be unable to finish their investigation within the 180-day period.

What damages can I be awarded?

If you prevail in your lawsuit, you may be entitled to compensatory and punitive damages. Compensatory damages are intended to reimburse you for your out-of-pocket expenses caused by the harassment, including job search expenses, lost wages, and medical expenses. Punitive damages may be awarded in the case of an especially malicious employer. You may also be entitled to an award of your attorney’s fees, expert witness fess, and court costs.

What to do if you suspect discrimination

If you have been the victim of discrimination or if you just suspect discrimination, it is important that you take steps to protect yourself. One valuable resource is the EEOC that we mention above, but we are here for you too. Please do not hesitate to contact one of our experienced lawyers who you can speak to confidentially and at no charge.