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Forms of workplace sexual harassment and how to take action

With workplace sexual harassment taking on many different forms, it's not always easy to pinpoint it and take immediate action to protect your legal rights. Instead, you may find yourself wondering what's happening, how to proceed and whether you should speak up.

Generally speaking, workplace sexual harassment is any conduct of a sexual nature or unwelcome sexual advance that interferes with your ability to do your job and/or creates a hostile or intimidating workplace.

While no two acts of workplace sexual harassment are identical, here are some of the most common forms:

  • Inappropriate touching
  • Quid pro quo, such as asking an employee for a sexual favor in exchange for keeping their job, a promotion or something else of value
  • Digital sexual harassment, such as sending lewd photos or text messages
  • Inappropriate, sexually charged comments

When reviewing your situation with an eye toward deciding what to do next, take into consideration the factors courts examine when determining if your claim is valid:

  • Whether you were the victim of physical or verbal sexual harassment (or both)
  • Frequency of the behavior
  • The number of people involved in the harassment
  • If the harasser was a supervisor, co-worker, client or someone else

What can you do?

As a victim of workplace sexual harassment, you're likely to have a strong understanding of what's gone wrong and how it's affecting your ability to work.

However, since it's often your word against the harasser's word, you should take notes regarding their behavior while also collecting evidence.

For example, if your harasser sent you a disturbing email, keep it for your records. Or if a co-worker was present while the harassing occurred, ask them for a statement.

The first thing you should do is clearly tell the person they've crossed the line. From there, file a formal complaint with your HR department, based on the procedure outlined in your employee handbook.

If you hit a dead end, it may be time to get the government involved, such as by filing a civil lawsuit under Title VII.

As a victim of sexual harassment at work, it's critical to understand your company's policy on this and your legal rights. The knowledge you collect will help you fight back in the appropriate manner.

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