An Overview of Sexual Harassment — What is it?

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and may include (1) any form of sexual comments, actions or conduct (2), which is hostile, intimidating or abusive. You have a right to work in an environment free from sexual harassment.

What persons may be considered sexual harassers?:

(1) a supervisor or any higher person in management with your employer;
(2) a co-worker at your job;
(3) third parties such as customers, vendors or other third parties that you deal with while in the course of performing your job;

Note: the harasser can be both a different sex or same sex as the victim (men can harass women and men, and women can harass men and women).

Common examples of sexual harassment:

(1) sexual comments, remarks, innuendos or jokes;
(2) offensive comments about a person’s body or appearance;
(3) offensive sexual images, videos, emails or pictures;
(4) offensive sexual gestures;
(5) demands for sexual favors;
(6) attempted or actual sexual touching;
(7) any other comments, actions or conduct of a sexual nature which is hostile, intimidating, abusive or unwelcome.

Employer Policies:

Most employer policies require that an employee who has witnessed sexual harassment or believes sexual harassment is occurring must make a report. If a report is not made, some employer policies say that the employee who did not make the report may be punished for not reporting possible sexual harassment.

It is unlawful for an employer to take any action against an employee who reports, in good-faith, possible sexual harassment or believes that sexual harassment is occurring. If you report any conduct that you believe may be sexual harassment and you suffer retaliation, this is likely illegal and you should seek legal consultation about your rights.

How to Report Suspected Sexual Harassment:

To your employer:

Many employer policies require that an employee who has witnessed sexual harassment or believes sexual harassment is occurring must make a report to either (1) the employer or (2) the state or federal government. If a report is not made, some employer policies say that the employee who did not make the report may be punished for not reporting possible sexual harassment.

Many employees are afraid to report sexual harassment even if their employer says they must make the report. For instance, some employees are concerned that if they report possible sexual harassment that they will get in trouble with the employer or supervisors, managers or co-workers. We often work with employees who are dealing with the decision of whether to report or not report their concerns.

To the government:

Kansas City and other Missouri employees have several options. The most common report is made to either (1) the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (State of Missouri) or (2) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (Federal Government), or (3) the Kansas City Human Relations Department (for employees working within the city limits of Kansas City, Missouri)

In nearly all cases, an employee should strongly consider meeting with a licensed attorney who regularly practices in this area of law before filing a formal report or “charge” with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

How soon do I have to make the report?:

In most cases, charges under Missouri law must be filed within 180 days of the unlawful conduct, actions or comments and under federal law must be filed within 300 days of the unlawful conduct.

Each case is different. In some cases it may be advisable to make a report right away, in other cases it may be advisable to wait so you need to evaluate your situation with a lawyer to determine the best course of action.

What can be done to stop the harassment:

Clients often tell us two things: (1) they want the sexual harassment to stop and (2) they want to make sure that the sexual harassment doesn’t happen again. Often our client’s primary concern is her or his safety and dignity, and the safety and dignity of others.

Sometimes, reporting through the employer’s internal process (if it exists) or reporting to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (state) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (federal) is all that is required to stop the harassment. Sometimes the employer will seriously discipline and/or terminate the sexual harasser.

Unfortunately, many times making a report isn’t enough, and legal action is required to enforce the law. Each situation is unique, which is why it is important to contact a licensed attorney who regularly practices in this area of law.

Taking Legal Action:

The usual first step in a case is to make an internal report with your employer. In some cases, the employee hires an experienced sexual harassment lawyer before the employee makes an internal report within the employer for sexual harassment. We strongly recommend that employees consult or hire a sexual harassment attorney before making an internal report. This is to ensure that the employee’s concerns are communicated in the best way to ensure legal protection from higher management or human resources.

Often when an employee files a report without a sexual harassment lawyer’s assistance, higher management or human resources will later claim that the report was made to the wrong person, wasn’t clear enough or offer other excuses about why they failed to respond to fix the problem. If the circumstances are serious enough to report sexual harassment then the circumstances are serious enough to consult or hire a sexual harassment lawyer to assist you.

You also can expect that the employer will have either an attorney or a highly experienced human resource manager who receives and reviews your report of harassment. The attorney or human resource manager will review and handle the report with the employer’s interests in mind and often will not conduct a true or fair investigation.

If an internal complaint of harassment does not solve the problem, the usual next step is to file a formal “charge” with the state or federal government. In most cases, the employee hires a licensed and qualified sexual harassment lawyer before making a formal report with the state or federal government. We strongly recommend that victims of harassment consult or hire a sexual harassment attorney before filing a charge.

This is because charges are your first opportunity to clearly state your factual and legal claims and concerns. Filing charges with the state and federal government is similar to filing a lawsuit in Court and you must be careful to use the correct wording or phrasing in the charge in order to best protect your rights. Often when an employee files charges without the help of a sexual harassment lawyer the employee’s claims may be rejected, or later the employee may be barred from filing her claims in Court. Therefore, remember, if your situation is so serious that you intend to file a charge for sexual harassment then your circumstances are serious enough to consult a sexual harassment attorney.

During the charge phase, the state or federal government will likely investigate the claims. The investigation may take as little as 30 days or as long as 12 months (or more). At any point during the investigation, the employee has the right to request that the state or federal government issue a letter approving that the employee can file a lawsuit in Court. This letter is called the “Right to Sue” letter. The state or federal government may choose to issue the Right to Sue letter or may choose to deny the request and continue investigating to determine if a Right to Sue letter should be issued.

Final once you receive your Notice of Right to Sue, you may proceed to file a lawsuit regarding sexual harassment. Filing such a suit is complex and requires guidance from an experienced sexual harassment attorney in order to best preserve your rights and legal remedies.

If you believe you have suffered or are experiencing sexual harassment, please contact the experienced sexual harassment lawyers at Siro Smith Dickson PC.