An introduction to illegal sexual harassment in the workplace

Employers have the legal duty to protect applicants and employees from sexual harassment at work.

Sexual harassment in employment is unlawful under federal and state laws as a form of discrimination based on sex or gender. A job applicant or employee can be the victim of sexual harassment inflicted by a manager or supervisor, a coworker or another person in the workplace like a supplier, customer, service provider or contractor.

Sexual harassment can be done by a person of either gender against either an opposite- or same-sex victim. Such illegal behavior comes in two main categories: quid pro quo (meaning "this for that") and hostile workplace environment.

Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when an employer or supervisor makes an implied or explicit request for a sexual favor as a condition of receiving a positive employment action such as to be hired, promoted or offered a plum assignment. The sexual request can also be conditioned on a threat to otherwise take negative employment action (firing, demotion, pay cut and so on) if the favor is not granted.

An unlawfully hostile work environment can be created in many ways and develops when the harasser displays verbal, written, visual or physical conduct that is sexual in nature, unwelcome and interferes with the victim's work performance or results in a hostile, intimidating or offensive work environment. Examples of such behavior might include:

  • Unwanted touching, assault or rape
  • Stalking behavior such as repeated phone calls or requests for dates
  • Written or verbal off-color comments
  • Pornography or explicit images online or in print
  • Improper emails or written material
  • Leering
  • Physical blocking or positioning the body inappropriately close to another person
  • Crude humor

Such behavior may be illegal whether it is directed at one victim or results in harassment of bystanders or others in the workplace. For behavior to create a hostile environment, it must be either severe or repeated over time. In other words, one rape would be harassment; one off-color joke would likely not be, but if crude humor was spoken daily for a long time, it might rise to the level of a hostile environment.

If you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, speak to an attorney as soon as possible about what is going on at work. Legal counsel can provide advice about how to react to the treatment, whether and how to report it to management, whether quitting is an option, keeping records of what happens, and your potential legal remedies, including important deadlines and procedural requirements for preserving rights.

The interaction of federal and state anti-discrimination laws is extremely complex and may involve coordination between state and federal agencies, investigations and courts. You may need to first file a complaint with an agency to gain the right to file a lawsuit. Deadlines can be strict and are relatively short, so do not delay taking action. (Federal employees have special procedures that must be followed that include filing complaints with the government agencies that employ them.)

Talk to your lawyer about the differences between state and federal sexual harassment laws in your situation. For example, sometimes state law applies to a small employer that federal law does not control, or the available damages (such as back pay, reinstatement, damages for physical or psychological harm and so on) may be better in your situation under either state or federal law.

The Washington, D.C., attorneys at Alan Lescht and Associates, P.C., represent employees in sexual harassment and other discrimination cases in D.C., Virginia and Maryland, and federal workers nationwide.