Sexual harassment: Everything you need to know
Sexual harassment claims and investigations
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Title VII applies to employers of 15 or more employees.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts define “sexual harassment” as unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that:
- Explicitly or implicitly affects a term or condition of an individual’s employment
- Unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work performance
- Creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment
Unlawful conduct does not necessarily involve sexual comments or behavior. Offensive conduct that is targeted at an individual because of his or her sex (e.g., derogatory comments about women) can also constitute unlawful harassment.
Whether an employer can be held liable for sexual harassment depends on a number of factors, including the harasser’s status (i.e., supervisor, co-worker, client, or vendor). Depending on the circumstances, an employer may be held liable for acts of sexual harassment by supervisors, nonsupervisory employees, and nonemployees.
Sexual harassment investigations
When an employer is made aware of a complaint by an employee of an alleged incident of harassment, it has a legal obligation to promptly investigate the complaint. In addition, if it is determined that inappropriate conduct has occurred, the employer must take immediate steps to stop the offending conduct and prevent future incidents of harassment. An employer must also investigate and address any harassment of which it becomes aware (e.g. information relayed by an employee other than the alleged victim), as it is legally responsible for taking appropriate remedial action, if necessary.
From the employer’s standpoint, the internal investigation should be conducted with the following goals in mind:
- To obtain a full, objective understanding of the facts
- To put an end to inappropriate or harassing conduct
If an employer does not understand the facts and takes immediate action to end any harassment in the workplace, it faces serious sanctions including significant monetary damages. At the same time, a prompt, objective, and fair investigation may resolve the problem before the employee feels it necessary to file a complaint with EEOC or the state civil rights agency. Finally, it is in the best interest of the employer to resolve problems quickly in order to avoid gossip and morale problems.
When an employee comes forward with a sexual harassment complaint, an employer cannot promise complete confidentiality. It will likely be necessary to disclose the individual’s name to the person accused of harassment and perhaps to other witnesses in order to investigate properly. However, it is important to maintain the highest level of confidentiality possible.
Until allegations of sexual harassment have been confirmed by an investigation, discretion also protects the alleged harasser. Failing to maintain confidentiality may increase the risk of a lawsuit by the alleged harasser against the employer, alleging defamation of character or invasion of privacy.