Sexual Harassment Happens More Frequently Than EEOC Complaints Indicate

Every year, thousands of employees file claims of sex discrimination with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Many of the claims include allegations of sexual harassment, a form of sex discrimination. Male and female workers can be victims of harassment, but the truth is that the vast majority of sexual harassment complaints come from women. One study shows, however, that the formal EEOC complaints represent only a small fraction of how much sexual harassment truly occurs in the workplace.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination because of sex, religion, age, race, and other protected characteristics. It also prohibits employers from retaliating against any employee who tries to enforce his or her rights under the law. Retaliation is an adverse employment action, such as termination, demotion or targeting, taken because an employee reported, complained about or otherwise tried to stop discrimination. Claims of retaliation can strengthen claims of discrimination.

Examples of Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

Under Title VII, discrimination includes harassment. Harassment can occur in different ways. Sexual harassment, for instance, can happen when a person with authority conditions an aspect of employment on the performance of a sexual act; or when lewd conduct is pervasive or severe enough to create a hostile work environment. The following may be examples of sexual harassment/sex discrimination:

  • Your boss says he will fire you if you refuse to have sex with him.
  • Your co-worker sends you pornographic emails despite your requests that she stop doing so.
  • You report sexual harassment to human resources, and when your boss finds out he suggests you “be more of a team player,” or he will transfer you to another office.
  • Your colleagues make repeated comments about your hot body and the way you dress. They think they are complimenting you, but it makes you uncomfortable.

When you experience sexual harassment or retaliation, you can file a complaint with the EEOC and potentially a civil lawsuit against your employer. Harassment and retaliation are two separate claims, and both may result in significant monetary damages. In addition to back wages, you may also receive reinstatement, a promotion or raise to reverse the effects of an adverse employment action.

Women Don’t Report Most Sexual Harassment, Study Shows

Title VII and similar laws prohibit retaliation and provide remedies for employees specifically to encourage people to come forward, file claims, and cooperate with investigations. For anti-discrimination legislation to be effective, employees must feel confident that they can take action to protect their rights. And many do. But, according to an analysis of studies by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of the British Columbia Sauder School of Business, “only a quarter to a third of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative, and 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint.”

Women Fear Retaliation

An article in the New York Times discusses the study and possible reasons for the low number of official complaints about sexual harassment. The primary reason, according to the researchers, is the fear of retaliation. The analysis found that while some victims discuss the problems with close friends or family members, the most common responses to sexual harassment are to avoid the perpetrator, downplay the conduct or ignore it. Women also felt:

  • Concern that they will receive the label of “troublemaker” and become “unhireable”
  • The more frequent or more pervasive the harassment, the less likely anyone is to try and stop it.
  • Because of the risk of economic loss to the company, a business will never hold a high performing or “superstar” harasser accountable for his or her actions.

It seems that, according to this study, most women think the risk of facing repercussions from reporting sexual harassment is greater than the reward.

Employees Unsure About What Sexual Harassment Is

The study results yielded something else that is worth mentioning. A review of 55 surveys found that approximately 25% of women reported having experienced sexual harassment. When asked about whether they experienced specific behaviors, however, the percentage “roughly doubles.” About 50% of the women responded yes when asked if they endured inappropriate touching or pressure to engage in sexual activity and favors but apparently not all of the respondents knew the behavior was sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment includes things like unwelcome sexual advances, unwanted touching, lewd jokes, sexually charged comments, slurs, the distribution of sexual pictures and more. It can also be when a supervisor conditions an aspect of employment on the performance of a sexual favor.
Perhaps employees would benefit from some education about their rights in the workplace and what conduct the law prohibits.

Unfortunately for women who downplay sexual harassment, companies may use that failure to report to prove the harassment did not exist, or the claimant has underlying motives for filing a complaint. An employer may also allege that if a victim did not report the conduct, it could not have caused any real harm.

Contact Us

Do companies need better procedures, policies, and training to make it easier for employees to speak up about sexual harassment? Do employees need education programs to help them understand what explicit conduct Title VII prohibits? Are anti-retaliation laws doing enough to encourage employees to come forward and exercise their legal rights?

These are complex questions with no simple answers, but one thing is clear. Employees DO have rights to be free from sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation. Exercising your rights is not always easy, but there is help available if you need it.

Leeds Brown Law, P.C., employment lawyers representing workers throughout New York City and the surrounding areas, have spent decades helping employees file claims for sexual harassment and discrimination. If you are looking for experienced and dedicated advocates to assist you with an EEOC claim, settlement negotiations or a civil lawsuit, call Leeds Brown today. You can reach us 24/7at 1-800-585-4658.