The issue of confidentiality in sexual harassment complaints is complicated. An allegation of sexual harassment must be taken seriously by the employer and thoroughly investigated. The accuser may want to stay anonymous for fear of retaliation. The accused stands to lose their position of employment, and their reputation could be tarnished, even if they are cleared of any charges made against them.
While conversations with Human Resources (HR) should be kept confidential, complete privacy cannot be guaranteed during an investigation of a sexual harassment complaint because interviews with witnesses must be conducted. However, guarding the privacy of the parties involved at every stage of the process is extremely important.
What is Workplace Sexual Harassment?
Any pervasive or severe undesired sexual attention or behavior at work that is hostile, intimidating, or uncomfortable to a worker is considered sexual harassment. Women are commonly thought of as the only victims of sexual harassment, but harassment can be aimed at a person of any gender and perpetrated by a person of any gender. Any behavior or action that intimidates or makes someone extremely uncomfortable is forbidden in the workplace.
Sexual harassment can take many forms and may occur as unwanted sexual advances, offensive touching, discussions of intimacy that make others uncomfortable, or requests for sexual favors. A harasser may explicitly or implicitly make submission to the unwanted behavior to advance in the workplace. Often, the consequence negatively affects the victim’s work performance.
What Protections Do Employees Have in the Workplace?
In the United States, almost all private and public employees are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which deems that sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act also makes it possible for victims of sexual harassment to sue for damages.
Only those working in small companies that employ fewer than 15 employees remain unprotected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Such employees may be protected by state laws. In Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) handles sexual harassment complaints in the workplace and in public accommodations on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
What Should I Do if I Have Experienced Sexual Harassment at My Workplace?
The first step for a worker who has experienced sexual harassment is to report the behavior to a supervisor or to the HR office. Employers are required by law to investigate complaints and take action to remedy the problem if sexual harassment has occurred.
Victims must also speak up and tell the harasser directly to stop the offensive behavior. Document the date and time the incidents were reported and when the harasser was asked to stop. The incidents should also be documented as much as possible, including any texts, calls, recorded messages, or emails from the harasser. If anyone witnessed any incidents, their accounts can be crucial to substantiating a claim.
Victims in Pennsylvania can file a complaint with the PHRC within 180 days of the alleged act of harassment. For those working at a business with more than 15 employees, a complaint must be filed with the EEOC within 300 days.
Are EEOC Complaints Kept Confidential?
The EEOC is the federal agency that is charged with enforcing federal discrimination laws. Complaints to the EEOC must be made within 300 days of the incident. The EEOC keeps information confidential, but in order to start an investigation, the name of the person filing the charge must be disclosed to the employer as well as the allegations of sexual harassment. The EEOC is required to do so within 10 days of the filing date. While information may be shared by the EEOC with the parties involved, any information about the charges being made will never be shared with the public.
A complaint filed with the EEOC must have the person’s name on it and be signed by them. The EEOC then informs the employer of the complaint so that they can answer the charges. Someone who wishes to remain anonymous may have charges filed on their behalf by a third party. The third party’s name must be on the complaint, and the employer will be given their information. However, in an investigation that is carried out in this way, it still may be difficult to remain anonymous because of the circumstances of the complaint.
Sexual Harassment Claims and Non-Disclosure Agreements
Non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) became very familiar to the public at the advent of the Me Too movement, when many victims of sexual harassment revealed that they had never been allowed to tell their stories after signing an NDA. Typically, NDAs have been used by employers to prevent damaging stories about their workplace culture from being publicized. Victims of sexual harassment were offered compensation with the condition that they sign an agreement not to disclose the details of what happened to them.
Critics of NDAs are concerned that confidentiality agreements can be used to silence victims while allowing the harassment to continue. Others feel that the promise of confidentiality is the victim’s only form of leverage against their employer. Sexual harassment claims can be difficult to prove, and many employers have the financial means to go to trial, while victims do not.
The incentive of settling the case with a confidentiality agreement is the only tool an employee may have at hand to receive compensation. Additionally, the employee may personally wish for the details of the harassment to remain confidential to avoid reliving the trauma of the event by having to recount what happened in public. A confidential settlement can also include mutual non-disparagement provisions that can help the victim as they seek new employment.
Compensation for sexual harassment must take into account the incredible damage inflicted on victims. The effects of sexual harassment are long-term and can impact a person financially, emotionally, and physically. Victims should seek back pay for lost opportunities at work, front pay if they are unable to return to work, compensation for pain and suffering, and compensation for medical issues resulting from the harassment.
How can Sexual Harassment be Prevented?
Employers have a responsibility to maintain a workplace that is safe and free of harassment and discrimination. There are many steps employers can take to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. Every business or organization should have a sexual harassment policy, ongoing education and training for employees, and a reporting system that employees can use without fear of retaliation.
Every employee should understand what constitutes sexual harassment, the company policy regarding sexual harassment, and how to report any incidents. The workplace should be monitored, and comments regarding the work environment should be encouraged, including any regarding sexual harassment.
Establishing a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and quickly investigating any complaints will make it clear to employees that enforcement of the company policy is serious. Posting the policy in a prominent place and distributing it to all employees will further emphasize its importance.
Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Fight for the Rights of Workplace Sexual Harassment Victims
State and federal laws prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. If you have suffered sexual harassment at your job, contact one of our Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. today. Our experienced team will investigate the circumstances of your case and give you legal guidance. Call us at 215-569-1999 or complete our online form to schedule a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we represent clients throughout South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.