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What Should I Do if I See a Co-Worker Being Sexually Harassed?

September 20th, 2021
Co-Worker Sexually Harassed

Workplace sexual harassment is a pervasive problem despite most employers putting workers through sexual harassment prevention training. Most people generally think of sexual harassment as a male boss or co-worker harassing a female worker for sexual favors. Although that certainly qualifies, the actual offense of sexual harassment is much more nuanced and could require the help of an experienced sexual harassment lawyer in especially bad cases.

When a worker is targeted with sexual harassment, it is not always clear regarding the best way to handle the matter. State and federal mechanisms are in place to address especially bad or ongoing cases of sexual harassment. But workers are not always aware of how best to use those resources.

When witnessing sexual harassment in the workplace, it is even less clear what the worker witnessing the harassment could do or even should do. Fortunately, state and federal laws provide harassed workers and witnesses with pathways to effectively address sexual harassment in the workplace.

Talk to the Victim First

Whenever witnessing sexual harassment, the first thing a worker should do is to talk to the victim. The victim might not realize sexual harassment occurred or otherwise does nothing to stop it. The offender also should be notified to ensure he or she knows the behavior has been witnessed and at least one person finds it offensive as well as disruptive in the workplace.

The general perception of sexual harassment is as old as time itself. A male worker, manager, or employer demands sexual favors from a female worker or applicant seeking a job. That is a classic example of a quid pro quo harassment in which sex is demanded in exchange for employment and better job assignments.

The federal government says sexual harassment goes beyond the typical quid pro quo. Sexual harassment also occurs whenever one or more other workers witnesses it and concludes the work environment has become hostile. Although that is a very subjective conclusion, it can be proved by witness statements, video or audio recordings, or copies of text messages or emails that include offensive and illegal statements that rise to the level of sexual harassment.

Hostile Work Environment Impacts Many Workers

A hostile work environment exists whenever a reasonable person would conclude that ongoing behavior, such as sexual harassment of a particular worker, has changed the way things work. Instead of performance and meeting or exceeding work expectations no longer being good enough, the potential for hostility toward one or more employees exists.

When a hostile workplace exists because of the sexual harassment of one or more workers, even those who are not immediate targets are victims of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. That is especially true when the discrimination is based on gender and does not have to involve unwanted sexual advances to rise to the level of unlawful sexual harassment.

How to Press Hostile Work Environment Claims

Even if a direct target of sexual harassment does nothing, a witness still can take action to either make an employer end it or face potential legal consequences at the federal and state levels. A witness to sexual harassment that is pervasive, extreme, or both is a victim of sexual harassment by extension because of the existence of a hostile work environment.

Documentation is key to pressing a successful sexual harassment claim. State and federal courts need to know that a worker notified the employer of unlawful harassment. The employer must have the opportunity to correct the matter before it rises to an actionable offense in court. If the job provider does nothing or too little and allows the problem to persist, the employer as well as the one or more offenders could be liable in state and federal courts.

Filing a Complaint at the State Level

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) investigates complaints of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. It also protects workers against retaliation for reporting unlawful acts and other wrongdoings that they witness while at work. That includes workers who witness sexual harassment, recognize a hostile work environment exists, and try to inform the employer to correct the matter.

The PHRC has offices that serve every county in Pennsylvania where victims of sexual harassment and those who witness it can file a formal complaint. Before filing a complaint, the employer must be given a chance to correct that problem. Whomever files the complaint with the PHRC first must notify the employer that a problem exists.

If the employer ignores the complaint or does not reasonably take steps to correct the matter, a formal record exists. That record is useful to help argue state and federal claims for workplace discrimination based on sex that created a hostile work environment. Because the employer did too little or nothing at all on receipt of a formal complaint, the employer faces potential liability.

The PHRC requires complaints to be filed no more than 180 days after the event in question occurs. Therefore, a state-level statute of limitations applies. The statute of limitations makes timing very important to successfully argue a sexual harassment claim in a Pennsylvania courtroom.

If the matter is an ongoing and pervasive problem, the statute of limitations virtually never expires. But if the matter were a one-time incident that was severe enough to warrant a complaint to the PHRC, the 180-day statute of limitations applies, with the clock starting on the date of the incident and when it was made known to the employer.

Filing a Complaint at the Federal Level

The U.S Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) also investigates complaints of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Whether the person complaining is a direct target of sexual harassment or someone who witnesses it, the EEOC is the federal authority charged with investigating and stopping such workplace abuses.

Federal courts will not accept sexual harassment or discrimination cases unless the EEOC has received a complaint and conducted an investigation into the matter. That investigation helps to produce credible information obtained by a neutral third party. It also affirms the employer was notified of the situation and did not provide a satisfactory or lawful response.

Tasking the Matter to Court

Once the issue is firmly documented with formal complaints made in the workplace and to the respective state and federal authorities, a case can proceed to state and federal courts. The Pennsylvania court system will rely greatly on filings with the PHRC as well as any EEOC investigation done at the federal level. The federal court would rely more on the EEOC investigation for relevant information but also weigh the results of the state-level investigation.

When victims of direct sexual harassment or witnesses who suffer the consequences of a hostile work environment create formal records at the state and federal levels, respective court systems are more willing to take on such cases. The state and federal investigators have greater legal power to obtain information and interview people related to the matter. That information would be available when filing respective civil lawsuits in federal and state courts.

Philadelphia Sexual Harassment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., Fight for the Rights of Victims

Whether directly targeted by sexual harassment or witnessing it in the workplace, its existence means you are working in a hostile environment. Sexual harassment occurs in many ways, and employers who ignore legitimate complaints or retaliate against workers who witness and report it are in violation of state and federal laws. The skilled Philadelphia sexual harassment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C., can help victims of sexual harassment and witnesses to press strong claims in state and federal courts. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, Montgomery County, and Cherry Hill, South Jersey.

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