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What Is an Internal Complaint in a Sexual Harassment Case?

September 8th, 2022
Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Help Workers Who Have Experienced Sexual Harassment.

For decades, sexual harassment has been a constant and prevalent problem in the workplace. Although federal and state governments have passed numerous laws protecting workers from sexual harassment, it remains a serious problem that every employer has the responsibility to prevent.

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual behavior or advances in the workplace. If you have been sexually harassed at work, you need to know what steps to take, how to file an internal complaint, and how to protect yourself and your rights.

Sexual harassment can come in different forms. Although it mostly happens to women being harassed by men, sexual harassment can happen to both men and women, regardless of sexuality. There are two main types of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Hostile work environment: Creating a hostile work environment is when a worker, regardless of whether it is a peer, supervisor, or customer, makes unwelcome sexual comments or advances towards you, including but not limited to overtly sexual comments, repeated and unwelcomed requests for dates, offensive gestures, or offensive touching. The offense must be severe, meaning that it must occur often enough or is so pervasive that it creates a hostile work environment that affects your ability to do your job. Another form of hostile work environment sexual harassment can include your employer providing less favorable work conditions. This may include discriminatory hiring procedures, reduction in wages, demotions, termination, and so forth.
  • Quid pro quo: Quid pro quo sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor demands sexual contact in return for favorable promotions or benefits. It is still sexual harassment even if the target does not say “no,” as long as they have felt pressured or have felt embarrassed to say “no,” or was afraid to lose their job or will be punished for saying “no.”

Employers are obligated to take a sexual harassment claim seriously and must take appropriate action. Failing to abide by both federal and state laws could give the employer significant financial liabilities. Because sexual harassment claims are sensitive situations, employers must use discretion as best as possible, but not if discretion compromises the investigation.

If you are being sexually harassed at work, then there are a few steps you need to take in order to protect yourself and your rights:

  • Tell them to stop. The first step to take is to tell your harasser to stop in a clear and firm manner. This may be difficult for some to do but it tells the harasser that their behavior is unwelcome and inappropriate. This step is very important, especially if they continue to harass you and you decide to take formal action against them. If you feel threatened or if you feel that the confrontation will lead to you being harmed, then go to your supervisor instead.
  • File an internal complaint. Filing a sexual harassment claim to either your supervisor or Human Resources (HR) department is considered an internal complaint. This should be done if the harasser has ignored your message and continues their behavior. Many companies have an employee handbook that explains their sexual harassment policy and how to file a formal complaint. If they do not, discuss the matter with a supervisor or HR person. This is an important step in a sexual harassment claim because if this is not done, and the company is not aware of the harassment, then they would have no chance to stop it, which means you would lose the case in court.
  • Document everything. The time may come when you have to prove the harassment you are experiencing, either to your company, a federal agency, or the court. With this in mind, you need to document the harassment as best as you can. Keep everything that relates to the harassment: emails or offensive letters from the harasser, unwanted gifts, or unwelcomed notes, and so forth. If they are offensive materials posted at work, make copies of them. Note the dates and the frequency of when the harassment occurs and how it makes you feel. Include the names of everyone involved, including coworkers who you may have confided in or if they witnessed the harassment themselves. Be as specific as possible and how it has affected you and your job. You may want to keep other materials you may not think would be necessary, such as performance evaluations or personnel documents that may be used to retaliate against you, something that is also illegal. Do not exaggerate or misrepresent what happened.
  • Go to a federal or state agency. If you are unsuccessful with your claim with your company, your next step is to go to either the federal agency or state agency that enforces sexual harassment laws. Federally, it is the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) you would file a formal complaint with. If you intend to file a lawsuit, you must file a claim with the government first. The EEOC may prosecute the case themselves or will likely issue a Right-to-Sue letter to you which you would then give to a lawyer of your choice.

What Must an Employer Do?

Filing an internal complaint with your employer makes them aware of the harassment. This is important because if the harassment occurred between two employees, then the employer must have negligently failed to address and correct the harassment. If the harassment occurred between employee and their supervisor, according to the employer’s affirmative defense, the employer must prove two scenarios in order to not be held liable:

  • The employer was able to exercise reasonable care to prevent the behavior and correct the harassment right away.
  • The employee unreasonably failed to use any corrective opportunities offered by the employer.    

To prevent or correct sexual harassment in the workplace, there are a few things an employer must do:

  • Training: All employees, including managers and supervisors, must be trained on what workplace sexual harassment is, how it is illegal, and possible repercussions.
  • Monitoring: The employer must have an employee handbook or policies and procedures to prevent sexual harassment, and they must enforce or monitor those rules.
  • Reporting: There must be clear reporting procedures for sexual harassment complaints.
  • Investigating and correcting: The employer must promptly investigate any reports of sexual harassment and must do something to stop it, not only the one time, but for future occurrences. It is not acceptable if the employer decides to separate the harasser and the target by scheduling differently or placing them in different locations. These are referred to as adverse employment actions.

Time Limits for Sexual Harassment Claims

There are also time limits to filing sexual harassment claims:

  • Federal time limits: Before pursuing a lawsuit, you must first file your complaint with the EEOC within 300 days of when the harassment took place. The EEOC will investigate the case and may try to help reach a settlement to avoid a lawsuit in court.
  • State time limits: The time limit to file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission of your state is 180 days from when the harassment took place. If the harassment is an ongoing issue, then you have 180 days from the most recent incident. The Human Relations Commission will then investigate the case. If the complaint is valid, it may take action against your employer.

Philadelphia Employment Lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. Help Workers Who Have Experienced Sexual Harassment

If you are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, one of our dedicated Philadelphia employment lawyers at The Gold Law Firm P.C. can help you. Our legal team has years of experience and can help build your case and protect your rights. Call us at 215-569-1999 or fill out our online form for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.

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