Can You Sue for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?


Kimberly Dawn Neumann

Speaking up about unwanted sexual advances is no longer taboo, but what if it happens at your place of employment? How do you handle this situation? And if it’s particularly egregious, you may wonder, can you sue for sexual harassment in the workplace?

The short answer is yes. Thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment is illegal in the workplace. Title VII specifically states that employers cannot allow anyone to experience sexual harassment regardless of gender, age, or sexual preference.

Even with state and federal laws in place, sexual harassment still happens. However, you do have options beyond staying silent. Read on for more information about what qualifies as sexual harassment, and ways you can fight back.

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What Counts as Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace commonly takes on the following forms:

  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Unwanted sexual advances
  • Unwarranted verbal comments of a sexual nature
  • Inappropriate physical touching
  • Sending sexually explicit photos, emails, or other communications
  • Conversations about sexual fantasies or past exploits
  • Sexual violence

Even if your case is different, most sexual harassment claims get categorized into two categories: quid pro quo harassment and hostile work environment claims.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo directly translates to “this for that” in Latin. In employment law, the term is used when employees must perform sexual acts to avoid a tangible adverse action from their higher-ups. A tangible adverse action harms your career in any way, like a demotion or termination from the company.

Quid pro quo happens in reverse as well, when workers perform sexual acts for their employers to gain career opportunities, money, or benefits.

This type of sexual harassment may also take place during the hiring process, where a job is offered, but the interviewer requires sexual favors to secure the position.

All of these are examples of quid pro quo, and none of them are legal in the workplace. Quid pro quo harassment is a type of sex discrimination prohibited by federal law, and should be punished accordingly.

Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment occurs when a boss or coworker’s conduct negatively affects an employee’s ability to do their job. If there’s a sexual harassment component, then the comments or actions typically revolve around the person’s gender, identity, or preferences.

Examples of sexual harassment that contributes to a hostile work environment might include:

  • Jokes making fun of someone’s sexual or gender identity
  • Inappropriate gestures or non-verbal communication
  • Gender-related teasing
  • Unwanted touching or physical/sexual advances
  • Unsolicited photos or lewd communications
  • Offensive comments about someone’s body, clothes, or appearance

No one should have to undergo these types of degradations at their place of employment. Especially if it’s impeding their ability to do quality work.

That’s why it’s very important for anyone experiencing hostile on-the-job actions like these to contact a lawyer. Yes, suing the employer is one option, but there may be other actions a person can take as well.

How to Sue Your Employer for Sexual Harassment

If you have been the victim of sexual harassment in your workplace, you may have grounds to sue your employer. Remember that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects you from sexual harassment at work.

However, before you just launch into a civil lawsuit, you must first issue a complaint to your supervisor or appropriate department. Most companies have an HR representative who handles such complaints per your workplace handbook.

Typically, that department will investigate your grievance. After gathering evidence, whoever oversees your complaint will make a determination if your claim is valid. 

That’s why it’s important for you to keep records like securing a witness testimony to support your case. If you don’t have any “backup,” it doesn’t mean your claim will be unsuccessful. But in that situation, it will come down to your word against someone else’s, lowering your chances of success.

If the situation remains unresolved via the appropriate channels at work, then it’s time to consult with an attorney. However, keep in mind that in any court situation, you must have ample evidence to present to the jury.

If you don’t have any witnesses, you’ll have to produce a very convincing story or some other type of evidence. Your attorney will help you organize your info to legitimize your case to the judge and jury.

Reporting Sexual Harassment to the EEOC

There is another important step after going beyond your company’s HR guidelines. That is filing an official complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC is the government agency responsible for enforcing federal anti-harassment laws. If your efforts at following company protocol have been unsuccessful, the EEOC is where you should go. That way you’ll have records with your company and also the government if you later take your case to court.

You can fill out this form online via the EEOC website, or a lawyer can help you prepare your claim. Note that it must be done within 180 days of the incident.

If the agency cannot resolve the issue with the offender, then you’ll receive a “right to sue” notification. Essentially, if the EEOC supports your claim’s validity, that’s your green light to proceed with a sexual harassment legal case.

Types of Damages in a Sexual Harassment Claim

If you continue to sue for sexual harassment in the workplace and your claim is successful, you may receive compensation.

Determining the appropriate compensation for a sexual harassment claim is not a clear-cut process. That’s because it’s predicated on what type of damages the claimant suffers. Also, many companies settle these types of cases privately so there aren’t standard “norms” for people to follow.

That being said, there are several categories into which the damages from a sexual harassment claim may fall.

Back Pay

An employee can recover the wages, benefits, and even deserved pay raises on which they miss out. This “back pay” will factor into damages calculations from the date of harassment to the day of settlement.  It may also include losses such as health and life insurance, pension contributions, and even stock options.

Front Pay

This is similar to “back pay” and covers the same types of benefits. However, it’s forward looking. “Front pay” is compensation to make up for future payments the victim will miss out on because of the harassment.

Compensatory Damages

Compensatory damages include economic damages that the victim deserves reimbursement for such as medical bills. But they also include non-economic damages for intangible losses like pain and suffering, harm to reputation, and emotional distress.

Punitive Damages

A court may award punitive damages to punish an employer in cases that involve particularly egregious behavior. The difference with punitive damages is that they’re assessed not to make up for losses, but to prevent future abuses.

Punitive damages require the victim to show that there was malice or intentional indifference to the claimant’s rights.

Average Payouts for Sexual Harassment Claims

Per federal law, victims in sexual harassment lawsuits can only recover a certain amount in their settlement. The limits are as follows:

  • $50,000 for employers with 15 to 100 workers
  • $100,000 for employers with 101 to 200 workers
  • $200,000 for employers with 201 to 500 workers
  • $300,000 for employers with over 500 workers

It may be possible to recover more depending on the state where the claim is in litigation. A skilled attorney can help you explore what limits there are in your state. However, an average payment amount is generally around $50,000 for most claims.

Statute of Limitations for Employment Lawsuits

Federal law only gives you 180 days to file a sexual harassment claim. However, that may be extended depending on the state laws where you live.

Keep in mind that seven states only give you 300 days to file. And five states have no anti-discrimination agencies to enforce laws (so, your only option is through the EEOC).

The vital thing to remember here is not to wait too long, or your rights may already be expiring.

Find Representation with an Employment Attorney

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a very real source of misconduct. But you do have rights.

One thing you should never do is impetuously quit your job or retaliate against your employer. Rash actions may affect your chances in any future legal cases.

Instead, follow the company protocols that are in place to protect you in these situations. And if an appropriate resolution is not the outcome, then get an employment attorney to help you with your claim.

Because staying silent is never the answer, and speaking up is your right.

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Kimberly Dawn Neumann

Kimberly Dawn Neumann is a multi-published NYC-based magazine and book writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications ranging from Forbes toCosmopolitan. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, College of Journalism. For more,, Instagram @dancerscribe, and Twitter @KimberlyNeumann