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About Abuse

Sexual Harassment by a Co-Worker/Boss

Updated: March 29, 2021

This section focuses not on domestic violence but on another situation where there is often an imbalance of power, in the workplace. If an employer or co-worker sexually harasses you at work, there are laws that can protect you.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined by the Employment Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that in a direct or indirect way does one of the following:

  • affects your employment;
  • unreasonably interferes with your performance at work; or
  • creates a work environment that is intimidating, offensive, or hostile.1

Here are a few possible examples that may be considered sexual harassment:

  • A supervisor makes sexual advances towards you at work against your will. You are afraid to say anything because you are scared of losing your job.
  • You feel scared and upset at work because your co-workers are always staring at your breasts, telling dirty jokes, and saying sexual things about you. You have reported it to your supervisor but nothing is done about it. Your supervisor allows the behavior to continue.

1 See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website

What are the different types of sexual harassment?

There are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo is when your employment benefits, such as getting a raise, not getting fired, etc., are tied to giving into your supervisor’s unwelcome sexual advances. Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that basically means “one thing in return for another.” For example, your supervisor may tell you that you will get a promotion if you kiss him/her. Quid pro quo only applies in cases where the harasser is a supervisor, because a supervisor has the power to grant or withhold employment benefits. Note: Even if you agree to do what the supervisor asks, it could still be considered sexual harassment as long as the sexual advances were “unwelcome.”1
  2. Hostile work environment is where an employee has to deal with offensive sexual comments, unwelcome physical contact, or is exposed to offensive sexual materials as a regular part of the work environment. Generally, a single isolated incident will not be considered sexual harassment unless the behavior was extremely outrageous. The hostile work environment can be created by supervisors, managers, co-workers, or customers. Employers may be responsible for the sexual harassment committed by any of these people if the employer does not take steps to stop the harassment once the employer becomes aware of it. Also, the employer could be liable for the harassment of managers or supervisors if s/he does not take appropriate steps to prevent and then correct this behavior.1

1 See American Bar Association’s website

What can I do to be free of sexual harassment?

You have the right to be free from sexual harassment at work. If you think you are being sexually harassed, here are some things you may want to consider doing:

  • Tell the harasser verbally, in writing, or via email, that you do not approve of his/her conduct and you want it to stop. Keep records of anything you sent in writing or via email. Often, email can be the best way to notify an employer for two reasons:
  1. It creates a definitive electronic footprint with proof of notice and receipt. You can “bcc” yourself on the email, can ask for a response, or can even tag the email to reflect when it’s been opened; and
  2. Perhaps less obvious, email may encourage an admission about the harassment or some other type of incriminating response from the harasser. With email, people tend to respond very impulsively, without thinking. Unlike faxes or memos that someone has to type, send out, fax, mail, etc., people tend to rattle off – and “go off” – when they see an email message about harassment.
  • Write down details about the incident right after it happens so that you have a record of it. Include what happened, including the exact words or language used if you recall it, when it happened, what you did, whether anyone else saw it, and whom you told about it.
  • Talk to other employees to see whether they have been harassed as well. You may be able to work together and offer each other support to stop the harassment.
  • Report the harassment to your supervisor as soon as possible and ask that it be stopped. If you prefer to report it to your supervisor in person, be sure to send an email or another writing to document (memorialize) your meeting so that you have proof in writing. If your supervisor is the harasser, report it to your supervisor’s boss.
  • File a formal complaint either with your place of employment or your union if these options are available to you. Otherwise, contact the human resources department at your employment. You may also want to file a complaint with the appropriate government agency and/or file a lawsuit – see paragraph below for more info.
  • Keep copies of any recorded conversations you send or receive about the harassment from anyone at your job. This information may help your case by showing how people responded when you reported the harassment.1

In addition, you may want to consider contacting an employment discrimination lawyer who can look at your case in detail and give you advice about your options. Some options may include filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or with your state’s civil rights agency, human rights agency, or fair employment office. Depending on the case, you may be able to file a lawsuit in court against your employer. You can talk to a lawyer to find out more about the options available in your particular case. For a lawyer referral service in your state, go to our Finding a Lawyer page.

1 Some of the above tips came from the National Partnership for Women and Families’ Know Your Rights Manual

Can I file a complaint with the government? Can I sue my employer?

If you believe you have been a victim of sexual harassment, one of the options you may want to look into is filing a charge of discrimination with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In certain circumstances, an individual, organization, or agency may file a discrimination lawsuit against the employer on behalf of the victim to protect the victim’s identity.1 There are time limitations for filing a charge but the time limits vary depending on a variety of factors. To read more, go the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website’s page called Time Limits For Filing A Charge. You can also contact your state’s Office of Civil Rights, Office of Human Rights, or Fair Employment Office - the name may be different in each state.

To find out if you can sue your employer, you can find legal resources in your area by going to our Finding a Lawyer page and choosing your state from the drop-down menu.

1U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website