Sexual Harassment: Your Guide to Legal Action

Sexual Harassment: Your Guide to Legal Action

by Mary Boland

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Explains how to identify harassment, understand its causes and the effect it has on the victim, other personnel and the companySee more details below


Explains how to identify harassment, understand its causes and the effect it has on the victim, other personnel and the company

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A clear, easy-to-read book. Basic legal steps that can be taken are generously illustrated with case studies and backed up with appendixes that include state-by-state information about relevant laws, acts, agencies, and Web sites; a brief summary of Title IX of the educational code, including contact information; and a list of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights's national and regional offices. Boland explains what to expect once a complaint is filed, typical questions asked by investigators, defenses that harassing parties may use, and types of compensation and relief a plaintiff may be awarded. Common strategies that don't involve the courts are touched upon, with explanations as to why they do or do not tend to work. Readers also get detailed information on what is and is not considered sexual harassment. Boland even addresses gray areas such as situations in which the victim has had a former relationship with the perpetrator. Emotional, physical, and economic consequences of sexual harassment are explored, including its impact on students. Of particular interest is the section devoted to schools, which covers the institution's responsibilities, what students can do, and how to go about filing a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Broad in scope and satisfying in depth, this book will prove to be a valuable resource and great first read.-Sheila Shoup, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

How to Respond to Sexual Harassment

Excerpted from Sexual Harassment: Your Guide to Legal Action by Mary L. Boland © 2002

How a person handles any crisis depends on his or her personality and the circumstances that are faced. Most harassers will continue as long as they can, and unless they quit or get transferred, the harassment is unlikely to stop. But there are several strategies which can help to end this obnoxious abuse of power. Choosing the strategy that is best for you depends on the severity of the harassment and on your own circumstances. Whether you are sexually harassed at work or school, your choices are pretty straightforward. You can ignore it or do nothing. You can make a joke of it. You can avoid the harasser if possible. You can ask or tell the harasser to stop. You can threaten to tell someone or report the harasser. On the following page, compare two surveys of thousands of workers, the first taken in the 80s and the second in the 90s. In the first survey, it was determined that over 36,000 workers left their jobs due to sexual harassment, by the second, nearly 20,000 workers did.

ACTION 1987 1994
workers workers

Ignored it or did nothing 52% 44%
Avoided the harasser 43% 28%
Asked/told the harasser to stop 44% 35%
Made a joke of it 20% 15%
Threatened to tell someone 14% 10%
Reported the harasser 15% 12%
Submitted to the harassment 4% 7%

Note: Employees surveyed could make more than one choice
Source: U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Sexual Harassment of Federal Workers: An Update. Washington, D.C.: U.S.Gov't Printing Office (1987); and. U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace: Trends, Progress, Continuing Challenges. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Gov't Printing Office (1994).

The above chart shows that when faced with sexual harassment, most women:
•ignored it;
•denied it; or,
•avoided the harasser or the environment.

Some were able to confront the harasser. Others joined in the joking or sexual banter in order to feel like they have some control over the situation. Finally, and rarely, victims threatened to report or filed a grievance or complaint.

So what is the best strategy to stop sexual harassment? Does the fact that most women ignored the harassment or avoided the harasser mean that these are best? Should you confront him? While every woman must decide for herself what will work, it is important to consider the outcome of the choices made by the women who have already faced harassment.

Ignore It
The most common response to sexual harassment is to ignore the conduct. This allows the victim to keep on working in the hope that it will "just go away." Unfortunately, ignoring the harassment may be read by the harasser as a license to continue. After all, in the harasser's mind, the harassment has not had the desired effect unless the victim is affected by it. The harasser may become bolder or intensify his efforts. Ignoring sexual harassment will rarely stop it.

Deny It
Many women simply deny that what is happening is sexual harassment. The notion that "this can't be happening" or "he was just kidding" helps to retain the notion that you have control over your work environment. Some challenge their own feelings by minimizing what is happening and that "it wasn't that serious." Others discount their experience thinking, "I'm imagining things" or "I'm overreacting." While denial is a protective strategy, the harasser has time to continue and often escalate his behavior.

Avoid It
When denial becomes impossible, the victim may question whether she is somehow at fault. She may change her appearance or dress in an effort to end the harassment. She may avoid being near the harasser whenever possible. None of these things will end the harassment, because the victim is not the cause of the harassment.

It is common for victims to take sick or vacation leave. Sometimes she may request a transfer or reassignment or even quit to end the harassment. While leaving the workplace will remove the victim from the harassment, loss of sick or vacation leave and certainly loss of a job are a high price to pay to end the harassment. And, sometimes, especially if there has been a past relationship, the harasser knows where the victim lives and continues his conduct outside of the workplace.

Joining in the Sexual "Bantering"
Some victims do join in the workplace bantering, using vulgar language and acting in a sexualized manner. This is one way to live the illusion that, by becoming "one of the guys," one will not get further harassed. But while victims perceive the joining as a way of controlling or defusing the harassment, courts see it as contributing to the sexual conduct in the workplace and may decide that the behavior was "welcomed" because of the victim's response. Also, women who have gone along with the harassment report it was the least effective thing they could have done. In fact, in many cases, the harassment gets worse.

Confront the Harasser
Only about one-third of women who are sexually harassed ask or tell the harasser to stop his conduct. Yet, this is the most effective strategy to ending the harassment. Try to gain the support of your friends in the workplace to also put pressure on the harasser to stop his conduct. Ask your employer to set up a training surrounding sexual harassment.

If you are not at risk of harm, say something like:
•"your conduct is not acceptable;"
•"you are not funny;"
•"your conduct /behavior is hurtful;"
•"it is not a joke;"
•"it is degrading;" or,
•"stop it!"

Say it firmly and with conviction. It is important to note that it can be helpful under the law that you let the harasser know that his conduct is "unwelcome."

It may be that the harasser is a beginner or just a clod and totally insensitive. It is possible that the harasser does not realize the behavior is offensive. Your clear words will put the harasser on notice that his comments, jokes, conduct or innuendo are simply not appropriate. Sometimes, if it is less severe form of harassment, or a beginning harasser, a clear direct statement from you (and from your co-workers) to stop may be all that is needed to end the behavior.

If it is too stressful to talk to the person who is harassing you, write a letter. In the letter, clearly state the behavior that is offensive to you. For example, say "several times you have stared at me and followed me around the office. You have put your hands on my shoulders to give me a 'massage.' You even suggested that I could 'get ahead' in the company if I went to a motel with you." Include dates and locations of this conduct. Tell the harasser to stop. Tell him that the conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or threatened. Keep the letter on a professional level. Make sure to keep a copy of the letter for later use at a more formal proceeding if necessary.

Report the Harassment
Historically, few victims report the harassment to their employer. Very few-maybe as low as 5-10%-choose to file a complaint with an outside agency. Why don't victims report? They believe that others won't take it seriously. Some fear what would happen to them at work if they reported. They are embarrassed at the notion of reporting and fear retaliation at the workplace. Some believe that nothing could be done. Others don't think that they would be believed or think they would be blamed. Some women do not report because they do not wish to hurt the person who is harassing them. Yet, when women do report sexual harassment, the majority of the time, the situation improves.

Most employers have policies addressing sexual harassment and may allow informal and formal complaints. You may also choose to file a complaint with the EEOC or your state fair employment practice agency.


Although the experience of victims who have been through sexual harassment shows that confronting the harasser or reporting the harassment is the most effective way to stop it, while you are deciding on your best strategy, be sure to keep a record of every instance of harassment.

Take good notes of every incident of harassment and keep them in a protected place away from your workplace. Use a notebook or diary. Make sure you document all the following information:

•Who was present? Always list who was there. Besides you and the harasser, who heard or saw the harassment? Put down complete names whenever possible.

•What happened? Use quotes to record the comments, words, or jokes. Describe exactly what the conduct was. Include any contextual information, such as what happened just before or after that related to the conduct or words.

•When did it happen? The time and date should be included.

•Where did it happen? Make sure you record the exact room or location. If harassment happens outside the workplace, document that also.

Make sure you also document how each incident affected you. Also, be sure to gather any evidence of harassment. Is there a picture, photo, diagram, or drawing of the harassment. Is it in a note or letter? Is it an e-mail? If possible, get the exact item or photo or print a copy to keep with your documents for future use, if necessary.

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