Working as a Seattle employment lawyer, I know that although sexual harassment is something that happens every single day that not everyone is comfortable reporting it and far too many victims end up suffering in silence and fear. But no one should have to suffer through something as painful as sexual harassment alone, so I have put together a general overview of how to sexual harassment is handled in Washington State.
How does the U.S. define “sexual harassment?”
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines sexual harassment as any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature that is detrimental to a positive work environment. This includes anything that is aimed at someone solely because of that person’s gender.
Examples (taken from the Washington State Human Rights Commission) include:
- Repeated requests for dates;
- Embarrassing stories or “jokes”;
- Comments or questions regarding someone’s body or sexual activities;
- Displays of pornographic materials;
- Indecent exposure;
- Assault or rape.
How does Washington State handle sexual harassment?
Statues against discrimination in employment are found in RCW 49.60. This chapter establishes a Human Rights Commission and describes unfair practices for public or private employers.
RCW 49.60.180 establishes the right of an employee to sue an employer for hostile work environment, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and gender discrimination.
RCW 49.76 requires employers to offer domestic violence/sexual assault leave or work on a reduced schedule. This is for when an employee or family member of said employee has been the victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The employee may choose paid or unpaid leave in order to:
- Seek legal or law enforcement assistance or remedies to ensure the health and safety of themselves or the victimized family member;
- Seek treatment by a health care provider for physical or mental injuries or to attend to that of the victimized family member;
- Obtain or help the victimized family member obtain mental health counseling;
- Take actions (such as relocation) to increase their safety or that of the victimized family member.
What claims will be recognized under sexual harassment laws?
Claims regarding behavior that:
- Has occurred more than once and is not trivial;
- Was clearly uninvited;
- Directed towards one gender specifically, rather than the both. The victim need not be a woman and the harasser need not be a male, nor do the harasser and the victim need to be different genders;
- Came from someone who is not an employer in a religious organization.
Sexual harassment is more likely to be successful when:
- Submission to such conduct is made explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment;
- Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions;
- Such conduct has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
One may still have a case when the conduct occurred without economic injury or discharge of the victim, or even when the victim is not the person harassed, but anyone negatively affected by the offensive conduct.
If I am being sexually harassed, who is liable?
- The employer, if someone having formal authority over you directly participated in the harassment OR if the employer knew or should have know of the harassment and failed to take prompt and effective action in response to it (as in the case of co-workers or even non-employees);
- Individual supervisors or managers where their own actions are directly discriminatory;
- A union or its agents;
- An employment agency.
If I am being sexually harassed, what can I win?
If you and your attorney are successful in negotiating a settlement or recovering a trial award, you may receive:
- Out-of-pocket expenses;
- Damages for mental anguish and emotional distress;
- Medical expenses;
- Lost wages (both past and future);
- Job reinstatement;
- Restoration of job benefits;
- Litigation costs;
- Attorney fees.
If your attorney sees it fit, you may be encouraged to pursue other legal claims that are related to your claim of sexual harassment. These include:
- Breach of written contract;
- Assault and battery;
- Claims under equal pay statutes, minimum wage laws, fair labor standards laws, Family Medical Leave, and/or whistle blower protections.
If I am being sexually harassed, what should I do?
- Inform the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. This may be a difficult step in itself, as it requires confrontation, but it gives the harasser a chance to redeem him or herself before you take action.
- Note each detail of the harassing (date, time, witnesses, significant events, physical and emotional responses), and gather evidence (when you have permission to do so).
- Use a complaint or grievance system if one is available to you. This may help involve the harasser’s supervisors. Make a copy of the complaint you submit and be aware that your complaint may not be kept confidential.
- Maintain a record of solid job performance. Behaviors such as excessive absenteeism, tardiness, sloppy work performance, etc. will hurt your claim. Gather documents like a written job description and written job evaluation. It will help show that your quality of work and work habits were appropriate.
- Contact Premier Law Group to consult with an attorney at 206-285-1743. To find out more about our experience with employment issues, click here.