How to Handle a Hostile Work Environment

Learn What to do if you're facing harassment in the workplace.

If you're being sexually harassed at work, there are some steps you can take to protect your rights and try to end the harassment.

Confront the Harasser

Often the best strategy is the simplest: Tell the harasser to stop. This is not appropriate or sensible in every case, particularly if you have suffered injuries or are in some physical danger. But surprisingly often -- most workplace experts say up to 90% of the time -- it works. Harassment is especially likely to stop after a conversation if it's relatively mild: off-color jokes, inappropriate comments about your appearance, requests for dates, sexist cartoons, and the like. Clearly saying "no" does more than assert your rights: It also makes clear that you find the behavior unwelcome, which is a critical part of the definition of sexual harassment.

When you talk to the harasser, follow these tips:

  • keep the conversation brief. Try to speak privately, away from supervisors and coworkers.
  • Don't try to be funny. Joking may be misunderstood or interpreted as a sign that you don't take the situation seriously yourself.
  • Be direct. It's usually better to request, directly, that particular behavior stop rather than telling the harasser how you feel.
  • Don't offer excuses. Remember that you're not the one whose behavior is inappropriate. Simply tell the harasser to stop and end the conversation.

Put It in Writing

If your harasser persists, write a letter spelling out the behavior you object to and why. Also state what you want to happen next. If you feel the situation is serious or may escalate, make clear that you will take action if the harassment does not stop at once. If your company has a written policy against harassment, attach a copy of it to your letter.

Make a Formal Complaint

If your harasser persists, report the conduct using your company's sexual harassment complaint procedure. If you can't find one in the employee handbook, as the human resources department how to complain about sexual harassment. This will give the company an opportunity to investigate and put a stop to the behavior. It is also a legal prerequisite for holding your employer liable for damages. If the employer doesn't know about the harassment, and you were unreasonable in failing to use the company's procedures for complaining, a court may not let you bring a sexual harassment lawsuit against your employer later.

File a Complaint With  a Government Agency

If your company doesn't adequately address the problem, you can file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal government agency that enforces antidiscrimination laws, or a similar state agency. Filing a charge with an agency does two important things:

  • It sets in motion an investigation by the EEOC or state agency that may resolve the problem.
  • It's a necessary prerequisite under Title VII and some state laws if you want to file a sexual harassment lawsuit later. In other words, you must file a charge of discrimination before you can bring a lawsuit.

In addition to investigating, the agency may try to mediate a settlement between you and the employer.

File a Lawsuit

If you still don't get satisfactory results, you may decide to file a sexual harassment lawsuit. Once the EEOC or a similar state agency finishes processing your charge, it will issue you a right to sue letter, which informs you that you have met the prerequisite for filing a lawsuit. Once you receive this letter, you have only 90 days to file a lawsuit under Title VII.

Get Legal Help

If your initial confrontation with the harasser doesn't immediately stop the harassment, you may want to consult with an experienced lawyer. A lawyer can assess the facts of your situation and let you know whether you have a good case. If you use your company's complaint procedure, an attorney can help you navigate the process. An attorney can help you file a charge of discrimination and, if necessary, a lawsuit to vindicate your rights. And, throughout the process, the attorney can explore settlement options with your employer.

Excerpted from Your Rights in the Workplace, by Barbara Kate Repa (Nolo).

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