Can I Be Punished for Complaining About Sexual Harassment?

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Making a complaint about any activity in your workplace can cause people to take a moment and think before speaking. Why? Because people are afraid of retaliation.

Often, when employees see something that doesn’t seem quite right, their first impulse is to report it. However, upon further reflection, many people shy away from boldly reporting illegal or troubling behavior that they witness on the job. They fear co-workers or their boss labeling them a “troublemaker” or worse. They fear being blackballed in some way if they speak up. And this conundrum gets worse if the bad behavior you experienced or witnessed was sexual harassment.

Making such an allegation can strike fear in your heart. Are you really going to open that can of worms? But the law is clear. Sexual harassment in the workplace is never tolerable and needs to be reported. Furthermore, it is illegal to retaliate against a worker for reporting or complaining about such behavior. So if you feel that your employer retaliated against you because you reported sexual harassment, you should speak to an experienced sexual harassment legal practitioner right away.

Typical Types of Retaliation

The retaliation people fear when thinking about reporting sexual harassment can take many forms. The following actions must happen without valid cause to qualify as retaliation for reporting sexual harassment.


Demotions can be direct or indirect. Obviously, if you are the manager of a store and your boss informs you that as of Monday, you will go back to stocking shelves at a $10 an hour pay decrease, your boss has just demoted you. But that is not the only type of demotion that can happen. Your boss could suddenly transfer you to a lateral position which is much less desirable. They could move your office into the basement or relocate you entirely. The possibilities are endless, but they all have one thing in common. The move makes work less bearable and makes you unhappy.


After complaining about sexual harassment or filing a claim, some employees fall victim to workplace abuse. This can consist of physical or verbal abuse and may come at the hands of the employer, supervisors, or even fellow workers.


You may experience a sharp increase in your workload that is nearly impossible to manage. Or your employer might do something underhanded like changing out your new laptop with a ridiculously slow and outdated computer. The idea is to overwhelm you and cause so much stress that you either remain miserable or eventually quit.


Of course, there is always a certain amount of scrutiny that comes with any job. However, if your employer becomes atypically overbearing in their scrutiny of your work, this could be a retaliatory tactic.


In retaliation for complaining about sexual harassment, an employer may give you an unwarranted poor performance evaluation. Or they may inflate small infractions in an attempt to justify denying you a raise or promotion.


If an employer suddenly threatens anything—from spreading a vicious rumor that threatens your marriage to faking a police complaint against you—this may be a form of retaliation.

Federal Protections for Complaining About Sexual Harassment

Fortunately, several laws define and protect employees against sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 703, Title VII is one of the main federal statutes that address this issue. This Act:

  • Defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and the like;
  • Prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace;
  • Protects employees from being forced to work in a hostile work environment stemming from sexual harassment;
  • Forbids sexual favors in exchange for continued employment or promotion; and
  • Prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee for complaining about sexual harassment.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 stands as a beacon of protection in the United States. It explicitly prohibits employer retaliation toward those who report sexual abuse or participate in sexual abuse investigations. Some states have even expanded these protections by enacting their own laws.

Maryland Law

In addition to federal law, Maryland added protections for its citizens in May of 2018 when Governor Larry Hogan signed the Disclosing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Act (the Act). This Act has two main provisions that affect employers in Maryland.

Restrictions on Employment Agreements

The first provision addresses employment agreements, policies, or contracts that seek to waive or limit an employee’s right to pursue legal action against their employer based on sexual harassment. In the past, employers routinely put arbitration clauses into employment agreements, policies, and contracts. These clauses limited the method of resolution of discrimination matters to arbitration alone. They left victims with no other recourse. But the Act prohibits such restrictions as well as retaliation against any employee who refuses to sign such agreements.

However, under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), federal law favors arbitration in some cases. If a case falls under the FAA, then the federal law trumps state law, and the arbitration clause may be upheld. If not, then Maryland’s law prevails.

Survey Requirements

The Act also mandates that companies with at least 50 employees must complete and submit two surveys to the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR). The surveys essentially expose the company’s history of sexual harassment claims and settlements. After the surveys are submitted, the MCCR will publish the results online.

Maryland’s Fair Employment Practices Act

In 2019, Maryland extended employee protection by amending its Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA). Previously, businesses needed at least 15 employees to fall under the provisions of FEPA. Now, all companies with even a single employee fall under the Act. These changes also took effect:

  • An employer can be held liable for sexual harassment claims filed against one of their supervisors; and
  • The statute of limitations for filing a claim is extended from six months to two years.

With all these laws in place, the answer to the question is very clear: No, you cannot be retaliated against or punished in any way for complaining about sexual harassment or reporting it to your employer. However, this does not stop some employers from trying.

We Are Here for You

The attorneys at the Smithey Law Group are here to protect your rights in the workplace. We know how sensitive the issue of sexual harassment is, and we know how to guide you through this difficult time. So if your employer retaliates against you for reporting sexual harassment, come speak with us. Call us today at 410-919-2990 or contact us online.

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Joyce Smithey, a seasoned employment and labor law attorney, has over 22 years of experience representing both employers and employees in Maryland and D.C. Her practice, rooted in a deep understanding of employment law, spans administrative hearings to federal litigation. Joyce's approach is comprehensive, focusing on protecting client interests while ensuring legal compliance. A Harvard graduate, her career began in Fortune 500 companies, transitioning to law after a degree from Boston University School of Law. Joyce's expertise is recognized by numerous awards, including Maryland’s Top 100 Women. At Smithey Law Group LLC, which she founded in 2018, Joyce continues to champion employment rights, drawing on her rich background in law and business.

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