How to Deal with Sexual Harassment from a Coworker

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A coworker placing her hands on her colleague's shoulder.Although sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new, the fact that it continues to be an issue in America may be surprising to some in the light of things like the #MeToo movement and other high-profile cases of recent years. One might be tempted to think that this form of harassment must be on the decline or has disappeared altogether now that it’s gotten so much attention and press. Sadly, that is not the case. Sexual harassment continues to occur with some frequency throughout the country, and in many work environments, there continues to be a culture of silence that accompanies such harassment.

Employees continue to feel harassed and simultaneously afraid to speak up. Many second-guess themselves into silence out of fear that they are wrong and the unwelcome advances do not actually amount to sexual harassment – or out of fear of losing their jobs. In the current economic crisis where so many people have lost their jobs entirely, those still lucky enough to be employed are even more afraid of speaking up than they would have been a year ago. What if the person making inappropriate advances isn’t your boss, but a coworker. How would you prove the harassment? Let’s take a look at what it means to be harassed by a coworker and what you can do about it.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment in the workplace was made illegal by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which codified laws to protect employees. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC, there are two elements that are required for an act to constitute sexual harassment:

  • The harassment must be in the form of:
    • unwanted physical or verbal conduct that is of a sexual nature, or
    • sexual advances, or
    • requests for sexual favors, or
    • visually offensive material such as posters, cartoons, or emails that contain offensive subject matter, and
  • The conduct must:
    • interfere with the employee’s ability to perform their job, or
    • create an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment, or
    • affect their employment (either implicitly or explicitly).

As you can see, many elements must be taken into consideration when determining if conduct constitutes sexual harassment. Would a reasonable person who overheard the interaction consider it inappropriate? What is the relationship between the coworkers? Was the victim offended? Would the conduct cause a reasonable person to be intimidated? Would the actions result in a hostile work environment or make it harder for one to do their job? These questions and more will be examined once a claim is filed.

Even though sexual harassment has traditionally been from a male towards a female, unwanted advances can also be from a female towards a male as well as between employees of the same sex. It is also important to note that there may be more than one victim involved in any sexual harassment scenario. For instance, if the boss is overtly harassing a certain woman, this could result in a hostile working environment for all employees within earshot who must witness the abuse on a daily basis.


As stated, one of the main reasons that sexual harassment is not reported as often as it occurs is because victims fear retaliation. The good news is that retaliation itself is a form of discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity laws make it completely illegal. If you are discriminated against because you filed a complaint or otherwise exercised your legally protected rights, you can sue for damages, costs, and attorneys fees.

Steps to Take

If you have been harassed in the workplace, here are the steps you should take in the order you should take them.

Directly let the offending employee know that their actions are offensive and demand that they stop immediately. One common mistake that victims of sexual harassment make is to laugh it off or say nothing to the offender – thereby leaving the door open for further harassment. So the first step is to tell the offender that they are acting in an offensive way and clearly demand that they immediately stop the behavior. This may be all it takes to dispel the perpetrator’s illusion that the feelings are mutual, and let the perpetrator know that they are out of line. Hopefully, this is all it takes to end the harassment.

Consult your employee handbook. Many companies have employee handbooks that cover the steps to take in the event that you are sexually harassed. Likely, the next step will be to report the incident to a supervisor. However, be aware that you should always follow up with an oral report with written communication. This formal letter should state:

  • The time, date, names of participants, and location of the incident;
  • Specific details of the incident along with any consequences thereafter;
  • The names of any witnesses to the event;
  • If the behavior is ongoing and how often it occurs;
  • Any concerns that you have about the situation (like being passed up for a promotion because you refused a date from a supervisor).

A handshake between a client and his attorney.

Title your formal, written complaint with a subject line something like “Sexual Harassment Formal Complaint” so that management knows that the matter is serious. Also, keep in mind that federal and state laws have time limits to the amount of time you have to file a report in order to take legal action should that be necessary. So it is important not to delay making your report.

Seek the Help of an Attorney – Sometimes, it takes some time to resolve a formal sexual harassment complaint. But if you have followed all the above steps and have not gotten a good result, it may be time to consult with a trusted harassment attorney to discuss your rights and the actions you should take.

An Experienced Attorney Can Help

When taking the above steps is not enough, it may be time to call the Smithey Law Group LLC. We are here to help! We are experienced in sexual harassment claims and can guide you through the process with as little pain as possible. So call us or contact us online to schedule your initial consultation today.

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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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