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Who should you report sexual harassment to?

Sexual harassment is one of the most serious workplace issues and can have powerful legal ramifications. If you are experiencing sexual harassment, the first thing you should understand is this: Sexual harassment is very much against the law, and you have protections available to you at both the federal and state levels.

Itís important to follow the correct steps and procedures in documenting and reporting sexual harassment to ensure the best outcome possible. While the law is theoretically on your side, the way you proceed with a sexual harassment complaint can make your path either difficult or relatively easy.

A Brief Definition of Sexual Harassment
Before delving into who and where you should report a sexual harassment complaint, itís useful to quickly define sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment refers to any unwelcome conduct in a workplace that is of a sexual nature, and which creates an offensive, hostile or intimidating environment for the person being harassed. In practice, sexual harassment can consist of anything from offensive joking to displaying pornography or other explicit or sexual images or text to actual assaults.

Contrary to popular conception, sexual harassment is not solely an issue in which victims are women Ė men can be sexually harassed as well.

Reporting Sexual Harassment
Depending on your exact work situation and the state in which you live, your options for reporting sexual harassment may vary somewhat. Before taking any action, itís a good idea to research the exact sexual harassment law within your state and within your company or union.

However, itís true that there are some universal protections shielding people from workplace sexual harassment.

Federal Law
The relevant federal law protection against sexual harassment is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Title VII protects most public and private workers, as well as members of most organizations and unions.

The significance of Title VII is that no matter what state you live in, you have the expectation of some form of redress if you experience sexual harassment. Reporting a sexual harassment complaint to the federal government is therefore always an option.

The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) is a federal agency that handles all suspected infractions of workplace discrimination. When the time comes that you want to report sexual harassment at the federal level, you will want to get in touch with the EEOC. A sexual harassment lawyer can aid you in filing the proper complaint if needed.

State Law
Only three of the 50 states have no laws on the books prohibiting sexual harassment. In Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi, the law books offer no protection for sexual harassment victims, meaning the EEOC is your main method of redress.

For the other 47 states (plus Washington D.C.), sexual harassment protection exists at a state level, many times written into the stateís constitution. This means that if you live and work in one of these states, you have multiple avenues for redress. Keep in mind that you donít need to pick one or the other if you donít want to Ė You can sue or file a complaint based on both state and federal law if you choose.

If you live on the west coast, west coast employment lawyers can help you navigate the relevant state law for your state of residence.

Other Methods of Reporting
The EEOC or your state arenít the only methods for reporting sexual harassment, depending on your situation. In fact, going to a state or federal agency is often times your second or last step rather than the first one.

Reporting to HR
Many companies have a Human Resources department, and often also have an explicitly spelled-out sexual harassment policy. In this case, your first step should likely be to contact your companyís HR department.

Companies with sexual harassment policies generally have language in place that prevents any kind of retaliation towards you for reporting sexual harassment. In a perfect world, that should protect you. If you do encounter any kind of retaliation in the workplace after contacting HR, this should be documented for when you contact the EEOC or a state agency.

Reporting to Your Union
If you belong to a union, or if you work with unionized employees, you may have additional ways to report sexual harassment. Most modern unions, such as the AFL-CIO, now have put into place regulations and structure regarding sexual harassment against or by union members.

As always, check your specific union regulations before making a final decision. But chances are, if you are in a union and experiencing sexual harassment, reporting it to the union is preferable.

How to Report Sexual Harassment
In order to receive redress for sexual harassment, itís important to keep several things in mind. By following this checklist, you make it far more likely that you will receive a favorable judgment in any sexual harassment suit or complaint you bring forward.

Establish the ĎUnwelcomeí
Part of the definition of sexual harassment is that this conduct or action is unwanted on your part. Itís always a good idea to confront a harasser to make it clear that you are bothered by the conduct in question.

It can sometimes be emotionally taxing to confront someone along these lines, and in some cases you might even fear for your safety. As such, itís not required that you directly inform a harasser that you donít approve of their actions. However, it makes it more difficult for a harasser to claim they didnít realize their actions were unwanted if you inform them directly.

Document Evidence
The more documentation you have of sexual harassment, the better your case will be. Sexual harassment can take many forms, and some of them leave no concrete evidence. In those cases, you do the best you can to preserve whatever evidence you can, including witness accounts of actions or behaviors.

Other forms of sexual harassment, however, do leave significant evidence, and in these cases it behooves you to collect as much as possible. If co-workers are putting up or leaving around pornographic images, lewd or offensive written joking material or other sexually suggestive print material, either take it or take a picture of it.

In the event that someone has anonymously posted sexually explicit material to a public place, ownership is assumed to be forfeited. Therefore, you can take that material and set it aside as evidence. If you donít want to take anything directly, use your smartphone to photograph all instances of sexual harassment.

Another area you should be documenting are any and all interactions you have in attempting to report your sexual harassment complaint. If you speak with a supervisor about it, document the date and what the person said theyíd do in response, if anything. That way, if the sexual harassment continues, you have documented your attempts at ending it and the lack of response.

The same goes for reporting sexual harassment to HR or a union. While it would be nice to assume that these structures and organizations will always have your best interests at heart, the truth is that itís not always the case. To protect yourself, document these meetings and what you were told in all cases.

Consult with an Attorney
All of the above represent a high-level view of your options and rights as a victim of sexual harassment. To get an understanding of the fine details, you can consult a sexual harassment attorney. Many practices exist specifically set up to deal with sexual harassment law.

A sexual harassment lawyer will be able to explain your options clearly and is knowledgeable about state law in your state. If youíre on the west coast, west coast employment lawyers will be able to offer specifically tailored advice to your local situation.

The internet is a wonderful resource, but thereís no substitute for the expertise of a professional in the field. A sexual harassment attorney can advise you on your next steps from the beginning to the end of resolving your case and getting you the protection, youíre entitled to.

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