What are the legal ramifications of sexual harassment in the workplace?

John Sherman

Sexual harassment is a serious crime that is sometimes “brushed under the rug.”

In other cases, individuals don’t realize the effect of their actions and don’t consider their so-called “innocent behavior” as true harassment. Despite their lack of understanding, however, the legal ramifications that can occur are quite real indeed.


In order to truly understand the consequences faced by offenders, it’s important to recognize how sexual harassment is defined in the United States.

By definition, sexual harassment is most commonly identified by one or more specific actions, such as:

  • Requesting sexual favors
  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Verbal and/or physical actions of a sexual nature

Sexual actions are not the only type of harassment that occurs, however. It can also include derogatory remarks about a person based on their gender. The law focuses on when the act is taking place in an aggressive way that is detrimental in a mental or physical capacity.

Understanding the legal penalties of sexual harassment

Offensive actions against another person can be considered sexual harassment no matter whom they occur between. While the legal consequences can differ based on an individual’s role in the company, it should be understood that the ramifications of proven harassment are severe.

Where businesses are concerned, the employer can be found legally responsible for workplace harassment if they knew it was occurring and did nothing to correct the situation. This concept holds true whether the responsible party was a supervisor or employee.

What happens after a complaint is filed?

There are two different types of sexual harassment claims that can be filed:

  • Quid pro quo sexual harassmentThis type of claim refers primarily to incidents where a supervisor has negatively approached an employee. Often times these cases revolve around the request for sexual favors in exchange for things like promotions, or for an individual to keep their job.
  • Hostile work environment claims
    When harassment has created an environment that feels threatening and offensive, a hostile work environment claim should be filed. These claims are analyzed based on different factors, such as the frequency of occurrence, the type of action taking place, and the person responsible for the harassment.

Once an employee has issued their complaint, the Equal Employment Opportunity Council (EEOC) will open an investigation into the company.

These investigations are performed in order to backup harassment claims and determine how the victim has been affected.

Once the investigation has been completed, the EEOC will usually attempt to work with the employer and employee to reach a settlement. Employers are often requested to offer the employee repayment compensation for things like:

  • Promotion
  • Compensatory & punitive damages
  • Repayment of any lost wages due to the harassment

If an agreement cannot be reached through mediation, one of two things will usually occur:

  • The EEOC will file a lawsuit with the Federal court system
  • The claim will be dropped and the victim may, or may not, receive a “right-to-sue” letter that allows them to hire their own attorneys and bring the case to court.
  • The victim may also be entitled to ask for this letter before the EEOC has concluded their involvement in the case, depending on the circumstances.

How is sexual harassment typically penalized?

One of the first steps to take following a sexual harassment claim is to conduct a review between the offending party and the victim.

In addition to reviewing their actions, the responsible party may be subjected to repercussions, such as monitoring, counseling, and probation.

As the company is often held responsible for sexual harassment claims, along with the offender, many businesses have zero-tolerance policies in place. Depending on the severity and frequency of the events in question, many employers will mandate automatic termination in order to avoid lawsuits themselves.

Once the EEOC is involved in harassment suits, there is a very good chance the employer will have to pay a variety of different penalties.

If the victim is forced to take time off of work, or even quit, the employer will be required to provide them with back pay and/or rehire them. Given the mental and physical harm that the victim may have experienced, there is also a good chance the employer will need to take care of medical bills and compensatory damages towards the emotional support of the employee.

Most of the penalty fees are distributed in cases where the employer knew what was occurring and did nothing to stop it. That being said, they are often also required to pay punitive damage fees as a means of retribution.

Is jail time a possibility?

Potential jail time is determined based on whether or not the victim elects to press charges against their harasser. The type of punishment assigned, be it probation or jail time, is chosen based on the gravity of the claims and whether they’ve been classified as a misdemeanor or felony.

The state in which the crime occurred will also govern the potential sentence.

Legal ramifications aren’t the only effects of harassment

While most individuals are primarily concerned with the legal consequences of sexual harassment suits, the negative effects don’t end within the courtroom.

Harassment situations can be detrimental to a company’s reputation and work environment, for one. Fellow employees may lose interest in their jobs and the workplace can become a negative space as well.

Harassment can also cause permanent anxiety for the men and women who are victimized. Despite receiving monetary compensation, their ability to successfully complete their job may be affected, not to mention their overall mental well being.

The EEOC is currently working on various training processes and instruction guidelines that will help to avoid confusion and lower the chances of harassment taking place within the workplace.

Supervisors and employees must work together to prevent harassment, because a safe workplace is essential to any successful business.

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