How to File a Sexual Harassment Complaint at Work

man inappropriately putting his hand on a coworker's shoulder

Approximately 50% of women are sexually harassed in the United States at least once in their working lives.

If you've been sexually harassed at work, it's important that you know how to file a sexual harassment complaint, so you can get it dealt with. This can be a hugely stressful time, but this guide will lay out the exact steps you can take when filing a sexual harassment complaint at work.

Ready? Let's get started.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined by the law as unwelcome physical, non-verbal, visual, or verbal conduct of a sexual nature or based on the victim's gender. It's also defined as pervasive or severe and creates a hostile work environment or working conditions.

That's a mouthful. Let's break it down:


In order for sexual harassment to be illegal, it needs to be unwelcome (unwanted). That's why it's important that you communicate clearly to your harasser that their conduct is making you uncomfortable and you don't want it to continue.

Of a Sexual Nature

There are a number of different kinds of conduct that can be "of a sexual nature". Some examples include:

  • Comments about a person's personal behavior, clothing, body, or romantic relationships  
  • Sexual innuendo or jokes  
  • Requests for dates or sexual favors  
  • Rumors about a victims sexual or personal life  
  • Threats for rejecting sexual advances  
  • Physically blocking or impeding a person's movement  
  • Inappropriate touching  
  • Storking, patting, hugging, or kissing  
  • Assault  
  • Staring at the victim's body  
  • Following the victim around  
  • And more  

Sexual harassment doesn't necessarily need to be sexual. It can also be discriminatory based on your gender, sex, or sexual orientation.

Pervasive or Severe

In order for actions to be considered harassment, they must be either pervasive or severe. This doesn't mean random teasing or isolated comments. Rape or sexual assault would be severe, while harassment that persists over time can be considered "pervasive."

A Hostile Work Environment

If you're given a negative work performance, demoted, refused a promotion, or fired, or have any other negative, employment-related actions taken against you due to your sex or because you rejected sexual advances, then it's likely that this has impacted your working conditions.

Even if this hasn't changed your employment status, you may have suffered from an offensive, hostile, or intimidating work environment. This could impact your performance and potentially even influence you to decline opportunities that would further your career.

How to File a Sexual Harassment Complaint

Once you have determined if your experience can be defined as sexual harassment, it's time to file a complaint.

Here are some guidelines to help you protect your career as much as possible:

Look for Backup

See if any other victims or witnesses are willing to come forward with you.

Make it Clear

Directly tell your harasser that the behavior needs to stop. Be specific, respectful, and clear.

Write it Down

Document at least a few instances of the harassment. This will demonstrate a timeline and established pattern of behavior. This makes it much more likely that the company will act for you.

Find a Lawyer

Research US attorneys just in case you need one. Look for an experienced lawyer who has handled similar cases in the past and consult with them before submitting your documentation to HR.

Submit Your Documentation

Take your documentation to your union representative or to human resources. The company will then launch an investigation and will interview you and your harasser.

File a Complaint

If you're planning to file a lawsuit in state or federal court, you need to file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). If your state has a fair employment agency, you'll also need to file a discrimination complaint with them as well.

Know Your Deadlines

While it can be tempting to avoid talking to your employer, don't delay in reporting the issue. If you begin feeling like their process for dealing with the harassment isn't working, be aware that if you don't do anything you could lose your rights.

There are a number of legal deadlines involved when it comes to filing a charge of discrimination or formal complaint with government agencies. And it's impossible to sue your employer without having first filed with either EEOC or a state agency.

After an act of sexual harassment, you have 300 days under federal law to file a complaint through the EEOC. However, it's important to know your state's employment law as well. You may only have 180 days to file, depending on the laws within your state.

Keep in mind that if you add new events to your complaint, or you file new complaints that need to be investigated, you can have an extension up to three months.

File a lawsuit

Once you've filed your formal complaint, you may be considering filing a lawsuit. This is particularly common amongst victims who feel that they were mistreated by their company, or their complaint was ignored.

There are a few different remedies available to you with a lawsuit. They can include a reinstatement of your job (if you were transferred or fired), financial damages, and forcing your employer to change its policies and practices to prevent further sexual harassment.

If you're considering filing a lawsuit, you'll need to speak with an attorney, who will advise you of the steps that need to be taken in your state.

During the complaint process, you may receive a settlement offer. You don't have to accept this, but if you do, the complaint will be dismissed without any further action.

Wrapping up

Sexual harassment in the workplace can be devastating to your career, and can also impact your physical and mental health. With the above tips, you'll know how to file a sexual harassment complaint, so you can ensure that your claims are taken seriously.

Remember to document any instances of harassment and make it clear that any advances are unwanted. When in doubt, contact an attorney.

Looking for some more helpful career advice? Check out some more of our career-focused blog posts today.


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