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Combating Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Laws, Types, and Recourse in the United States and Missouri

Sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t a simple misunderstanding or minor inconvenience. It violates an employee’s civil rights and can cause severe emotional, financial, or physical harm. Despite decades of legislative action and legal cases, social movements like #MeToo show that these behaviors are still a massive problem for today’s workforce. 

In the current decade alone, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has received over 18,000 charges alleging sexual harassment while at work, with over 83% of them being filed by women. Worse still, while overall charges for workplace discrimination steadily decreased from 2016 – 2020, the percentage of them that included allegations of sexual harassment increased.

Today, only seven states and the District of Columbia legally require employers to administer sexual harassment training. Bottom line: it’s just as important as ever to know what sexual harassment is, the laws it violates, how to report it, and how to contact a sexual harassment lawyer near you if you experience it firsthand. 

Sexual Harassment Definition

According to section 1604.11 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR):

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

Based on this, the federal government currently recognizes two main types of sexual harassment, though the line where one ends and the other begins isn’t the clearest. It’s actually common for a victim to experience both at the same time. 

Quid Pro Quo

A Latin phrase meaning, “this for that” Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment is when unwelcomed sexual advances become a prerequisite tied to something at work. For example, if an employee faces termination unless they go on a date with their supervisor, the employee is experiencing quid pro quo harassment. This can also include situations where an employer merely withholds a benefit (e.g., a raise) or implies opportunities for advancement (e.g., a promotion) will occur if the employee submits to their demands. Regardless of whether the employee refuses and suffers consequences or acquiesces and receives benefits, the use of quid pro quo to harass the employee is just as unlawful.

Hostile Work Environment 

This occurs when the sexual advances of a coworker, subordinate, or superior create an unpleasant or frightening working atmosphere for an employee. These actions don’t have to be physical either. Repeated comments, jokes, or sexual language that make the employee uncomfortable or interfere with their ability to work are just as unlawful as physical touching or fondling. 

Additionally, the harassment in question doesn’t have to be sexual, but can also be about an employee’s sex in general.

However, an individual instance of this behavior isn’t usually enough to demonstrate a hostile work environment. A victim will need to show a pattern of repeated behavior that created an environment any reasonable person would find intimidating or offensive. 

Despite stereotypes of a male employee harassing a female coworker or subordinate, sexual harassment can also be initiated by a woman, or occur between employees of the same sex.  

Same-sex and Transgender Sexual Harassment

In 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that sexual discrimination (and thereby sexual harassment) can occur between two employees of the same sex. As such, claims of sexual harassment between two men and two women are equally as valid as those between employees of different sexes.  

The court reaffirmed this ruling in 2020 when it stated the legal protections from sexual discrimination also apply to homosexual and transgendered employees. Other federal courts have since specified these protections also apply to sexual harassment against homosexual and transgendered employees.

Current Sexual Harassment Laws

Knowing what sexual harassment is and the forms it can take is only part of the battle. It’s equally as important to know which laws protect against it and which agencies oversee those laws as instances of harassment evolve with society’s definitions of sexuality. 

Federal Sexual Harassment Laws 

At the federal level, protections against sexual harassment in the workplace began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VII. Broadly speaking, Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer of 15 or more employees, including local and state government employers, labor unions, and employment agencies:

“(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or

(2) to limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

Not only did this law specifically prohibit discrimination in the workplace, it also established the EEOC to enforce all federal laws that discriminate against applicants or employees based on their race, color, religion, etc. As such, the EEOC has the authority to investigate charges and employer practices for discrimination and attempt to settle or litigate cases where discrimination exists. Both the EEOC’s guidance on the act and CFR section 1604.11 clearly state that harassment based on someone’s sex violates Title VII’s protections against discrimination. 

Building upon this act was the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which further strengthened and expanded upon the protections created by the original act nearly 30 years earlier. Under the 1991 act, victims of discrimination were allowed to seek jury trials as well as compensatory and punitive damages from their employers instead of just back pay. Additionally, this law reinforced protections against an employer’s retaliation towards an employee for filing a charge of discrimination, and it clarified the burden of proof needed in discrimination cases where employers claim their actions would’ve occurred regardless of the discriminatory factor (e.g., race, religion, sex, etc.).

Missouri Sexual Harassment Laws

The state of Missouri also has its own definitions and laws against sexual harassment in the workplace. The Department of Labor defines sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination based on sexually explicit behavior. Such unwelcome advances, requests for sexual favors, and other sexual conduct constitute sexual harassment when:

“1. Submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of an individual’s employment[;]

  1. Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis of employment decisions affecting such individual[;] 
  2. Such conduct creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. This is where the sexual conduct is so pervasive or severe that it creates an abusive working environment.”

Within the Revised Statutes of Missouri (RSMO), Chapter 213 addresses human rights as a whole, and is sometimes referred to as the “Missouri Human Rights Act.” Section 213.055 specifically states it is an unlawful employment practice for an employer to perform either of the following based on an individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age, or disability:

“(a) To fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age or disability;

(b) To limit, segregate, or classify his employees or his employment applicants in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age or disability.”

The chapter also clarifies that it applies to employers with at least six employees, including state government employers and labor unions. Finally, Section 213.070 also makes it unlawful for employers to retaliate against an employee who files a charge of discrimination with the state.

Similar to the EEOC, the state of Missouri also has an executive agency whose mission is to prevent and eliminate discrimination by enforcing the Missouri Human Rights Act. This Missouri Human Rights Commission (MHRC) investigates complaints of workplace discrimination and has jurisdiction over all public and private employers, except those expressly exempted in the RSMO. 

What to Do If You Experience Sexual Harassment at Work

As any sexual harassment lawyer will tell you, there are several actions you can take if you experience or know of sexual harassment happening at your job. 

Report the Harassment

First and foremost, a victim will need to inform federal and state agencies about their case. Luckily, both the EEOC and the MHRC guide how to file a complaint. As both agencies will tell you, however, timing is important. You need to file a charge within 180 calendar days from the date the discrimination occurred, though sometimes the EEOC will extend this to 300 calendar days if state or local governments enforce a law prohibiting employment discrimination for the same reason.

  • At both the federal and state levels, employers will be notified of the charge shortly after it’s filed. Both the employer and complainant will first be invited to resolve the situation through a mediator.
  • If a settlement can’t be reached, both agencies will proceed to a formal investigation, though the EEOC will first ask the employer to submit a Respondent’s Position Statement.
  • When the investigations are complete, both agencies proceed to inform everyone of their findings. If unlawful discrimination is found, both agencies will directly try to reach a settlement with the parties involved.
  • If no settlement occurs, the EEOC will decide whether or not to file a lawsuit against the employer while the MHRC will conduct a hearing that concludes with a recommended finding and order. The commission will then issue its final decision and order. Either party can appeal this decision to the circuit court.
  • Federal remedies include compensatory and limited punitive damages (based on the size of the employer), while state remedies include reinstatement or promotion, back pay, and damages for pain, suffering, humiliation, and deprivation of civil rights.

In both processes, complainants may request a Notice of Right to Sue after their charge has been on file for 180 calendar days. This notice allows the complainant to pursue a lawsuit in state or federal court on their own instead of doing so with either agency. Both agencies, however, will close their investigations if a complainant chooses to exercise this option, and the complainant will then have 90 days to file their suit(s). In Missouri, any suit must also be filed within 2 years of when the discrimination occurred. 

Contact a Sexual Harassment Lawyer

If you decide to file a lawsuit on your own after obtaining a Notice of Right to Sue, you should immediately consult with a legal professional on the nature of your case. Moreover, you should make sure it’s a legal professional who specializes in employment law and sexual harassment cases. 

When searching for “sexual harassment lawyers near me” also make sure the one you choose has experience prosecuting these types of cases, as they will be able to determine the best course of action based on your situation.

Again, federal and state laws have strict timelines on how long you can file a charge or suit, so it’s best to avoid waiting to act or reach out to a sexual harassment lawyer.

The state of Missouri’s sexual harassment definition is, “any behavior of a sexual nature that is unwelcome and creates a hostile, offensive or intimidating work environment.” This includes sexually explicit behavior and conduct, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and any other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is a term of employment, determines employment decisions, or creates a hostile work environment.

There are two types of sexual harassment in the workplace: Quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when unwelcomed sexual advances become a prerequisite tied to something at work, such as a promotion or being hired. A hostile work environment occurs when sexual conduct is so common or severe that it creates an intimidating, offensive, or abusive working environment.

However, this doesn’t include simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t serious. Again, only instances where the harassment is pervasive or extreme.  

Yes, in the state of Missouri, being sexually harassed is a form of sex-based discrimination. The harassment doesn’t have to be sexual in nature, but can instead be derogatory or offensive actions based on someone’s sex, such as labeling a type of work as “women’s work.”

However, this doesn’t include simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that aren’t serious. Again, only instances where the harassment is pervasive or extreme.  

Yes, the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) protects individuals against discrimination based on sex, as well as compensation, pregnancy, and gender discrimination. It applies to employers with six or more employees, including state and local governments. 

As such, sexual harassment laws make it unlawful to discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because of a person’s sex or gender, including decisions in hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or any other condition or privilege of employment. 

Compensation discrimination occurs when employers deviate from compensation standards based on a person’s sex or gender, such as their salary, overtime pay, bonuses, stock options, profit sharing, life insurance, vacation pay, allowances, other benefits, and travel expenses.

Pregnancy discrimination happens when female employees are treated unfairly based on their pregnancy, childbirth, and related medical conditions. 

Gender discrimination is when an employee experiences animosity toward their gender, including epithets, slurs, degrading or hostile written material, or negative stereotyping. Even if the employer isn’t the one acting or behaving in this way, they can still be liable for discrimination if they fail to act when becoming aware of the conduct. 

If someone at work is sexually harassing you, you should report it to your employer as soon as possible. If your employer is the one harassing you or does nothing to stop the harassment, you can file a complaint with the federal and state governments and speak with a sexual harassment lawyer. A sexual harassment attorney will be able to further examine your case and help you decide what to do next. 

If you feel like you have been the victim of discrimination, reach out to Paladin Law to protect your rights. 

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