For everyone who has been put on the spot having to deal with unwelcome innuendos, gestures or physical contact, it may be good to know that there are laws on the books for protection. The catch is that even with laws in black and white, there still may be problems getting them enforced. Often claims of sexual harassment are not taken seriously.
The first step is to know exactly what sexual harassment is. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the base form of sexual harassment rules in the workplace. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment." Sexual harassment can be anything from offensive jokes to propositions to posting obscenities to inappropriate touching. Sexual assault is a criminal offense, and a victim should never be discouraged from reporting such instances to the police.
Employers have a responsibility to help the victim of a hostile work environment, as long as the victim makes the actions known to management. It only takes one incident of quid pro quo -- when an employer makes untoward demands as a condition of employment -- but it usually takes multiple instances of a hostile work environment for a court to rule that sexual harassment has taken place and that the company is liable.
In a case of a hostile work environment, the victim should make clear that the jokes or innuendos are not welcome. The perpetrator may truly not be aware that the jokes he or she thinks are normal and funny are not considered normal and funny by the victim. If the language continues, then the victim should make a complaint to human resources or to his or her supervisor; refer to the employee handbook for the exact chain of command and procedure. If the company fails to act on the complaint or retaliates against the employee who filed the complaint, then the company becomes liable in any court action that may follow. When the complaint is not handled properly, the victim has the right to file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
There are cases when a victim chooses not to report harassment to the EEOC immediately. Sometimes the victim is embarrassed. Sometimes the victim hopes he or she only misread someone's intentions. The American Association of University Women makes the following recommendations: Document every instance of harassment; try to get a copy of your personnel folder in case the employer seeks any retribution; get support from family and friends; keep copies of all communications at home (away from the workplace) for safekeeping; and watch the calendar, as you will usually have up to 180 days to file a formal sexual harassment complaint with the EEOC.