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You've Been Sexually Harassed: What Are Your Rights?

Part 2 of 7 of a series on "How the Law Can Protect You from Sexual Harassment" by Randall E. Strauss, Esq., Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer

Sexual harassment has been around forever, but legal protections for victims are surprisingly recent. The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and a groundswell of victims' stories and protests became the catalysts society needed to finally realize no one deserves to be insulted, threatened or demeaned, including in the workplace.

Laws protect employees from conduct that unreasonably interferes with their job performance. Getting a job, keeping a job or retaining job benefits are no longer contingent on submitting to unwelcome sexual advances or other harassment.

Still, harassment continues. Workplace laws work only when they are enforced and when ordinary workers know and stand up for their rights. Here is what every employee should be able to expect on the job:

1. You have the right to be considered for employment regardless of gender. Eligibility for work is based on job requirements, not outdated gender-based assumptions traditionally used to bar women from dangerous work. For example, today, women in the military and women firefighters are proving themselves capable at all levels of command.

2. You have the right to do the work and obtain the benefits defined in your employment agreement. Your employer can't require you to perform duties that will subject you to sexual harassment -- including putting you in a position in which you feel obligated to laugh at or ignore sexually offensive jokes. You can't be required to act flirtatiously nor dress seductively to impress a client. Your employer can never use your gender as a reason to delete elements of your job that allows you the normal opportunities to do your job well or gain advancement.

3. You have the right to speak out without fear of retaliation. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission's "Facts About Sexual Harassment" says that you have the right to say "no" and "inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop," using "any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available." It is unlawful for someone to retaliate against you for "opposing employment practices that discriminate based on sex or for filing a discrimination charge, testifying, or participating in any way in an investigation, proceeding, or litigation under Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act]."

4. You have the right to due process. That means you and everyone else involved in an incident deserve to be heard and judged fairly. The law, the EEOC and California's Department of Employment and Fair Housing offer procedures designed to get as close to the truth of any claim as possible -- absolutely critical when so many elements of sexual harassment claims are subjective. Keep in mind that even though the law tells us to search for the truth before pronouncing judgment, social media allows users to share information without verifying its truth. That means alleged harassers could be named and found guilty based on a single post or Tweet. It's not fair, but it's reality.

5. You have the right to access information that could prove your claim. Such information includes copies of your employee handbook, your personnel file, letters and memos to you from your employer and other documents about your employment. You are generally entitled to use information from emails, letters, and even social media to document your case. If your employer refuses personal use of company copiers or printers, assert your rights. Those sources may provide the best or only opportunity to prove your case, get EEOC review, or retain an attorney. The law allows employees to print or send emails to themselves that support their cases. You have a right to good legal support. Your lawyer can make sure that you obtain pertinent information held by your employer that is relevant to your case.

6. You may have the right to compensation for harassment. Money won't undo the harm you've suffered, but it can go a long way toward making you whole. The amount of compensation depends on your case, but a good attorney will help identify monetary damages such as current and future lost income, as well as non-monetary damages such as ongoing pain and suffering, that you've suffered as a result of the harassment. Your attorney will likely prepare to take your case to court, but most cases are settled out of court.

If you've been the victim of sexual harassment, an employment attorney can answer your questions and help you determine next steps.

Speak to an Employment lawyer about your unique workplace harassment situation.

To learn more please contact the Oakland law firm of Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer at 510-832-5411 or email us at [email protected]

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