Sexual harassment is widespread in workplaces throughout the United States. While sexual harassment exists in all industries, it is most prevalent in the restaurant industry. 71% of women who worked in a restaurant have been sexually harassed on at least one occasion. Moreover, 98% of all women in the survey reported at least one incident of retaliation following their report of sexual harassment, according to a report published by One Fair Wage in March 2021.

If you are facing sexual harassment, you are not alone. Here are seven key points you should know:

#1 – You Have a Right to a Workplace Free of Sexual Harassment.

Sexual harassment is never something that is “part of the job.” It is illegal under West Virginia and federal law to sexually harass employees in the workplace. The West Virginia Human Rights Act (“WVHRA”) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect you from unwanted sexual harassment in the workplace. To fall under these Acts, your employer must have a certain number of employees. The WVHRA requires twelve or more employees in West Virginia for twenty or more calendar weeks in the year the sexual harassment occurred, while Title VII requires 15 or more employees. In the event your employer does not reach these thresholds for employees, the substantial public policy of West Virginia may provide you protection.

#2 – Types of Sexual Harassment.

There are two types of sexual harassment:

  1. Quid pro quo 
  2. Sexual harassment hostile work environment

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “this for that.” This type of sexual harassment occurs when a supervisor or employee conditions an employee’s hiring, pay, benefits, or continued employment on the employee’s consent to participate in sexual acts. A classic example of quid pro quo sexual harassment is when a supervisor promises a promotion or favorable job conditions in exchange for sex. On the other hand, sexual harassment hostile work environment occurs in various forms such as unwanted sexual advances, touching, inappropriate jokes, intimidation, retaliation, or an employer failing to take prompt action after a report of sexual harassment.

#3 – Sexual Harassment Is More Than Inappropriate Touching.

Inappropriate touching is a common form of sexual harassment. The West Virginia Code of State Rules broadly defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature intended to interfere with an individual’s work performance or create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. As you can see, sexual harassment encompasses so much more than just touching. Sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate jokes, sending offensive text messages, displaying pornography, violating personal space, “testing the waters” for sex, or asking about your private sex life. Sexual harassment can also exist when you are subjected to an intimidating work environment because you are female. 

#4 – The Harassment Does Not Have to Be Directed at You.

A sexually hostile work environment is not confined to the target of sexual harassment. Indirectly witnessing sexual harassment or experiencing a workplace culture that tolerates sexual harassment can be just as devastating as directly experiencing the harassment. This is commonly referred to as “ambient” sexual harassment or “secondhand smoke.” The WVHRA and Title VII provide protection for indirect sexual harassment.

#5 – Psychological Effects of Sexual Harassment.

The emotional and psychological effects of sexual harassment can have lasting consequences. Survivors of sexual harassment can experience nightmares, anxiety, depression, loss of self-esteem, withdrawal, horror, fear, helplessness, and avoidance. Many survivors of sexual harassment develop post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-V] associates PTSD with experiencing a traumatic event like sexual harassment. There are damages available under the WVHRA and Title VII for emotional distress related to sexual harassment. At Bailess Law Firm, we believe the psychological and emotional effects of sexual harassment may be the greatest damages our clients experience.

#6 – Report Sexual Harassment Immediately. 

Reporting sexual harassment triggers the employer’s duty to act. If a co-worker or customer is sexually harassing you, you should immediately report the harassment to a supervisor or human resources. On the other hand, if your supervisor or an owner is the source of the harassment, you can report the sexual harassment to another supervisor, owner, or human resources. Alternatively, some companies have a hotline you can call to report the harassment. When a supervisor engages in sexual harassment, his or her conduct can automatically make the employer liable. Under the WVHRA, an employer is responsible for the acts of its supervisors performed in the scope of their employment. Supervisors can also be found liable under the WVHRA for failing to take prompt and corrective action against co-workers who knowingly engage in sexual harassment.

#7 – Damages Available for Sexual Harassment

Employers who violate sexual harassment laws may be on the hook for your lost wages, emotional distress damages, and punitive damages pursuant to the WVHRA. Keep in mind, punitive damages are designed to punish and deter your employer from engaging in future acts of sexual harassment. Additionally, your employer may also have to pay for the time and costs your attorney incurs in the case.

Our team at Bailess Law Firm has proudly represented many survivors of sexual harassment. We recognize firsthand the courage it takes to come forward about sexual harassment. Our team is committed to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace. We will listen to you without judgment in a pressure-free environment. Whether you would like more information, want to take action against your employer, or just want to talk, please contact us for a free consultation at (304) 413-1400 or complete our contact form and download our book It's Not Your Fault: How to Fight Back Against Sexual Harassment in the Workplace for more information.