How to Respond to Workplace Sexual Assault

Sexual assault is a serious crime, and especially when experienced in the workplace, it can leave a victim wondering how to navigate a way to safety… and justice. In this article we’re going to show you where the line is drawn between sexual harassment and sexual assault, what to do if you are sexually assaulted at work, and why you want an experienced workplace sexual assault lawyer on your side.

In some cases, sexual harassment, which is generally handled as a civil matter, crosses the line into sexual assault, which is a serious crime that can be prosecuted in criminal court.

Some employment settings are associated with high rates of harassment, like:

  • Working for tips. Wait staff and hotel housekeepers account for 14% of harassment claims.
  • Working in isolated environments. Janitors, domestic care workers, hotel workers, and agricultural workers report higher than average rates of harassment and assault.
  • Employees lacking legal immigration status or having only a temporary work visa.
  • Working in a male dominated job, especially in physical positions or those that focus on stereotypically male tasks such as construction.
  • Working in a setting with significant power differences. This includes settings like academia and law firms where one might work with a well-known professor, high-earning partner, or a grant-winning researcher.

The consequences of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace cost us all, not just those who are direct victims. Victims experience physical and mental health problems, career interruptions, and lower earnings. Sexual harassment also tends to discourage women from advancing into higher paid careers and has been linked to the gender wage gap. In the workforce at large, sexual assault and harassment contribute to hefty legal costs, employee turnover, reduced productivity, and increased absences.

In a word – sexual assault and harassment are problems that plague us all, either directly or indirectly.

In this article, we will discuss what steps you should take if you are sexually assaulted or harassed at work, as well as the relationship between assault and other forms of discrimination. Let’s start by looking at the key differences between sexual assault and harassment.

What is the Difference Between Sexual Assault and Harassment?

While sexual assault and harassment may go hand-in-hand, there are some important differences between the two. First, sexual assault (no matter where it happens) is a criminal offense that can be reported to local police and prosecuted by a state or district attorney’s office. The Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) defines sexual assault as “any nonconsensual sexual act, including when the victim lacks the capacity to consent.” Sexual assault is a relatively broad terms that covers actions from inappropriate touching to rape.

Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is often treated as a civil wrong, particularly when it occurs in the workplace. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines workplace harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature, when it explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” To break that down a little further, harassment can include verbal, visual, nonverbal, or physical conduct that is of a sexual nature. Examples include crude remarks, sexual texts (“sexts”), forcing others to look at or read sexually explicit material, or demanding sexual favors in exchange for work-related opportunities or benefits.

It is important to note that sexual assault and harassment are not mutually exclusive; they can both occur in the workplace. If a co-worker repeatedly makes crude comments and sexual advances, then crosses the line into inappropriate touching, they are likely violating Texas and federal laws pertaining to sexual assault, as well as committing sexual harassment. You could potentially file criminal charges as well as a civil lawsuit against someone who harasses and assaults you in this manner.

The Intersection of Sexual Assault and Other Forms of Discrimination

Sadly, sexual assault tends to intersect with other forms of harassment and discrimination. In fact, in a study of EEOC charges filed by women in the private sector between 2012 and 2016, Black women were the most likely of all racial groups to file a sexual harassment charge with the EEOC, and a substantial number of those charges also allege racial discrimination.

Undocumented and immigrant women also tend to work in service fields with high rates of sexual assault, such as agriculture, food processing, garment factories, and domestic work. Unfortunately, many of these victims fear that reporting sexual assault could lead to deportation, loss of their work visa, or other interference with their immigration status. Some women even report that their employers threaten to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for speaking up about workplace conditions. However, victims of sexual violence in the workplace may qualify for U-Visas, which offer protection against deportation for survivors of domestic violence. This is one reason it is important to speak with an experienced attorney if you experience any form of sexual assault in the workplace.

What to Do if You Are Sexually Assaulted at Work

If you have been sexually assaulted in any environment, the first thing you should do is seek medical attention. Health care professionals can test for sexually transmitted diseases or other complications associated with sexual assault. They are also equipped to conduct a forensic examination (referred to as a “rape kit”) used to collect evidence such as DNA and blood samples. Not every medical provider is equipped to conduct these examinations, so it’s important to find one near you (you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE [4673] or talk to your local sexual assault service provider.) Because sexual assault is a traumatic experience emotionally and psychologically, medical practitioners can refer you to an appropriate mental health professional to help you process the trauma.

You also want to contact police as soon as possible. Sexual assault is a crime, and reporting offenders can help protect you and others from further predatory behavior. Reporting a crime such as sexual assault as soon as it occurs also strengthens your case if you pursue any form of legal action. It’s always OK to ask to speak to an officer of the gender of your choosing.

Follow up by reporting the assault to human resources or an appropriate authority in your workplace. They need to be notified if the assault occurred at work, at a work function off-site, or in the immediate vicinity, such as the office parking lot.

Finally, consult with an experienced workplace harassment attorney. Even if law enforcement officials do not press criminal charges, you may still have the right to civil remedies. An experienced attorney can advise you of your rights and help you choose the legal path that is best for you.

The Sexual Harassment Attorneys at Jackson Spencer Can Help

At Jackson Spencer Law, we believe everyone deserves to work in a safe and comfortable environment. Our attorneys have the experience and resources needed to protect your rights as an employee and get you the justice you deserve. If you believe you have been a victim of sexual assault or harassment in the workplace, contact our office for a free consultation.