November 16, 2017

Employment Law

Witness Workplace Sexual Harassment?

November 16, 2017 – Victims of workplace sexual harassment often find it very difficult to report it. In fact, only one in four employees makes a report. Often these individuals fear they will not be believed, that no action will be taken or that they will suffer social or professional retaliation.

Witnesses to employment sexual harassment not only provide crucial support to victims, but they are instrumental in rooting out perpetrators and helping make the work environment safer for all employees. Witnesses may be co-workers who saw the sexual harassment firsthand, experienced sexual harassment themselves, or made their own report of sexual harassment. These individuals may be hesitant to come forward out of concern they, too, will suffer retaliation and not be protected. Many are surprised to learn the law protects witnesses, too.

What is employment retaliation?

Under the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) and Title VII, it is unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an individual who engages in statutorily protected activity by opposing sexual harassment or by filing a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any manner in an investigation, proceeding or hearing relating to sexual harassment.  

Retaliation includes any form of intimidation, harassment or reprisal. Retaliation by an employer includes, but is not limited to:

  • Refusal to hire
  • Departure from any customary employment practice
  • Transfer or reassignment to a lesser position in terms of wages, hours, job classification, job security or other adverse change in employment status.
  • Negative or lowered performance evaluations
  • Abusive verbal or physical behavior
  • Threats or scrutinizing work or attendance more closely than or other employees, without justification

Am I protected if I provide information about a co-worker’s sexual harassment?

Yes. The MHRA and Title VII protect individuals who report sexual harassment or participate as a witness to any form of discriminatory practice. These protections exist to encourage people to come forward and to help ensure they are truthful during an employment investigation and not fearful of testifying truthfully. Protections extend to those who come forward on behalf of someone else, whether to report the sexual harassment or provide information about sexual harassment in the course of an investigation, proceeding, or hearing.

For example, if an employee has been identified as a witness in an employer’s internal investigation of a coworker’s harassment allegation and provides corroborating information about sexual harassment they witnessed and/or experienced, they are protected from retaliation, even though they have not brought their own internal complaint of harassment.

As another example, if a coworker witnesses a supervisor make unwelcomed sexual comments, sexual contact and/or sexual advances toward an employee and intervenes on behalf of the employee to ask the supervisor to stop, the witness’s actions would be protected as opposition to sexual harassment. Retaliation against the witness would be actionable.

What should I do if I witnessed workplace sexual harassment?

An important first step for a witness is to speak up. If an employee sees or experiences sexual harassment, they should report it to a supervisor or human resources department immediately. Further, they should document the incident in case they are asked about it in the future. An employee handbook may provide guidance on making the report. Reporting the sexual harassment obligates the employer to act. Further, the report can set the stage for further actions if the harassment does not stop.

Contact Our Minnesota Employment Lawyers to Discuss Your Rights
Wanta Thome PLC is committed to protecting the rights of Minnesota employees who have suffered unlawful workplace sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation. For information about sexual harassment in the workplace, employment retaliation or to speak to an attorney about your potential case, please contact us at 612-252-3570 or click here for a free initial consultation.

Recent articles concerning workplace sexual harassment: