​Is It Sexual Harassment if I See the Boss Sexually Harassing Someone Else?

Lawyer for Sexual Harassment in San Diego

Just because you are not the direct victim of sexual harassment does not mean you have not experienced harassment. What you see and hear on the job can impact you directly, even if the conduct itself is indirect. The legal definition of sexual harassment is broad enough to encompass instances of indirect sexual harassment.

Seeing someone else experiencing sexual harassment can affect you personally, and it can be grounds for your own sexual harassment lawsuit. First, you should consult with an experienced sexual harassment attorney to determine whether you have the ability and right to file a lawsuit. Much depends on how you personally have been affected and whether your reaction was that of a reasonable person.

The Types of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

There are two primary types of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • Quid pro quo sexual harassment is when a manager or someone else with power over you demands sexual favors in exchange for something else. The “something else” can be a promotion or simply keeping your job. Quid pro quo harassment can be a physical action or a verbal request.
  • A hostile work environment happens when there is harassment so severe and pervasive that it impacts your ability to do your job. The harassment can be remarks directed at you or things that generally happen in the workplace. A culture of vulgar jokes and “locker room talk” can be enough to create a hostile work environment.

Witnessing Harassment of Others Is Part of a Hostile Work Environment

Seeing sexual harassment of others can fall into the hostile work environment category. In fact, witnessing sexual harassment is one of the most common forms of hostile work environment claims. When you see that others are experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace, you might begin to wonder whether it can happen to you.

There is a certain amount of helplessness and distress that you may feel when you see someone else who is powerless and suffering mistreatment. When you witness what happens to others, it becomes part of your own environment.

Seeing Harassment Can Distress You and Make You Fear for Your Own Safety

This conduct is the textbook definition of a hostile work environment. You may be concerned for your own safety based on what you see happening to other people on the job. Your ability to perform your duties may suffer because of your fear. Your job performance depends in part on the corporate culture. If you know that sexual harassment is part and parcel of the job experience, you may feel distressed.

Examples of Indirect Sexual Harassment

If you feel uncomfortable about what you have witnessed to the point of being distressed, you may be a victim of indirect sexual harassment. Not only can the direct victim of the harassment file a lawsuit against the employer, but you might also take action as well.

Indirect sexual harassment can involve hearing or seeing certain comments. If you hear a co-worker being the victim of degrading remarks about their gender, it can offend you, too, because you heard them. The same thing goes for sexual remarks and innuendo. Even if the boss did not directly address the comment to you, they still made it within your earshot, and they may as well have aimed the harassment at you.

Other forms of indirect sexual harassment include:

  • Seeing or being copied on an offensive email
  • Seeing someone else make a sexually offensive gesture
  • Viewing an inappropriate poster in someone else’s workspace

Anything that contributes to a hostile work environment or toxic culture can potentially be sexual harassment. Not only is the employer liable for the harassment, but they can also be held responsible for doing nothing about it and allowing it to continue.

The employer cannot allow a hostile work environment to persist. If the employer knows about a hostile work environment and does nothing about it, they should compensate victims as a legal remedy for the violation of their employment rights.

Indirect Sexual Harassment Must Personally Affect You

To obtain financial compensation for sexual harassment, you must have personally suffered from it. The conduct that you have endured must have impeded your ability to do your job and created a hostile work environment for you personally.

If you see something and think to yourself, “It is a shame, and it is awful,” it may not be enough for you to be in a position to receive compensation. Only when you begin to experience your own personal consequences of the behavior will you suffer the damages that can lead to a settlement or an award.

Your Reaction Depends on the Reasonable Person Standard

In addition, whether you actually suffered harassment depends on what a reasonable person would have perceived and felt from a situation. 

While there is always a subjective component to a sexual harassment case, there is also an objective element to it. Not every derogatory remark or instance of harassment in your presence can be harassment. Everything depends on the specific situation.

You should be ready for your employer to raise the defense that you did not actually suffer any personal harm from witnessing the conduct or that you had an unreasonable or oversensitive reaction to it. Accordingly, you should maintain your own contemporaneous documentation that shows what happened and how the behavior impacted you.

Keep a log of what you have seen and heard, including sufficient details showing how and why you felt distressed. In addition, you should also seek mental health assistance. Not only will it help you deal with the consequences of the sexual harassment, but the treatment notes will also help document how you have personally suffered.

Reporting Indirect Sexual Harassment Can Present its Own Challenges for You

There is some question about how you should handle indirect sexual harassment. The victim of the direct sexual harassment may not want to come forward themselves. The question is whether you need to report the sexually harassing conduct to management or human resources.

That is always a delicate consideration in each case. You do not want to subject the victim of direct harassment to retaliation if they do not come forward themselves. Although you are feeling distressed and harassed, you are also thinking about what can happen to someone else. The feeling of confusion and powerlessness is part of what you may experience that causes your own injury.

There Is No One Right Answer

Generally, you should come forward when you have felt harassed in any way, although you should handle the situation delicately. There are additional considerations when the harassment is indirect because what you do can have an impact on your co-workers.

What you do will depend on the facts and circumstances of your case. There is no one-size-fits-all answer that works for every case. Much depends on the dynamics of your workplace and whether the direct victim has come forward. You should consult an employment attorney to help you determine the right course of action. The employment lawyer will advise you on whether you should speak to management or human resources and how you should handle the situation.

You Might Face Retaliation on Your Own Account

In some cases, you may have said something to your boss, telling them that their conduct was wrong. The boss may retaliate against you by taking an adverse employment action.

For example, your employer may outright fire you from your job or act in a manner that pressures you into leaving. Or, your employer may give you a negative performance evaluation that impacts your career and job security. If so, you can take legal action against your employer for retaliation. Even though your complaint did not pertain to you personally, you still came forward, and your employer retaliated.

How Much Can You Receive in a Sexual Harassment Case?

Sexual harassment settlements and jury awards can be considerable. Discussing average amounts of awards is not helpful because each case is different and stands on its own merits. Some cases have resulted in awards of millions or tens of millions of dollars. Other cases have settled for tens of thousands of dollars. Again, everything depends on the facts and circumstances of your own case. Your attorney can give you a better idea of your potential financial recovery.

In a sexual harassment lawsuit, you may seek compensation for:

  • The distress that you suffered from the wrongful conduct
  • Lost income if your employer fired you, denied you a promotion, or you missed time from work because of the harassment
  • The cost of any mental health of medical treatment that you received to treat the effects of the harassment
  • Embarrassment and humiliation
  • Damage to your reputation from the harassment

Depending on the scope of the sexual harassment, a jury can also decide to punish your employer. When you hear of extremely large sexual harassment verdicts, such as the $168 million a California hospital employee received a decade ago, much of the verdict consists of punitive damages.

The jury may try to send a message to your employer and punish them for what they did by awarding you extra money. Often, there is a pervasive culture of harassment that the employer either fosters or completely ignores.

You should contact an attorney today to discuss your potential sexual harassment claim. It does not cost you anything to get legal advice from an employment lawyer in San Diego about a possible harassment lawsuit. You will also not pay anything unless you win your case.

If you win a sexual harassment lawsuit, your employer will need to pay your legal costs and attorney’s fees for your case. In the meantime, you can get the feeling that you are righting a wrong and pursuing justice from your employer. You might prevent future employees from suffering sexual harassment by taking action.

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