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Workplace sexual harassment and employee safeguards

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment to include verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, requests for sexual favors and unwelcome sexual advances. Incidents of such behavior in California and around the country, though, may be underreported. According to a national survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine, 71 percent of women who said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace also said they did not report it.

Some speculate that underreporting is a consequence of a belief among victims that their complaints will not be properly handled. Of the 29 percent of women surveyed who reported sexual harassment, only 15 percent said they reached a satisfactory outcome.

Anyone who believes they are being sexually harassed at work should take steps to protect themselves and to prevent future occurrences. It's important, for example, to keep a written record of all activity that may constitute harassment. Many companies have established policies and procedures for dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, and employers are required by law to maintain impartiality once a report is filed. The EEOC has rules prohibiting retaliation against employees who report this type of behavior.

Employees should review any employee handbooks and communicate with their workplace human resources department to understand any formal company policies that may apply. In cases where the company has not established a formal sexual harassment policy, the HR department or the EEOC may offer relief.

Individuals who have been subjected to sexist or sexually explicit conduct or behavior at work have recourse under the law. An attorney with experience in employment law may be able to help by examining documentary evidence or deposing witnesses and at-fault parties. An attorney may be able to assist victims of unwanted sexual advances or other forms of harassment by negotiating a settlement or by arguing on behalf of the employee during legal proceedings.

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