Sexual harassment at work illegal under Colorado and US civil rights law

Sexual harassment in employment is illegal under a complicated interplay of federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Sexual harassment: the phrase suggests behavior by one person toward another that would be abhorrent, disturbing and even frightening. The bottom line is that behavior that amounts to sexual harassment of employees or job applicants is illegal under both Colorado state and federal civil rights laws, which give victims legal rights to damages and employers duties to prevent and stop it.

Sexual harassment is a subset of sex discrimination and comes in two basic types in the employment context. The first occurs when an employee is threatened with negative employment action like termination or demotion if he or she does not give a sexual favor in response to an unwelcome request. On the flip side, this kind of sexual harassment, called quid pro quo, can also occur when an employee is told that he or she will get an employment perk like a raise in exchange for a sexual favor.

The other kind of sexual harassment at work is when sexually offensive behavior creates a hostile work environment that prevents victims and even bystanders from doing their jobs or that creates an offensive, intimidating or hostile environment. A hostile work environment can occur by one or a few very serious actions (rape, assault, sexual touching) or by ongoing, regularly occurring behavior that can include leering, stalking, displaying offensive pictures or pornography, sexually suggestive or crude language, off-color humor, offensive written or electronic messages or text and other similar behavior.

Sexual harassment can be focused on a victim of the same or opposite sex as the perpetrator and both women and men can be targeted. Harassers can be supervisors, coworkers, nonemployees in the worksite and others.

For employers, prevention is key. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC, the federal agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws, suggests that an employer:

  • Establish a sexual harassment complaint procedure
  • Communicate a clear policy against sexual harassment
  • Make it clear that harassment will not be tolerated
  • Provide employee training to help them recognize and oppose it
  • Take immediate action in response to an allegation

For both victims and employers, experienced legal counsel is important to understand the laws governing sexual harassment. Federal and Colorado state laws are complex and while they have significant overlap, there are important differences that an attorney can explain. For a victim, these differences can have significant impact on what route to take to legal resolution.

For example, federal anti-discrimination laws apply to employers with 15 or more employees, but Colorado's applies to all employers of any size. The kinds of potentially recoverable damages in a sexual harassment lawsuit may also vary.

Like the EEOC on the federal level, the state enforcement agency is the Colorado Civil Rights Division or CCRD. A knowledgeable lawyer can explain the complicated interplay between the two agencies and between state and federal courts in this area of law. It is extremely important to get legal advice so as not to miss filing or notice deadlines.

For employers, legal counsel can provide guidance in developing training programs and setting policies against sexual harassment. If a complaint is made or a claim filed, a lawyer can assist with investigation, negotiation and defense of a lawsuit, if necessary.

In Denver, Bryan E. Kuhn, Counselor at Law, P.C., represents both employees and employers in matters of sexual harassment, illegal discrimination and other kinds of employment law.