Sexual Harassment and the C-Suite

woman on phone at night

Allegations of sexual harassment can be intimidating to report. It gets particularly hairy if the harasser is a superior or an executive in the highest ranks at the company. However, sexual harassment is illegal at any level and in any form. While the general mechanics of reporting sexual harassment don’t change, it can be more difficult to navigate when the harasser ranks above the victim. Here’s what you need to know about the nuances of sexual harassment in which the harasser is an executive or supervisor.

The definition of sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a government body that oversees the enforcement of federal laws related to discrimination, sexual harassment covers:

  • Unwanted sexual advances such as comments, propositions, and more
  • Creating a hostile work environment laden with jokes, sexual innuendo, or unwelcoming to one particular sex
  • Retaliation for rejecting advances or reporting harassment
  • Harassment that is not sexual but is offensive regarding a person’s sex
  • Both men and women as victims and harassers
  • All work relationships.

The power imbalance and consequences

All sexual harassment is wrong, but it can be egregious if the harasser is a superior, particularly so if the person is a member of the executive team, the CEO of a company, and/or higher ranking than the victim. A subordinate might be more fearful of retaliation and therefore less likely to report sexual harassment to a human resources department, or the executive might have undue influence over promotions, job security, and more. This abuse of authority only exacerbates the issue and can lead to silent suffering, coercion, threats, manipulation, unfair internal investigations, insufficient consequences, and destruction of company culture. There are also the mental and physical health implications of the victim to consider.

How sexual harassment can increase a company's liability

Besides the fact that it’s illegal and unwanted workplace behavior, sexual harassment cases, particularly those involving the C-suite, can increase a company’s liability financially and reputationally.

A company that has to settle sexual harassment and related tort claims can be liable for penalties, compensatory damages, and punitive damages, not to mention legal fees and possible investigation and pressure from the EEOC. It can also lead to bad publicity for the company.

What to do if you’ve been sexually harassed by an executive

All sexual harassment violations should be reported, but if you believe you have a case for sexual harassment against your employer and the harasser is an executive, it’s important to take the right steps. It’s an emotionally heightened time for valid reasons, so the first step is to call a plaintiff’s employment attorney like us at Beal, Sutherland, Berlin & Brown to consider your case and be your guide. We’re experts at navigating this tricky territory and can walk you through what to expect and advise you on additional steps you might need to take or nuances to consider. You should also check the company handbook to see who you are supposed to report sexual harassment to within the company.

Calling a plaintiff’s employment lawyer first can help give you peace of mind that you’re doing things in the right order, add to the credibility of the case, and help with any reporting of the incidents and any subsequent investigation. We’ll advise you on how to approach the right channels to report the harassment, how to document it, file a complaint with the EEOC and any other federal or state agencies, and help with whistleblower protections if applicable.

Contact us to schedule a consultation.