What the Laws Say About Sexual Harassment


US federal laws offer protections to anyone who is harassed or discriminated against based on their gender. However, those laws only apply to workplaces with 15 or more employees. If a woman’s boss repeatedly offers her money for sexual favors, but she works in an office with only 10 people, then she won’t be able to file a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

But depending on where she lives, she may be able to file a claim with her state employment board. Let’s take a closer look at what the laws have to say about sexual harassment on both a federal and state level.

Sexual harassment under federal law

The above example is an extreme one, but sexual harassment doesn’t have to be drastic to be considered illegal. According to the EEOC, “Sex discrimination involves treating someone (an applicant or employee) unfavorably because of that person’s sex.” Examples include a boss refusing to hire a newly married woman because he believes she’ll get pregnant and take maternity leave. It can also include sustained abuse of someone based on their gender. For instance, let’s say a woman works in an office dominated by men who constantly reference wanting to have sex with her. They even make “jokes” about forcing her to commit certain sex acts. That could definitely qualify as sexual harassment, since the woman’s gender is the reason why men keep talking about her in such a way.

The EEOC believes that current laws should also be interpreted as protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Court decisions have agreed with this statement: in 2014, the Obama administration said “sex discrimination” should also be applicable to cases where people are discriminated against because of their gender identity. However, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked that order when he took office in 2017. Some states offer additional protections for LGBT people, but the status of federal protections is still up in the air.

State laws vary

Some states opted not to pass their own laws regarding sexual harassment. States like Arkansas do not have a sexual harassment law on the books, meaning that only federal law applies to workers in that state. There’s also no state board that deals with such cases, meaning they must be filed federally. However, state law can’t can supercede federal law, which means that Arkansas couldn’t decide that it only wants such laws to apply to business with over 20 employees instead of 15. They can offer additional protections, but they can’t offer fewer protections.

Just north of Arkansas, the state of Missouri doesn’t take such a hands-off approach. In Missouri, your workplace can be investigated if there are at least six employees. The law also says that “executive branch employees” are protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it also doesn’t mention anything about gender identity.

It’s easy to assume that more conservative states have less restrictive laws on the books about sexual harassment. That’s true in some cases, but not in every case. For instance, the red state of Idaho applies sexual harassment laws to offices with at least five employees. If you head south to Texas, you’ll find that state government “supervisory and non-supervisory personnel” have to receive training on sexual harassment within their first 30 days at work. That’s training on how to recognize and prevent sexual harassment. If any business ignores that mandatory training, it would take about five minutes for an attorney to find a plaintiff and file lawsuit.