What Can I Do About Sexual Harassment At A Small Company?

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An AOL Jobs reader asks:
I work for a small family-owned business.

One of the married employers is having an affair with another owner. There are pictures going around of him standing in his doorway (which is directly across the hall from her office) masturbating and then going into her office, where she continued the act for him. This all took place within thirty feet of his wife's office, which could have been seen by anyone walking out of their office into the hallway.

The company was recently sued for sexual harassment by another employee for sexual acts from this same man, which was settled out of court in the ex-employee's favor.

The daily strain of coming to the office is getting hard to handle. I can't afford to quit, but health-wise I don't know if I can continue. I have had a headache for four solid months due to the strain of this situation. I am three years away from retirement, which makes it difficult to quit, and I also carry the health insurance for my husband and myself.

Do you have any advice for me?
Yikes! First and most important advice: get the heck out of there if you can. I assume you're doing everything you can to apply for and seek other jobs, but sometimes I need to say the obvious. I can't tell you how many people come to me about horrific situations and I have to ask why they stayed so long. They look at me like it never occurred to them they could leave. So hear me: you can leave. You are not trapped. Keep looking.

Now, let's talk about what you can do until you find something else. Your options depend on just how small this company is.

If the company has 15 or more employees: You're covered by federal discrimination and sexual harassment law. This means you have to report the sexual harassment (do it in writing) if the company has a published sexual harassment policy. This will be awkward in the extreme at a small company, especially if you have to report the owner's behavior. If there's no sexual harassment policy, or if you report it and they don't fix the situation (or retaliate), you can file a charge of discrimination with EEOC, which is the first step before you can file a lawsuit for sexual harassment. Yes, it's awkward to file a discrimination complaint while you still work there, but doing so makes you legally protected against retaliation. Plus, the bizarre behavior might actually stop or become less blatant.

If the company has fewer than 15 employees: Federal law doesn't protect you. Some states have sexual harassment laws covering smaller employers, and even some cities and counties have ordinances covering smaller employers. If there's no such law, then you'll have to look to your state's common law to see what might protect you. Some potential claims you could look at might be assault and battery if there was any unwanted touching or threat of touching, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, or invasion of privacy. Your situation is much more difficult if the sexual harassment laws don't cover you.

I suggest talking to an employment lawyer in your state about your rights if you are the victim of sexual harassment. You may be able to, for instance, quit and still be covered by unemployment (although this can be risky). You may have other possible claims against this awful company, depending on your state's law.

Remember, no job or potential legal claim is worth your health, your sanity or your safety, so if it comes to any of that, get the heck out of there.

If you need legal advice, it's best to talk to an employment lawyer in your state, but if you have general legal issues you want me to discuss publicly here, whether about discrimination, working conditions, employment contracts, medical leave, or other employment law issues, you can ask me at AOL Jobs.

Please note: Anything you write to me may be featured in one of my columns. I won't be able to respond individually to questions.
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