Solidarity Against Workplace Sexual Harassment: How the Law Protects Those Who Stand Up and Speak Out Alongside Survivors

By Pawanpreet Dhaliwal

The #MeToo Movement has inspired workers to engage in solidarity with colleagues experiencing sexual harassment, and many of these courageous acts entitle individuals to anti-retaliation protections under civil rights, anti-discrimination, labor, and whistleblower protection laws. While it is true that individuals targeted for abuse in the workplace bear the brunt of the dignitary harm and trauma caused by such misconduct, all employees are detrimentally impacted by sexual harassment in the workplace, as  reports prepared by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) task force and by Deloitte both discuss. As such, all employees have a moral (and at times, legal) obligation to stand by our colleagues and against harassment and discrimination.

Solidarity and allyship, which encompasses support for individuals from historically subjugated groups by individuals from historically privileged groups, are critical elements of confronting and addressing both systemic discrimination and individual acts of hostility, discrimination, or harassment based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and other protected characteristics. Men can be allies to women, white people can be allies to people of color, and cisgender people can be allies to transgender people, for example, and individuals may engage in solidarity with colleagues of any background, including their own.

Acts of Solidarity and Allyship When Confronting Workplace Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment in the workplace festers when workers are isolated from one another. Indeed, most sexual harassmentoccurs out of sight or earshot of anyone other than the survivor and the perpetrator. Sometimes, however, others learn of such misconduct, either first-hand or through a survivor telling them about their experiences.

Solidarity and allyship can play a critical role in helping the survivor through their trauma and sparking needed change and accountability in a workplace.

Solidarity and allyship in the face of sexual harassment may start with offering support to a targeted co-worker, listening to and affirming their concerns, and expressing your solidarity with them. And it may progress to taking concerted action, standing up, and speaking out against workplace misconduct alongside and on behalf of targeted individuals. 

This may include raising the issue with a manager or human resources department, reporting the misconduct, and assisting with any responsive investigation or actions. Indeed, employees in supervisory positions are subject to legal obligations to report and escalate such conduct. Unfortunately, internal channels are not always sufficient in the face of harassment or discriminatory practices. Those higher up the ladder may dismiss the allegations or concerns or fail to take appropriate action to stop the misconduct or hold the harasser to account. In such circumstances, an ally may need to reach out and report the issue to the EEOC and subsequently aid in their investigation or action against the employer. Employees might also turn to labor unions and workplace affinity groups to engage in collective action against unlawful harassment.

Allies Receive the Same Protections Against Retaliation as Victims

Of course, being an ally and speaking out against workplace sexual harassment are not without risks. Like victims who report or complain about abuse, allies may face retaliation or blowback from their employer. This retaliation can be as blunt as termination or a negative performance review or take more subtle forms like a reduction of job responsibilities, transfer to a less desirable position, or exclusion from opportunities.

Retaliation is a widespread problem. In fact, claims of prohibited retaliation make up over half of all discrimination complaints filed with the EEOC. Out of 61,331 complaints the EEOC received in fiscal year 2021, 34,332 of those complaints alleged retaliation.

Fortunately, federal and state laws that protect victims of sexual harassment from retaliation for speaking out also protect allies who take action in response to workplace misconduct. These laws protect employees who oppose employment practices that they reasonably believe are discriminatory and protect workers’ rights to engage in concerted activity against workplace harassment.

At the federal level, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Section 704 provides that:

It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to discriminate against any of his employees or applicants for employment… because he has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by this subchapter, or because he has made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in any manner in an investigation, proceeding, or hearing under this subchapter.

Most states have similar prohibitions against retaliation for violations of their civil rights and anti-discrimination laws. For example, California's Fair Housing and Employment Act (FEHA) makes it unlawful for an employer "to discharge, expel, or otherwise discriminate against any person because the person has opposed any practices forbidden under this part or because the person has filed a complaint, testified, or assisted in any proceeding under this part." "This part" refers to California Government Code Section 12940, which prohibits sexual harassment and gender discrimination, among other practices. Additionally, workplace allies opposing sexual harassment are entitled to protections under California’s robust whistleblower retaliation statute, Labor Code Section 1102.5.

Employers that engage in retaliatory actions not only face significant fines and other penalties imposed by the EEOC, the National Labor Relations Board, or corresponding state agencies, but can also be held accountable by victims of retaliation in civil lawsuits for damages.

It takes courage for victims and allies to put a career and reputation on the line to stand up against workplace sexual harassment. But such bravery and fortitude are critical elements of comprehensive efforts to combat this concerning and still persistent problem. As we mark the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement, we commend those who engage in active allyship and solidarity to support co-workers in the fight against workplace sexual harassment.