How to Formally Complain About Sexual Harassment at Work

This Sample Letter Can Help You Initiate an Investigation

Worker at a desk upset that the boss has his hand on her shoulder in an unwanted and sexual harassing manner.

Zinkevich / Getty Images

Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal, and you should report such a problem officially by filing a formal complaint with your employer. Many companies have procedures in place to accommodate making a formal complaint. You will likely find the steps to take outlined in your employee handbook which your company should have issued.

If you don't have—or can't find—your company employee manual, the best route is to report the problem to your immediate supervisor or to the human resource department. Of course, you would report directly to human resources or to your boss's boss if it's your boss who's harassing you.

What is Harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is very specific in its definition of harassment.

Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information. 

Harassment includes—but is not limited to—the use of

  • Name-calling, slurs, and epithets
  • Offensive jokes, offensive object, and offensive pictures
  • Physical assaults, threats, and intimidation
  • Mockery and ridicule
  • Insults and put-downs
  • Interference with work

The victim can be the target of the harassment or it can be anyone that feels affected by the offensive behavior. The harasser can be a coworker, supervisor, non-employee, independent contractors, or someone hired or working on behalf of the employer. Further, the victim does not have to be fired or suffer economic damage from the event.

It is important to report harassment in a timely manner. State laws will vary, but most will give an individual 180 days to file a complaint. If you are a federal employee you will have 45 days to contact the EEO

Written vs. Face-To-Face Complaint

Many people prefer to handle this sort of thing face-to-face so they can deal with follow-up questions immediately. Sometimes the face-to-face conversation is easier and allows you to explain things verbally rather than in writing. However, there's also a problem with this approach.

Articulating such things in person can be nerve-wracking, and there's always a chance that you could be misunderstood. Writing down your thoughts will help you focus on the most important facts you want to relate, as well as document the incident.

During a conversation, you might mean to say that a coworker is sexually harassing you, but it might come across as though they are telling stupid and offensive jokes. Jokes with a sexual overtone are inappropriate in the workplace. However, it is easy for your boss or for HR to downplay or dismiss in this case. Your coworker might be seen as a harmless jokester, and they may consider it no big deal.

You can avoid this problem by filing a complaint in writing. You can follow up in person later if you prefer face-to-face contact.

Making a formal, written complaint is easiest and most effective if you've kept detailed, written records of inappropriate coworker behavior and each incident that occurred. Your notes should include the names of potential witnesses and the date and time of each occurrence. Also, include any actions you took to separate yourself from the incident. Such actions can include telling your coworker you did not appreciate their humor, asking that they not use particular or demeaning language around you, and leaving the room. It is best to keep these notes at a safe place, possibly at home.

Sample Official Email Complaint

Following is the outline for a sample email. Use the example to help you along on the things to include in your official and formal complaint. It is written in the form of an email but the same general format and information can be included in a letter format. You may even wish to send both an email and a written and signed letter.

The Subject Line

This is actually the most critical part of your complaint. The subject line should read Official Complaint of Sexual Harassment. This makes it impossible for anyone to say, "I didn't realize she was experiencing sexual harassment." They cannot legally ignore your complaint when you begin with these words.

The Addressee(s)

You'll also want to send it to both your boss—we'll call her Jane in this example—and to your HR manager if you have one. We'll call her Stacy. You're keeping everyone in the loop this way. There might be times when you'd want to send your email only to HR or only to your boss, but you're better off sending it to both at once unless you have strong reasons to keep one or the other out of the situation.

The Body of the Email

Dear Jane and Stacy,

I am writing to notify you that Bob has been sexually harassing me. The following incidents have occurred:

  • Approximately one month ago, Bob followed me to my car and asked me on a date. I said I wasn't interested and left.
  • Bob asked me out again on June 1, 2018. I again told him no and said that I prefer to keep my work and personal life separate. I told Steve and Karen the next day that Bob had asked me out.
  • Bob sent me an email expressing his interest in dating me on June 3, 2018, telling me I was “hot.” The email is attached. I responded and my response is also attached. I told him not to contact me again for non-business reasons.
  • Bob sent me a text message that included a photo of his genitalia on June 9, 2018. I deleted this message.
  • I asked Jane to reassign me to a different project on June 9, 2018, because Bob was bothering me. She declined to reassign me, but I did not tell her about the email and the picture.
  • Bob followed me out to my car and berated me for not dating him on June 10, 2018. I believe Richard Thompson from accounting was also in the parking lot at the time, but I don't know if he overheard anything.
  • Bob made a derogatory remark about me in a staff meeting on June 11, 2018. Steve, Karen, Jane, Chelsea, and Justin were present. Jane told Bob to knock it off.
  • Bob sent me an email on June 15, 2018, telling me that if I didn't go out with him, he'd tell Jane that I had plagiarized the marketing slides I'd created for the regional meeting. This email is also attached.

This email mentions every incident and the victim's actions to the event. It even includes the one for which the victim doesn't have an exact date. The first incident is not actually sexual harassment—asking a coworker out doesn't fall under this umbrella. But it does show how Bob's behavior began and how it quickly escalated into something inappropriate.

Also, note that the victim gives the names of possible witnesses. This can help when Jane or Stacy begin an investigation.

Wrapping It Up

Now wrap it up in a pleasant, professional manner. Say something like:

Thank you for looking into this matter for me. I'm happy to give you any additional information as needed. I would very much like Bob to leave me alone so I can do my work.

Sincerely, Holly Jones

That's it. You don't have to use fancy legal wording. Your boss and your HR department know that sexual harassment is illegal and they should take it from here. But you can expect that they won't simply accept your side of the story as the gospel truth and take action. It's their obligation to approach this complaint from a neutral standpoint, and that means handling the situation in a way that's fair to both you and Bob.

What to Expect Next

Your boss and your HR department should conduct an investigation. This can involve multiple steps, such as interviewing Bob and other employees as well, both those you've named as possible witnesses and others who might have been aware of Bob's behavior, although you don't have knowledge of this. It's possible that Bob has zeroed in on other victims.

The investigation will most likely include a review of both your personnel file as well as Bob's to determine if similar situations have occurred between you or with anyone else in the past.

Finally, the company should take some action to address the problem.

In some situations, such as a complaint about Bob looking at pornography in his open cubicle, your employer wouldn't have to tell Bob who complained. But in this case, he stands accused of harassing a coworker directly, so he'll know who made the complaint.

The law prohibits retaliation for making a sexual harassment complaint, so your boss and the HR department shouldn't punish you in any way for taking this step.

Seeking Legal Assistance

You can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or hire your own employment lawyer to help with your case if your company doesn't take care of the issue. You have a limited period of time within which to do this, however—usually 180 days from the date of the last act of harassment. You can't sue your employer unless you've first made a complaint to the EEOC.

You might expect your employer to seek legal assistance as well because the company can be held liable for sexual harassment in the workplace when it has not taken adequate steps to deal with the situation.


Suzanne Lucas is a freelance journalist specializing in Human Resources. Suzanne's work has been featured on notes publications including Forbes, CBS, Business Insider, and Yahoo.