Sexual harassment

In the workplace: Know your rights

Dear New Yorkers,

Unwelcome comments, body language, or touching. Promises of promotion in exchange for sexual favors. Offensive “jokes.” Sexual harassment can take many forms in the workplace.

Sexual harassment doesn’t affect only its victims. It affects their coworkers and families, as well as the entire workplace. We all have a stake in preventing it — and stopping it when it happens.

Harassment victims are often too afraid or embarrassed to come forward. But you can get help.

Has someone harassed you? Do you think someone is being harassed? We have listed some key agencies and resources that can provide immediate help. My office’s Civil Rights Bureau can also answer your questions about workplace harassment or discrimination.

I am committed to equality in the workplace. My office enforces federal, state, and local laws that protect workers. All New Yorkers have the right to a workplace free from sexual harassment and discrimination.

New York State Attorney General Signature
Headshot of Attorney General Letitia James

It involves:

  • demanding sexual favors in exchange for promotions, raises, or job assignments
  • displaying sexual behavior that creates an offensive, intimidating, or hostile work place

The harasser can be a supervisor, coworker, or non-employee, such as a client or contractor. Harassment can be illegal, even if it:  

  • isn’t frequent or severe enough to be obvious to everyone
  • doesn’t cause someone to be fired, demoted, or refused an assignment

Harassment can involve:   

  • making sexually offensive remarks or jokes
  • unwanted touching
  • forcing someone to participate in sex acts
  • asking for suggestive favors, like digging coins out of a boss’s pants pocket
  • displaying pornographic media
  • making comments (either flattering or insulting) about someone’s gender or sexual preferences
  • making sexual gestures (simulating sex acts)

Sexual harassment is illegal under Title VII of the 1964 federal Civil Rights Act and New York State Human Rights Law (NYS Human Rights Law). It may be prohibited by local law, such as New York City Administrative Code. NYS Human Rights Law also forbids harassing someone because of their gender identity or because they are transgender.

Harassment because of actual or perceived sexual orientation is prohibited by the New York State Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA). Learn more about SONDA

Sexual harassment outside the workplace

Sexual harassment can occur elsewhere, such as in public places, housing, or schools. If you feel you have been sexually harassed – for example, 
by a landlord, teacher, or service provider — consult an attorney to understand your options.

File a complaint

Follow employer procedures first: First, contact the person or office your employer has designated to receive such complaints. This may be your human resources department or Title IX coordinator.

Consult an attorney: Beyond reporting harassment to your employer, there is no single best way to proceed. You may want to consult an attorney who can explain your options.  

At the federal level: At the national level, sexual harassment falls under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. This law allows you to lodge a complaint only against an employer with more than 15 employees. You must file your complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before you begin litigation.

At the state level: You can bring a sexual-harassment complaint against an employer of any size under the NYS Human Rights Law. You do not have to file a complaint with any agency before beginning litigation. Under NYS Human Rights Law, you can file a complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights or proceed directly to court.

At the local level: Note that some local laws allow you to bring a complaint only against employers with a minimum number of employees. For example, the New York City Human Rights Law allows complaints only against employers with more than four employees.

Retaliation is illegal

It is illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for making a sexual-harassment complaint. Retaliation includes making your work duties or environment more difficult or hostile because you made a complaint or cooperated with an investigation into a complaint. If your employer does try to punish you, you may be able to add a separate claim of retaliation to your complaint. If you believe you have suffered retaliation, consult an attorney. Ask the appropriate agency about specific time limits and procedures.

All genders and third parties are protected

Anyone can be harassed. The harasser can be of the same sex or orientation as the victim. If you see harassment in your workplace, even if you are not being harassed, you can complain as a third party when any of the following occurs:  

  • A harasser requires a victim to submit to sexual demands to keep their job.
  • Harassment directed at someone else is harming your work environment.
  • Other people’s sexual conduct, even if they are willing participants, is creating a hostile work environment for you.

Harassment can even be a crime

Harassment may also rise to a criminal level if it involves physical touching, physical confinement, or forced sex acts. If you believe you have been the victim of a crime, file a report at your local police department. 


But remember: Even if the harassment does not rise to the level of a crime, it is illegal.


Office of the New York State Attorney General Civil Rights Bureau
28 Liberty Street New York, NY 10005

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
1-800-669-4000 1-800-669-6820 (TTY)

New York State Division of Human Rights
311 or 212-306-7450

Support and guidance

Women’s Justice NOW Helpline (New York City) 
Appointments only: 212-925-6635
Helpline: 1-800-649-0297

Safe Horizon
Crime victims hotline: 1-866-689-HELP (4357)
Rape and sexual assault hotline: 212-227-3000