Sexual harassment in the Maryland workplace is illegal—yet common.
Studies suggest that as many as 81% of women will be (or have been) sexually harassed at work (and up to 41% of men). And often, people of color and sexual or gender-minority individuals face increased instances of workplace sexual harassment. What is common to all, however, is that sexual harassment in the workplace can be stigmatizing, humiliating, and deeply traumatizing.
One of the challenges in combatting sexual harassment at work in Maryland is that very few victims come forward. A 2016 report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that three out of four individuals who experienced sexual harassment at work never even talked to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct. At the Employment Law Center of Maryland, we understand our clients' fears of isolation, inaction, or social and professional retaliation for complaining of sexual harassment (even after the #MeToo movement rocked the status quo in 2017). But it is also our experience that workplace sexual harassment is rarely an isolated incident—and standing up against one instance of sexual harassment can help countless other victims, and prevent it from happening to others.
Federal Sexual Harassment laws
The primary federal law prohibiting sexual harassment at work is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).
Other federal laws are sometimes implicated, such as the the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994 (USERRA), which prohibits sexual harassment in some situations where members of the military are involved, but most federal workplace sexual harassment claims are brought under Title VII.
Title VII makes it unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include "sexual harassment" or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general.
Under Title VII (and Maryland's sexual harassment laws), the victim and the sexual harasser can be of any sex or gender, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex or gender.
One of the most common questions we get at the Employment Law Center of Maryland is when teasing, offhand comments/jokes, or relatively isolated incidents of inappropriate sexual behavior constitute illegal workplace sexual harassment. While Title VII doesn't prohibit simple teasing or offhand comments, these actions can become sexual harassment when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment action (such as being fired, demoted, or not promoted).
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) doesn't prohibit simple teasing or joking of a sexual nature—but this can constitute workplace sexual harassment when:
it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment; or,
when it results in an adverse employment action (such as being fired, demoted, or not promoted).
Under Title VII, a harasser doesn't necessary need to be a supervisor or co-worker; a harasser can also be a client, customer, or other non-employee.
Maryland Sexual Harassment laws
Sexual harassment in the workplace is illegal in Maryland under Md. Code, State Gov't § 20-606 (Title 20), which is very similar to Title VII in many respects.
Like Title VII, Maryland's Title 20 states that it is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include "sexual harassment" or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
Maryland's sexual harassment laws underwent major changes in 2019 as a result (at least in part) of the #MeToo movement. Effective October 1, 2019, Maryland employers are responsible for addressing sexual and other illegal forms of harassment in the workplace.
The 2019 law expands coverage for people complaining of illegal harassment in two important ways. First, independent contractors will now be afforded the law's protections. Under Title VII, employers with fewer than 15 employees have been exempt from employment discrimination laws in the state and federal systems (though some Maryland counties have lower thresholds). Second, employers with at least one employee are now subject to the law's reach.
Lastly, employees or independent contractors who complain of harassment have a longer time period to file a charge of discrimination (now two years instead of six months), and file suit (three years instead of two).
This new law applies only to charges of discrimination under state law (not Title VII).
As of 2019, Maryland's state law prohibiting sexual harassment at work applies to employers of any size.
As of 2019, Maryland's state law prohibiting sexual harassment at work does apply to independent contractors.
As of 2019, Maryland's state law prohibiting sexual harassment at work have up to two years to file an administrative complaint with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (as opposed to just six months).
LOCAL Sexual Harassment Laws
At least five Maryland counties have their own laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace.
The following Maryland county codes prohibit sex or gender discrimination (and by extension, sexual harassment) in the workplace, and allow for discrimination lawsuits to be filed charging violations of county fair-employment statutes or codes:
Baltimore County. The Baltimore County Code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace by employers of any size.
Frederick County. The Frederick County Code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace by employers with at least 15 employees.
Howard County. The Howard County Code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace by employers with at least 5 employees.
Prince George's County. The Prince George's County Code prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace by employers of any size.
Some Maryland counties (e.g., Montgomery County) prohibit workplace sexual harassment by employers of any size—unlike federal or state law.
Suing for Sexual Harassment
Whether you're suing for sexual harassment under federal or state laws, the procedure is largely the same (though some important deadlines differ). First, you'll need to file a complaint of discrimination with either the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR).
If you're filing with the the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you'll need to file your complaint of workplace sexual harassment within 300 days of the discriminatory act (e.g., your termination, date of an incident of discrimination). If you're filing with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR), you'll need to file your complaint of sexual harassment within two years (as of 2019) of the discriminatory act.
After you file your complaint of sexual harassment, the agency will assign your complaint to an investigator and start an investigation. Depending on the facts of your case, the agency may attempt conciliation, or offer mediation to you and your employer, to see if the complaint can be resolved without formal legal action.
In particularly egregious sexual harassment cases, the agency may prosecute the employer before an administrative, state, or federal court. This is very rare, and unfortunately, the limited funding these agencies receive means that, for most victims of sexual harassment, the agency will not be able to or willing to prosecute their case. This is why having a skilled Maryland sexual harassment lawyer is critical—as they can pursue your case before any of these courts.
Once the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concludes its investigation into your complaint, it will issue you a "notice of right to sue," which terminates its investigation and gives you just 90 days to file a sexual harassment lawsuit in state or federal court.
This procedure is slightly different with the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR). Under Md. Code, State Gov't § 20-606 (Title 20), you must filed your lawsuit in state court within three years of filing your sexual harassment complaint with the MCCR.
For more on workplace sexual harassment in Maryland, check out our team's most recent blog post on this topic:
For additional resources on sexual harassment in the Maryland workplace, check out the following helpful links:
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII)
Md. Code, State Gov't § 20-606 (Title 20)