Are Interns Protected From Sexual Harassment?

Are Interns Protected From Sexual Harassment?

Internships serve as an important gateway for students and young professionals to gain practical experience in their chosen fields. However, many interns may feel vulnerable and unsure about their rights and protections due to their temporary and often precarious positions.

While internships are often incredible opportunities that are critical for securing future careers, some students may turn down these important opportunities for fear of the lack of legal protections. If you have an internship opportunity and are trepidatious to take it, take a look at how interns are protected from sexual harassment.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

Definition and Types of Sexual Harassment

The law recognizes sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile or intimidating environment. This type of behavior can manifest in various forms, including inappropriate comments, jokes, or gestures, unwelcome physical contact, and displaying offensive materials.

While the nature of the harassment can range from subtle to overt, the impact on the victim is often profound, leading to emotional distress, anxiety, and a diminished sense of safety. Interns need to be able to recognize these behaviors to better protect themselves and understand that they should not be tolerated in any workplace environment.

A woman standing at a photocopier looking awkwardly over her shoulders as her male coworkers stare and laugh at her behind her back.

Legal Framework Around Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In the United States, the legal framework surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace is primarily governed by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin and extends protection to most workers, including interns, regardless of their hiring status. However, the level of protection may vary from state to state.

Many states have their own laws that enhance federal protections, and some explicitly include interns in their anti-harassment statutes. Moreover, companies often have internal policies and training programs in place to affirm their commitment to a harassment-free environment.

It’s important to take the time to familiarize yourself with both federal and state laws, as well as your employer's policies, to fully understand their rights and the resources available to them. Taking these steps can help you feel more empowered and aware, regardless of the protections you may or may not be granted.

Legal Protections for Interns

Before we dive into the legal protections for interns, it’s crucial to differentiate between paid and unpaid internships, as this distinction can significantly impact an individual’s rights. Paid interns generally have greater legal protections under federal and state laws. Since they are often considered employees by the state, paid interns fall under the protections of Title VII, which denotes safeguards against sexual harassment.

Unpaid interns, however, can find themselves in a more precarious position. Because they do not receive monetary compensation, they may not meet the strict definition of an "employee" and might not be fully covered under federal anti-harassment laws. Some states have recognized this gap and have enacted specific legislation to protect unpaid interns from harassment and discrimination.

For instance, states like Oregon and California explicitly include unpaid interns in their anti-harassment statutes. Before you agree to any internship, take the time to familiarize yourself with your state and local laws regarding sexual harassment and overall employee protections.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a cornerstone piece of legislation, and its protection extends to all aspects of employment, including hiring, firing, promotions, compensation, and other terms and conditions of employment.

Importantly, Title VII also encompasses protections against sexual harassment, recognizing it as a form of sex discrimination. While it offers substantial protection against sexual harassment, its application to interns can sometimes be complex due to their varied employment status.

For paid interns, Title VII usually provides comprehensive protection as it does for other employees, meaning that they are entitled to work in an environment free from sexual harassment. However, unpaid interns may not always be covered under this federal law, leading to potential vulnerabilities.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Guidelines

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides critical guidelines and support for individuals facing harassment in the workplace, including interns. This federal agency is responsible for enforcing laws against workplace discrimination and offers a wealth of resources to help understand one's rights and the process for filing a complaint.

The EEOC can be a vital ally for interns experiencing sexual harassment. They provide counseling, mediation, and investigation services that help ensure all workers are in a safe and respectful environment.

However, it’s important to note that an individual’s role must fall under that of an employee. If they are not considered an employee—this typically being unpaid interns—they cannot file a complaint under the EEOC.

State-Specific Protections

As mentioned, states like New York, Oregon, and California have taken significant steps to protect interns by explicitly including them in their anti-harassment and anti-discrimination laws. This progressive legislative action ensures that both paid and unpaid interns have access to the same safeguards as permanent employees.

New York’s Human Rights Law was amended in 2014 to give unpaid interns the same rights as paid interns. This offers them a clear avenue for recourse in the event of harassment or discrimination. Similarly, Oregon's legislation extends protections to unpaid interns, acknowledging their vulnerability and providing them with a legal framework to challenge any inappropriate conduct. California has also been proactive, enacting laws to protect all interns from workplace harassment and discrimination.

A team of semi-casually dressed employees having a meeting around a table with one of the employees happily high-fiving the other.

Steps for Interns To Protect Themselves

Before starting an internship, it’s important to become as familiar with workplace policies as you would with state, local, and federal laws. Take the time to review your employer's policies regarding sexual harassment, reporting procedures, and the resources available. Understanding the company's stance on harassment can give you a clear idea of what to expect and what actions to take should an issue arise.

Keeping detailed records of any instances of harassment, including dates, times, locations, and descriptions of the events, can be crucial if you need to report the behavior. This can provide solid evidence to support their claims and help in any subsequent investigations.

Lastly, it’s important to report incidents to the proper authorities as soon as they occur, as doing so will help ensure a timely investigation and resolution. Interns should follow the established procedures outlined in their company's harassment policy or, if applicable, utilize external reporting mechanisms such as state agencies or federal bodies like the EEOC.

The answer to the ultimate question of whether interns are protected from sexual harassment is, unfortunately, yes and no. If you’re a paid intern, you likely have a more straightforward path for seeking legal recourse. If you’re an unpaid intern, the laws are patchy due to the legal definition of what constitutes an employee.

However, even if you are an unpaid intern with fewer protections, that doesn’t mean you can’t hold alleged abusers accountable. At the Law Firm of Tamara N Holder, our sexual harassment lawyers know the ins and outs of the field, and we take pride in advocating for the rights of all individuals. Our legal team is here to support you and ensure justice is served.

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