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How much is a sexual harassment claim worth?

If you sue a company because you suffered sexual harassment in the workplace, the most you can get in damages under federal law is $300,000. That's a pittance to large corporations. However, that's the cap written into the Civil Rights Act of 1991's Title VII, where sexual harassment is addressed. That amount hasn't been adjusted for inflation in the decades since that law was implemented -- even as the long-term repercussions for victims have become more openly discussed and better understood.

One Vanderbilt University law professor decided to determine just how much sexual harassment should cost those found liable for it. Her answer was $7.6 million. How did she come up with that statistical value?

She used the same statistical technique economists use to determine how much more an employee should be paid if their job carries a risk of death. Indeed, many workers are paid more for dangerous jobs. She applied that statistical technique to workplace sexual harassment. She determined what amount of money would make it more cost-effective for an employer to take steps to avoid even a single sexual harassment case. That amount is $7.6 million.

While many would reasonably argue that the risk of sexual harassment (which is more prevalent in some industries than others) can't be compared with the risk of fatal injury, the professor notes that in our country, we don't fully recognize the harm done by sexual harassment. She says, "In the United States we think of sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII, but in Europe it's considered a dignity harm....[which] makes it seem more like a risk rather than just an illegal behavior."

She adds that "the more I read about how egregious the consequences of harassment are in terms of the psychological loss and work productivity loss, it made me realize this should be compensated like the risk of fatality."

Certainly, increasing the cap would help incentivize companies to take stronger measures to prevent sexual harassment and to deal with harassers before their actions lead to lawsuits. In the meantime, if you've been the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, it's wise to determine what your legal options are. As employees step forward and hold not just the harasser but employers accountable, businesses will find it in their best interests to make stopping sexual harassment a priority.

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