With sexual harassment so prominently in the news because of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly and the #MeToo campaign to expose its pervasiveness, a review of the subject is timely. It's important for everyone in a workplace to know their rights and responsibilities in this area.
The Textbook Definition of Sexual Harassment
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) says this: "It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's gender. Harassment can include 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.... Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)." The EEOC also points out that victims and harassers can be either women or men, and the victim and harasser can be the same gender.
Is it sexual harassment if it's only verbal?
It absolutely can be sexual harassment. Words can be as offensive as physical acts. Jokes and stories can be sexually harassing and create a hostile work environment. But visual materials can be harassment as well. Displaying or sharing posters, drawings, pictures, screen-savers or emails of a sexual nature can be found to be illegal behavior.
What is "quid pro quo" sexual harassment?
If a boss, supervisor or someone with authority outright demands or implies that you must provide sexual favors in return for hiring you, keeping your job, or promotion, that is "quid pro quo" sexual harassment.
What do I do if I am being harassed?
Often, sexual harassment will stop when you demand that the person stop his or her behavior which offends you. However, if you aren't comfortable confronting the individual, start documenting the offensive behavior. Keep a record of all interaction that you feel is inappropriate along with the date, time, place or other relevant information and your response, if any. Then, consult your employee handbook about the procedure for reporting, or decide if you want speak to your employer/supervisor or the human resources department about the situation. Remember: Not only is sexual harassment against the law, so is retaliating against someone for complaining about sexual harassment. It is also against the law to punish someone for supporting or participating in an investigation (or other legal action) related to sexual harassment.
Once you report the situation, which should be in writing for documentation purposes, your employer should investigate the harassment. Eventually they'll let you know what they determined. The employer is obligated to attempt to stop harassment when they find it. If you think your employer didn't fulfill its obligation under the law, consider contacting your state's anti-discrimination agency or the EEOC.
LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell ©2017 Edited by Greg Kelly.
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