Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment can broadly be defined as any offensive conduct sensitive to gender, which makes a reasonable male or female uncomfortable at work.  The first line of defense against sexual harassment at work is by victims alerting their harasser of the discomfort.  If this fails, a frank discussion with your company’s human resources administrator should immediately cease sexual harassment.  If sexual harassment still occurs, employees have a host of legal protections and options to ensure the harassment stops.  The EEOC handles sexual harassment claims, and in 2006, over 12,000 charges of sexual harassment were received in that year alone.

Problems Caused by Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Victims of sexual harassment, who refuse to entertain offensive comments or unwanted advances can potentially suffer a whole host of career derailing problems, including:

  • Job loss or threats of termination
  • Denial of promotion, salary, or other benefits
  • Forced reassignment within the company
  • Constructive discharge in lieu of enduring further sexual harassment

In addition to these problems, individuals reporting sexual harassment to their harasser, their superiors, or the EEOC may face retaliatory action directly from individuals or behind the veil of a company policy or decision.  In many cases, victims of sexual harassment can sustain serious economic losses, as well as large amounts of personal damages, such as emotional and mental distress.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

Numerous incidents or actions may constitute sexual harassment in the workplace.  Deciding whether a given incident falls under the category of sexual harassment is not always easy.  Therefore, through court precedents, the federal government notes two forms of sexual harassment:  “Quid Pro Quo” and “Hostile Environment”

“Quid Pro Quo”, known as “this for that”, is a form of sexual harassment that demands sexual cooperation by an employee as part of their continued employment.  In vernacular, this form of discrimination is known as “put out or get out”.  A general example would be an employer suffering sexual harassment from another employee or employer.  When reported or asked to cease, the supervisor maintained that sexual cooperation was integral to continued employment.  If the victim furthered their claims, and the employer terminated the employee, this would constitute a form of Quid Pro Quo sexual harassment.

“Hostile Environment” comprises of any undesired sex-based incidents involving other employees, supervisors, vendors, and virtually anyone else a victim must interact with as part of their job function.  Unlike quid pro quo, a supervisor is not a necessary party in hostile environment sexual harassment cases.  A sexually hostile environment crosses the line when the environment is abusive to the victim, and it severe enough to create an environment that a reasonable individual would deem abusive.  Other environments may constitute sexual harassment, even if nothing sexual is involved, but rather, the environment is abusive based on gender discrimination.  Some of the more commonly cited incidents leading to an action being deemed “sexually hostile” include:

  • Threats to perform “quid pro quo” termination that were not followed through
  • Unnecessary physical contact, indecent gestures, or hostile physical contact
  • Discussing sexual matters, telling offensive jokes, commenting on physical attributes, using demeaning diminutives, or using offensive language
  • Discriminating against non-participating individuals, through job favors or sabotage of their work

Another aspect of proving sexual harassment is determining whether cited behaviors meet the criteria of being pervasive or severe to warrant an environment being deemed hostile.  The courts will consider each of the following factors, which in combination will ascertain whether an environment was hostile:

  • Was the harasser a superior to the victim?
  • How severe was the actual conduct?
  • How often, or frequently, did the unwelcome behavior occur?
  • Was the conduct physical or verbal?  Was it threatening, embarrassing, or offensive?
  • Was the victim’s work performance hindered?
  • Was the victim’s psychological health damaged?

Page 2: Federal Laws Regarding Sexual Harassment

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