What Is Sexual Harassment?
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.
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.
Both victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex.
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 harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
How to Spot It
There are two main forms of sexual harassment in the workplace:
1. Quid Pro Quo
Requiring an applicant or employee to submit to offensive conduct as a condition of employment.
“If you have sex with me, I will hire you.”
VARIATIONS: cast, promote, give you a raise, make sure you go far in the company or business, etc.
“If you won’t let me masturbate in front of you, then I will fire you.”
VARIATIONS: demote, not give you a raise, not green light your project.
“If you have sex with me, I will give you favorable work hours.”
VARIATIONS: overtime hours.
The following examples may not rise to the level of quid pro quo sexual harassment:
“Women/Men who have had sex with me, have become big stars.”
Not clearly requesting/demanding sex as a condition of employment
“Would you have drinks or dinner with me so we can discuss your potential employment with the company?”
Not clearly requiring submission to offensive conduct as a condition of employment
2. Hostile Work Environment
Unwelcome verbal, physical, or visual conduct that creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile work environment or that interferes with work performance. Severe or pervasive in nature.
“You have such a hot body. Those pants look so great on you. I wish I were those pants. I see you are wearing your fuck me shoes today.”
“I had such a hot date last night. Oh my God. We must have given each other blow jobs all night long.”
Unwelcomed kissing, touching, and groping.
Sending suggestive emails and texts; sending semi-nude or nude photos, sending derogatory or suggestive cartoons
The following examples may not rise to the level of sexual harassment because they are not severe or pervasive or may be consensual:
- A hug, a kiss on the hand or cheek, or an inadvertent hand in an un-welcomed place, such as a person’s rear-end when both are moving quickly through close quarters.
- Repeated compliments about appearance and clothing when not sexual in nature.
- Discussion and/or joking of a sexual nature and drawing or viewing of sexual pictures when it is in the context of writing material for a work project.
- Sexy photos, posters, life size standees of scantily clad people, and sexual footage, when related to a work project.
- Consensual sex/affair
Determining whether someone’s conduct constitutes quid pro quo sexual harassment or someone’s conduct is severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment requires finding out as many facts as possible, and judging credibility of the individuals involved and any other people that can corroborate their stories. If you are not sure if the offensive conduct falls within the legal definition of sexual harassment, speak to a person in command (e.g., human resources, supervisor, management) or to the person directly, if you feel safe. Your voice matters and you should not feel alone as there are immediate resources available to you.
What to Do
Remember that each situation is different so do what makes sense and what feels safe for you.
Speak to the Harasser:
- If you feel safe, tell the person that his or her behavior offends you. Be specific regarding the behavior. Demand that the harasser stop. Whether the communication was written or verbal, keep a record of the conversation (e.g., date, time, place, specifics of what was discussed and response).
Start a Paper Trail:
- Keep copies of everything you send and receive from the harasser and your employer regarding the sexual harassment. Create written notes of all incidents as soon as possible while the details are still fresh in your mind (e.g., dates, places, times, and what was said and possible witnesses). Save all relevant exchange by either keeping the original correspondence or snapping an image of the exchange, including emails, texts, and social media messages. Keep the record in a safe place and outside of the work environment. Do not keep the record at work or on a work computer.
Review Your Personnel File:
- Request to see your personnel files before reporting the harassment. Both current and former employees have such rights.
Report the Harassment:
- Consult your employee handbook or policies. If your employer has a sexual harassment policy, follow the complaint procedures to demonstrate that you did what you could do to make the employer aware of the harassment. If your company does not have a policy, speak to your supervisor and/or human resources. You may be able to use this process to stop the harassment and resolve the problem. If you think you many want to file a lawsuit against your employer in the future,you have to report the harassment to your employer first.
Involve your Union:
- If you belong to a union, you may want to report the harassment to your union. File a Discrimination Complaint with a Government Agency: If you want to file a lawsuit in federal or state court, you must first file a formal sexual harassment complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or your state’s fair employment agency (if one exists).
Be Aware of Deadlines:
- Even if your employer has an internal process for dealing with harassment complaints, you should be aware of legal deadlines for filing a formal complaint with government agencies. You cannot bring a lawsuit against your employer unless you have first filed a complaint with the EEOC or state’s fair employment agency. In some states, you may have as few as 180 days from the date of the sexual harassment activity to file a complaint.
File a Lawsuit:
- After you file a formal complaint with the EEOC and/or your state’s fair employment agency, you may also consider filing a lawsuit.
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