What Constitutes Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
The following is a guest blog by Rebecca Gray, who writes for Backgroundchecks.org.
Harassment in the workplace takes many forms, so protecting employees from unhealthy work environments means acknowledging the many faces of harassment at work. Harassment should be seen as a form of discrimination, which prohibits some workers from reaching their full potential and rising through the ranks of employment. Just as other forms of discrimination have been systematically identified and prohibited in the workplace, harassment is also barred by Civil Rights legislation protecting workplace diversity.
Sexual harassment in the workplace often involves unwanted advances from men toward women, but this is not the only dynamic defining what constitutes harassment on the job. Unwelcomed verbal and physical conduct directed toward co-workers which is based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or for the purpose of retaliation is prohibited by federal legislation. And sex discrimination is also forbidden, including unwanted sexual advances, same gender harassment and gender identity harassment. Discrimination against those with disabilities and employees of a certain age is also prohibited, in exactly the same way other forms of workplace harassment are not allowed.
When actions are sufficient to create a hostile work environment, they qualify as harassment, especially when supervisory employees' behavior leads to a change in the way an employee is treated (termination, failure to promote, etc.).
Though we have come along way thwarting workplace discrimination, it nonetheless thrives across the United States workforce. In addition to legal protection and company policies, victims of harassment - especially women, rely on their own proactive efforts to stand up to harassment on the job.
Crossing the Line
Sexual harassment occurs when one employee is made to feel uncomfortable or intimidated by the conduct of another employee. Harassment occurs between peers as well as across employment levels, between staffers working at different levels within an organization. Regardless of where it originates, women must report harassment without fear of reprisal. Conduct meeting the criteria for sexual harassment includes these behaviors:
- Sexually suggestive looks or "leering" at another employee
- Sharing sexually suggestive material with other staffers; including letters, emails, images and other communications of a sexual nature
- Commenting in a sexual way about another employee's clothing, physical attributes or appearance
- Sharing lewd humor or graphic representations of sex, as well as making sexually suggestive gestures
- Unsolicited physical contact that makes another employee uncomfortable, such as intentionally rubbing against another worker, or otherwise initiating unnecessary contact
Trends in the Workplace
Education and clearly articulated corporate policies regarding harassment are helping support legal prohibitions against sexual harassment, leading to decreases in the number of cases reported in recent years. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports, for example, approximately 400 fewer sexual harassment claims were filed in 2012 than in 2010.
Despite the decrease, the number of sexual harassment complaints filed annually still tops 7000, so the practice is nearly as pervasive as ever and demands continued corrective attention from employers, legislators and even victims of discrimination, themselves.
Two current trends are making sexual harassment more difficult to manage within the workplace. Technological advancements, for example, create increasingly relaxed modes of communication between workers, leading to harassment issues. Women receiving unwelcomed social media contacts, emails or text messages are protected by the same regulations governing other forms of sexual misconduct, so victims should stand up to these advances as vehemently as others. Temporary workers are also bringing new harassment issues to light. Recent economic conditions have led to higher numbers of temporary employees in the workforce, creating gaps in sexual harassment training and policies. As a result, temporary workers are more likely to be harassed than other employees, and less likely to know company protocols for reporting discrimination.
In addition to women actively standing up to harassment on their own, company policies must be updated to reflect how modern technology impacts workplace harassment and must be extended to cover the entire workforce, including temporary staffers.
Guest blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 27, 2014