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What to Do If You Are Being Sexually Harassed in the Workplace

Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

What should you do if you think your boss may be doing something improper? It’s a question I deal with all the time in my ethics class. Of course, it depends on the action or behavior. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. The legal definition of sexual harassment is “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.” Two specific legal definitions of sexual harassment have been established in employment law: quid pro quo harassment and hostile environment sexual harassment. 

Quid Pro Quo Harassment:  "Something for something.” Let’s assume your boss threatens to stifle your career advancement unless you sleep with him. This is unlawful whether you submit and avoid the threatened harm or resist and suffer the consequences. Your first step should be to make it clear to your boss this is an unwelcomed advance. At the same time, you should determine the company policy on reporting such matters. If the offensive behavior persists, I recommend you talk to a trusted advisor and/or attorney. It may become a legal issue pending resolution of the matter. In all likelihood your advisor will tell you to go to the Human Resources department where Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) matters are dealt with. Be sure to document your concerns – what did he do or say? When did he do it or say it? What did you say to him? How did he react to your concerns? Give a copy of the document to a trusted advisor or lawyer for possible future use in a legal action. The advisor can attest to the fact you provided the document on a specific day so that it wasn’t created after the fact. If the HR department does nothing or your boss doesn’t change his behavior, it’s time to file a formal sexual harassment complaint with the federal EEOC and/or your state’s fair employment agency. You must first file with the EEOC before you file a lawsuit in federal or state court. Generally, you have 180 days to file the complaint. After you file a formal complaint with the EEOC or your state’s fair employment agency, you can also consider filing a lawsuit. You can sue for money damages, to get your job back, and you can also ask the court to make your employer change its practices to prevent future sexual harassment from occurring.

Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment:  This occurs when an employee is subjected to
comments of a sexual nature, offensive sexual materials, or unwelcome physical contact as a regular part of the work environment. Let’s assume your boss has a habit of sizing you up. He looks up and down your body with sexually suggestive facial expressions. Tell him it’s unwanted and unwelcome behavior and that it makes you feel uncomfortable. If he persists in being a jerk, then follow the steps above. Generally speaking, a single isolated incident will not be considered a hostile work environment. The courts look to see whether the conduct is both serious and frequent. Supervisors, managers, co-workers and even customers can be responsible for creating a hostile environment.

Both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment. In Fiscal Year 2010, the EEOC received 11,717 charges of sexual harassment down from the 13,867 received in 2008. The percentage of claims filed by men increased from 15.9% to 16.4%. The amount of monetary benefits paid out to victims, not including those obtained through litigation, increased from $47.4 million to $48.4 million indicating a greater success rate for the EEOC.

Remember, it’s ethically improper for someone to use his or her power and authority over you to exact favors or create a hostile work environment. Speak out if this happens to you. Do not show any kind of interest in going along with advances or tolerating repeated offensive gestures, comments, or actions. Once you start to demonstrate by your words or actions that it is acceptable behavior, it becomes much more difficult to take appropriate action to end it in the future.

If you have specific workplace issues and would like my advice, link on to the question box on my website:

 Workplace Ethics Advice posted by Ethics Sage on July 11, 2011