Does the BP Guilty Plea End the Matter of the Gulf Disaster?
Workplace Bullying

What is sexual harassment in the Workplace?

How to Identify Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Although most workplace harassment is male to female, the problem encompasses much more than gender and sex discrimination. According to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, individuals with legally protected characteristics have a right to work in an environment free from unwanted intimidation, ridicule, degradation and sexual advances. Title VII defines harassment as “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” You should learn to identify workplace harassment to protect your rights and the rights of others.

Complex relationships and social media in today’s hectic workplace environment often lead to inappropriate staff interactions. Employees on the receiving end of unwanted touching, gesturing, comments, or postings have a legal right to press charges against their employer. If you are facing such a predicament, please consider contacting a local employment law attorney as soon as possible. What follows is some useful information to identify some of the actions of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can include everything from grabs and pokes, to gestures and lewd comments. These inappropriate actions can victimize both males and females, and encompass a wide range of unwanted behaviors. If you are receiving inappropriate attention from supervisors or coworkers, there is a good chance that you are experiencing sexual harassment. Sexual harassment generally falls into one of two categories: quid pro quo, which involves a suggestion of sexual favors in return for job benefits, and the creation of a hostile work environment. Both types entitle the victim to press charges in court.

Here is some basic advice and a few specific examples of sexual harassment in the workplace:

  • You feel uncomfortable at work because others make unwanted comments or take unwanted actions based on your legally protected characteristics, such as age, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation and disability.
  • You can be the victim of workplace harassment even if you are not the perpetrator's intended target. If you overhear harassing comments or witness harassing behavior that you find offensive, you may have a legitimate workplace harassment claim.
  • Examples of workplace sexual harassment include, but are not limited to, inappropriate staring, unwanted comments about appearance, making sexual gestures, telling sexually explicit jokes, and displaying or distributing lewd materials.
  • It is illegal to make jokes, display or distribute materials, perpetuate stereotypes, or make derogatory or threatening comments targeted toward individuals or groups with legally protected characteristics.
  • Although anybody, including vendors and other third parties, can create a hostile work environment, only those with supervisory positions can commit workplace harassment that results in a tangible change in employment status. A manager cannot take any action against an employee, such as hiring, firing, demotion or transfer, based on protected characteristics.
  • Draw the line when appropriate. Although it is legal, within certain parameters, to compliment coworkers and to display personal materials in the workplace, harassment law has some gray areas, so it's better to be safe than sorry. For example, while it's legal to ask a coworker for a romantic date, repeated unwanted requests and advancements can constitute harassment.
  • Distinguish unwanted actions from consensual behavior. Workplace harassment, by definition, must be unwanted on the part of the target. In order for harassment to constitute a hostile work environment, it must be pervasive and offensive from an objective standpoint.

When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) looks at the whole record: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination on the allegations is made from the facts on a case-by-case basis.

Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.

From my perspective, short of filing a legal claim against the harasser, the best thing to do is to go on record with your claim in case matters get worse later on. Go to your HR (personnel) department; give them a complete picture of what happened; and ask them to take action to resolve the matter. It's also a good idea a keep a record of all events related to the unwanted behavior (i.e., a journal). Write down who said what to you on what date, what did you say in response, what actions did you take, if any, and so on. I would give a copy of the journal to a trusted advisor so he or she can attest to it being a verifiable claim. The record forever memorializes the offensive statements and any related actions against you.

In my next blog I will discuss workplace bullying.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 28, 2012