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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Signs of 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.”

Many sexual harassment cases filed under Title VII involve charges of a hostile environment due to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature. 

Employers must create and enforce sexual harassment policies and conduct sexual harassment training so that supervisors can recognize what is and what isn't considered to be sexual harassment. Supervisors are responsible for eliminating behavior that can lead to claims of a hostile environment in their departments.

A hostile work environment is defined as: sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, when such advances, requests, or conduct have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.

In order to show a hostile work environment, an employee must prove the following.

  1. He/she was subjected to conduct of a sexual nature (e.g., inappropriate touching, sexual epithets, jokes, gossip, sexual comments, requests for sex, sexually suggestive pictures and objects, leering, whistling, sexual gestures).
  2. The conduct was unwelcome.
  3. The conduct had the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.
  4. The conduct unreasonably interfered with the employee's work performance or altered the terms and conditions of employment. (Note: This can hold true even when an employee does not suffer a tangible job detriment. Look at the totality of circumstances, including the nature, severity, and pervasiveness of the conduct and the psychological harm to the employee.)

Quid Pro Quo Harassment is "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.

Both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment. In Fiscal Year 2011, the EEOC received 11,364 charges of sexual harassment down from the 13,867 received in 2008. The percentage of claims filed by men increased from 15.9% to 16.3%. The amount of monetary benefits paid out to victims, not including those obtained through litigation, increased from $47.4 million to $52.3 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  April 24, 2013