What Is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is generally thought to be any unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or any type of verbal or physical sexual conduct which contributes to a hostile work environment. If you are the person being charged with sexual harassment, it is important to know that having a sexual harassment charge on your criminal record can severely hinder your ability to obtain employment as well as have other serious repercussions for your future. If you are the victim of sexual harassment, you could suffer serious adverse health issues as well as emotional trauma.
Even actions that some people might not envision falling under sexual harassment can make another person feel uncomfortable in their work environment. Such actions as patting a co-worker on the back, flirting in a manner the other person considers unwanted or excessive, asking for a date from a person who previously turned you down, repeating a suggestive joke, or using what the other person considers suggestive sexual language can all result in charges of sexual harassment. Any type of sexual overture which affects such employment issues as hiring, firing, promotions, or raises can fall under sexual harassment. When an employer, manager, or superior attempts to pressure an employee to date or perform any type of sexual act in order to keep their job, then sexual harassment has definitely occurred.
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Employers can end up in trouble, even when they did not directly participate in sexually harassing incidents. The employer may be considered complicit in the sexual harassment if he or she even indirectly hinted the employee would be fired for complaining about a co-worker’s language or action and could also be charged with sexual harassment. Such charges would only result if the employer knew of the offensive behavior and discouraged the alleged victim from reporting the unwanted behaviors. The person convicted of sexual harassment could be subject to both civil and criminal penalties. The criminal penalties can include jail time, fines, and the long-term consequences any criminal conviction brings. Civil penalties can include jail time, restitution, lawyer and court fees, and potential compensatory and punitive damages for pain and suffering caused to the alleged victim.
In short, any type of sex discrimination which is contrary to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates a hostile work environment is considered sexual harassment. Employers must have at least 15 employees in order to fall under Title VII, although state and local government offices as well as elements of the federal government fall under Title VII regardless of the number of employees.
Who is Being Sexually Harassed?
Unfortunately, sexual harassment is far from an isolated incident in many places of employment, despite the fact that federal laws prohibit sexual harassment. In fact, by some estimates, more than va third of all women have been sexually harassed at some point in their work careers.
Other statistics regarding sexual harassment include:
- Of the women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, less than a third actually reported the incident.
- According to one survey, the industry with the highest levels of reported sexual harassment is the hospitality industry—food/service.
- Following the food service industry, retail, arts and entertainment, and the legal profession have the highest number of reported sexual harassment.
- Industries with the lowest number of reported sexual harassment incidents are the education field and the medical field.
- While 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment in verbal form, 44 percent have experienced unwanted touching or sexual advances.
- Seventy-five percent of the women who were sexually harassed experienced harassment from a male co-worker, while 38 percent were harassed by male managers.
- About 64 percent of the women who say they have experienced sexual harassment were between the ages of 19 and 29; 45 percent have a bachelor’s degree, and 19 percent have a graduate degree.
Sexual Harassment vs. Non-Sexual Harassment Creating a Hostile Work Environment
Types of sexual harassment that can lead to a hostile work environment include the following:
- Routinely “gawking” at another person in the workplace in a sexually suggestive manner
- Any type of request for a sexual favor
- Any type of unwelcome physical contact—patting, rubbing, brushing up against, pinching, touching or hugging another person
- Any suggestion of sexual activities, even if that suggestion is somewhat “veiled”
- Requesting a private meeting outside of regular business hours for a non-business-related purpose
- A person in the workplace who routinely tells sexual jokes or stories displays sexual images or sends sexual jokes, stories, or images via the Internet to others
- Remarks made about a person’s body or sexual relationships
- Using inappropriate body images to advertise an event
- Making derogatory comments, epithets, jokes or slurs of a sexual nature
- Any type of verbal sexual advance or proposition
- Sexual innuendos and other types of seductive behavior
- Soliciting a sexual activity or behavior through the promise of a job-related reward such as a raise or promotion
- Coercion of sexual activity through a threat, such as the loss of a job
- Pressure for dates or sexual favors
- The unwanted giving of gifts
- Display of sexually explicit visual material
- “Catcalls” and whistling in a demeaning manner with sexual overtones
- Suggestive or sexual gestures
There are also behaviors of a non-sexual type that can create a hostile work environment such as:
- The use of disparaging comments or epithets regarding another employee’s race
- Comments regarding another employee’s skin color or ethnic traits
- Any type of demonstration which makes fun of an employee’s race or ethnicity
- Comments made about another employee’s gender are non-sexual, yet derisive
- Making any type of negative comment about an employee’s age, when that person is at least 40 years old
- Making fun or belittling another employee’s mental or physical disability
- Making fun of another employee’s religious beliefs—or lack of religious beliefs
- Making any type of prejudicial statements about an employee’s family heritage or birthplace.
Two Types of Sexual Harassment
Workplace harassment as well as sexual harassment in the workplace can fall under two categories. Quid pro quo means “this for that”, and can occur when a person in a position of power promises a raise or a promotion—or a job—to another person in return for sexual favors. The person who is in power can also threaten an employee with a demotion or firing if that person refuses the sexual advances of the person in power. A hostile work environment occurs when sexual harassment is so severe or pervasive that a reasonable person would consider the work environment intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Additional Sexual Harassment Issues
There are additional issues to be aware of regarding sexual harassment. These issues include:
- When sexual harassment occurs, the victim and the harasser can be either gender, opposite sex or same sex. Although men are not the victims of sexual harassment as often as women, it does happen, and when it does the man is often hesitant to speak up, thinking he will be made fun of.
- A sexual harasser could be the victim’s boss, a manager in the victim’s department or another department, a co-worker, an agent of the employer, or even someone who is not employed by the victim’s company. Clients of the company, as well as customers, can also be sued for sexual harassment.
- In some instances, the victim is not the direct target of the sexual harassment, however could be an employee who is present during the sexual harassment and is offended by the behavior.
- If the person who is claiming sexual harassment “feeds into” the harasser’s behavior, flirts in return, or makes no effort to let the sexual harasser know his or her behavior is unwelcome and unacceptable, then the courts may determine there is no victim.
Employer’s Liability for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
If a supervisor’s sexual harassment of an employee results in a negative employment action, such as failure to promote or hire, loss of wages or raises, or termination, the employer may be liable for harassment as well, unless the employer attempted to prevent and/or correct the sexually harassing behaviors. The employer would not be held liable if the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.
Documenting Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Sexual harassment is a serious matter. You must take steps to ensure every instance of sexual harassment you have experienced is thoroughly documented. Pertinent information for every instance of sexual harassment should be written down, including the name of the harasser, and the names of any witnesses to the sexual harassment. Describe the gist of the sexual harassment and do your best to write any specific comments verbatim.
Make sure you write down the time, location, and circumstances leading up to the incident, and if there were other employees who attempted to stop the sexual harassment—or who egged it on—note their names as well. Copy your notes, and retain the originals in a safe place. Provide your human resources department with a copy, or, if your company does not have an HR department, give a copy of the documentation to the highest-ranking manager in your company. Make a note of the time and date you delivered the notes. If you end up filing a sexual harassment claim, these notes could be an invaluable resource for your attorney.
Dealing with Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The first thing you should do if you are being sexually harassed is to ask the harasser to stop. While this can be difficult, you must take this step. Tell the person he or she is making you uncomfortable, and that you want the harassment to stop. If the harasser continues his or her behavior, tell them you plan to file a formal complaint if their behavior continues. Most people will discontinue the harassing behaviors if they believe their behavior will be reported.
If you think you may not be the only victim of the harasser, search for other victims. There may have been complaints filed in the past or employees who simply quit suddenly, possibly due to sexual harassment. Any witnesses to the harassment or others who have been sexually harassed by the same person will support your claim.
If you have asked the harasser to stop and he or she does not inform your immediate supervisor about the sexual harassment. Write a formal letter, detailing the events which took place, then ask your supervisor for a meeting so you can explain your situation more thoroughly. Next, if your company has an HR department, you should inform HR as well. Once notified, an HR person will tell you what actions you need to take.
Should your supervisor refuse to take any action regarding your sexual harassment, it could be time to file a formal complaint with senior management. A senior manager should handle your complaint with discretion, informing you of any further actions you need to take. When you inform senior management of the issue, you must present all your evidence and documentation concerning sexual harassment.
If no action is taken after speaking to a senior manager, you can file a complaint with the EEOC, and the sexual harassment will be investigated. At this time, you may also want to speak to an experienced sexual harassment attorney to determine whether it is time for you to file a sexual harassment lawsuit.
How Sexual Harassment Can Affect Your Health
While victims of sexual harassment can experience strained work relationships after bringing the harassment to light, victims are also at risk for a number of health problems, such as:
- Depression—One study found that those who were sexually harassed in their teens and early twenties could later experience depression in their 30s. Depression can be accompanied by feelings of self-doubt and even self-blame.
- PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) has also been linked to sexual harassment. Some victims of sexual harassment can re-experience the trauma and may begin avoiding people or things which remind them of the sexual harassment.
- High blood pressure
- Insomnia and other sleep issues
- Neck pain
- Suicidal thoughts
If you are a victim of sexual harassment, it is important that you speak to an experienced Ayo and Iken employment attorney with a strong background in sexual harassment claims.