What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is unwelcome requests for sexual favors, sexual advances, or verbal or physical conduct based on sex. The conduct does not have to be sexual in nature, but it must be related to gender. The harasser and victim may be of any gender and may be the opposite or the same sex. They may be supervisors, co-workers, or clients.
Some examples of sexual harassment include:
- Requesting sexual favors or making unwanted sexual advances
- Any kind of unwanted touching
- Talking about one’s sex life or asking another worker about theirs
- Frequent comments about someone’s appearance
- Making inappropriate jokes of a sexual nature
- Sending emails or texts that are sexual
- Sexist comments
When is Sexual Harassment Illegal?
Not every inappropriate comment or offhand remark is considered illegal harassment. People make mistakes and sometimes misjudge a situation. These instances are not necessarily illegal. Harassment is illegal when:
- It is frequent or severe enough to create a hostile or offensive environment.
- Putting up with it is a condition of employment.
- It leads to adverse employment consequences for the victim who rejects it, such as being fired or passed over for a promotion.
Sexual harassment has consequences. The victim may lose their job or position, lose wages and benefits, become ostracized at work, suffer physical harm, or experience mental health symptoms.
Facts About Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is a prevalent workplace issue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) polices workplace harassment and keeps records about incidents:
- The EEOC received more than 7,500 sexual harassment claims in 2018.
- This represented a 14% increase from 2017.
- Before 2018, the number of claims had been decreasing since 2010.
- Sexual harassment is underreported. As many as 75% of victims never report harassment to an employer or union representative.
- Many victims fear retaliation for speaking up, which is illegal.
What Laws Protect Workers Against Sexual Harassment?
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people from discrimination based on certain characteristics, including sex. The Supreme Court interpreted Title VII of the Act to include sexual harassment. It applies only to employers with 15 or more employees. This includes the government. Many states also have additional laws that protect people from sexual harassment.
Title VII outlines two specific types of harassment:
- Quid pro quo. This is when a supervisor requests some type of sexual favor or engages in inappropriate conduct, offering a job action as a result. For instance, if a boss asks an employee for sex in exchange for a job promotion, it is considered quid pro quo harassment.
- Hostile work environment. When an employee is subjected to inappropriate, unwanted, and sexual conduct, that causes the work environment to become abusive. The conduct may be physical or verbal, and it may or may not be directed specifically at the victim.
The EEOC provides further guidance and more specifics on what does and does not constitute harassment. The EEOC enforces Title VII and provides avenues for victims to remedy the situation.
Sexual Harassment Myths
Several myths about sexual harassment persist, making it difficult for some people to recognize that they have been victimized. Employees need to understand the truths about workplace harassment to protect themselves and take action:
- Men can be harassed too. Many people believe that harassment only applies to women.
- The perpetrator can be of any gender. It could be a woman harassing another woman or a man harassing a man or woman.
- Perpetrators are not always supervisors. Most people think of harassment as a person in power harassing an employee, which is often the case. However, an employee can harass another co-worker, and the perpetrator may also be a third-party, like a customer or vendor.
- Students can be victims of harassment. Sexual harassment laws mostly apply to the workplace, but they also protect students from harassment by teachers and other authority figures.
What Should I Do if I Experience Sexual Harassment at Work?
You do not have to live with workplace sexual harassment. You can take several steps to resolve the situation, but if you are unsure which is best or have tried and failed to remedy it, contact a sexual harassment lawyer.
- Confront the perpetrator.
If you feel comfortable doing so, sometimes confronting the person harassing you is a simple, effective way to stop the behavior.
- Follow your employer’s policy.
If you do not feel comfortable confronting the harasser, or you tried to talk to them with no results, check to see if your company has a sexual harassment policy. If it does, follow the outlined steps.
- Talk to HR or a supervisor.
Your company may not have a policy, in which case you should report the issue to a supervisor or your human resources department. It is illegal for your employer to punish you for making a report.
- Retain documentation.
As you go through these steps, keep any documentation you have of the harassment and communications with your employer and the harasser. This may include texts, emails, voicemails, or official reports.
- File an EEOC complaint.
The EEOC has a process for investigating and resolving sexual harassment. You must file a complaint with the agency and go through the steps outlined.
- File a lawsuit.
When other avenues for resolution fail, you may be able to sue your employer. The EEOC requires you to file a complaint first, and then you may be given the go-ahead to begin a lawsuit. Depending on where you work, state laws may allow you to begin a lawsuit.
Sexual harassment is a serious issue with real consequences. If you have experienced harassment on the job, take steps to advocate for your rights. Consider talking to a sexual harassment lawyer for advice and representation.