What is Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

There are legal protections that are meant to safeguard against sexual harassment in the workplace or in educational settings. However, many people are unclear about what constitutes sexual harassment, leading them to put up with unwanted attention or quit their job.

Sexual Harassment in a Nutshell

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome attention that is sexually based and severe or pervasive. Such conduct disrupts working or results in a “hostile work environment”. The key elements here are the words ‘unwelcome,’ ‘conduct of a sexual nature,’ that is ‘severe or pervasive.’ We will take a closer look at each aspect to see if legally a situation is considered sexual harassment.

What Do They Mean by Unwelcome?

The very first important word in the description of sexual harassment is the word ‘unwelcome.’ The easiest way to define this phrase is by substituting the word ‘unwanted.’ If you did not want the sexual attention, then it is illegal. It is important to tell your harasser that you do not want the attention, so that there can be no dispute of it later.  If it persists, you should save the communications or tape the conversations. If you are being harassed, you need to tell your supervisor and HR department in writing that you do not appreciate the unwanted attention you are receiving and you want it to stop.

What is Sexual Conduct?

There are many different types of sexual conduct, but at the end of the day they are all forms of sexual harassment that are illegal. Sexual harassment can be physical such as when someone touches you inappropriately without your consent, hugs or kisses you without permission, or physically blocks you from moving in the direction you want.

It can also be verbal or written, and can include comments about your clothing, sexually based jokes, repeated requests for dates, or threatening someone that if they don’t respond to sexual advances they will face consequences. This can also include bribing someone with benefits if they agree to take part in a sexual exchange. For example, a boss that mentions there is a great promotion, but if you want to talk about you need to come over to his house.

Finally, sexual harassment also be nonverbal. Following a person around against their permission, making gestures that are sexual in nature, or staring at a person in a suggestive manner can all be forms of harassment. In general, if the behavior makes you feel uncomfortable and you have expressed that you would like the aggressor to stop, it is likely a form of harassment.

Illegal Sexual Harassment is “Severe or Pervasive”

Finally, in order for sexual harassment to be illegal, as opposed to sexual assault, it has to take place on a continual basis (pervasive) or needs to be severe. Some examples of sexual harassment are obvious, such as offering to exchange sex for benefits at work, while others may build over time such as a coworker asking you for a date over and over despite your refusal. In most cases, one offhand comment or some teasing is not enough to be considered sexual harassment, but if these behaviors continue then the behavior becomes illegal.

Common Examples of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

A few examples have already been mentioned, but there are many more. Sexual harassment can take place in so many forms that it is impossible to name every instance. Physical injury does not have to occur, and in many cases, no one will be fired, as the victim will continue to work for the company despite harassment. This does not mean that they do not have a case against the company.

All this said, there are some familiar examples of sexual harassment that seem to occur on a frequent basis. These include requests for sexual favors, verbal or physical conduct that is sexually based and unwanted, and sexual comments that make the workplace a hostile environment.

What Can I Do if I Am Facing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

If you feel that you are a victim of sexual harassment there are several things that you can do. If you are comfortable enough with the aggressor, the first thing you can do is approach them and verbally tell them that you are uncomfortable with their behavior and ask them to stop. In the case of someone making sexually based jokes, they may simply not understand that their behavior makes others uncomfortable. Oftentimes, talking to them will be enough to stop the behavior.

On the other hand, if the sexual behavior makes you too uncomfortable to approach your coworker, you should approach your supervisor. Explain the situation and tell them that you are uncomfortable and want the behavior to end. If your supervisor is the one responsible for the behavior, then you should go to your company’s HR department. There are usually specific policies in place designed to help properly resolve claims of sexual harassment.

I Have Filed a Complaint, but Nothing Has Changed

If you have done all of these things, and the sexual harassment continues then there is a good chance your company is in breach of the law. We encourage you to contact our law firm so we can help you get the proper response from your company along with compensation for the unwanted attention. We have a team of experienced sexual harassment lawyers and can help guide you through the steps that are necessary to make your work environment safe once again.


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