Understanding Workplace Sexual Harassment

No one should ever be subjected to a situation where they feel unsafe at work. Sexual harassment can have huge negative effects not only on individual workers, but on the workplace as a whole.

Understanding what sexual harassment is can go a long way toward making a workplace safer. Many employees don't take action to stop sexual harassment because they aren't fully aware of their rights. In other cases, a supervisor or coworker perpetrating the harassment may not even be aware that their conduct is both harmful and illegal.

What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment occurs whenever a person is subjected to sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other sexual conduct that negatively affects the work environment. Sexual harassment can take a number of forms, including the following:

  • Making unwelcome sexual advances
  • Conditioning hiring, continued employment or promotion on the employee's participation in sexual acts
  • Saying sexual things about an employee
  • Making repeated dirty jokes, even after being asked to stop
  • Making offensive comments about a particular gender, even if the comments are not of a sexual nature

Generally speaking, most sexual harassment falls into one of two categories. "Quid pro quo" harassment occurs when the benefits of employment are tied to unwelcome sexual advances. "Hostile work environment" discrimination occurs when an employee is regularly subjected to offensive sexual comments, material or conduct at work.

While quid pro quo harassment can only be perpetrated by a supervisor, hostile work environment harassment can be perpetrated by supervisors, coworkers or even customers. In addition, it is important to recognize that sexual harassment law is gender-blind. Although most cases involve a man harassing a woman, it is equally illegal for a woman to harass a man or for a person to harass another person of the same gender.

What Can Be Done About Sexual Harassment?

All employers can benefit from making proactive efforts to stop discrimination and harassment. By educating employees about sexual harassment, employers may be able prevent it from happening in the first place. If an employee makes a complaint about sexual harassment, employers have a duty to investigate the complaint and take appropriate action against the perpetrators.

Employees who are being harassed at work have a right to take action to stop the harassment. Employees have a number of options in this regard, including filing a complaint with the EEOC or pursuing a sexual harassment lawsuit.