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Workplace Sexual Harassment


Despite more than 50 years of legislation and legal action, sexual harassment remains a serious problem in the American workplace. Six states, the District of Columbia, and two cities (New York and Chicago) require sexual harassment prevention training for private employers. Nearly all states have similar requirements for government workers.

Most of these laws affect businesses with more than 50 employees. Workplace harassment affects everyone. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recommends all employers, regardless of size or location, create a sexual harassment policy for their workplace.

Even if your company is too small to have its own human resources department, sexual harassment training can help. When you and your employees recognize a hostile work environment early, you can prevent sexual harassment complaints.

Defining Sexual Harassment and a Hostile Work Environment

The EEOC has a straightforward definition of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a type of sex/gender discrimination that involves:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Verbal comments about sex
  • Unwanted physical contact
  • Visual representations of a sexual nature, such as pornographic images

Harassment happens when an employee must accept this conduct to keep their job, or if refusing it means their job is at risk. It can also happen if the behavior interferes with the employee's work day.

The classic example is the secretary threatened with firing unless they agree to the boss's sexual demands. It can also be a co-worker who hangs around another person's cubicle, making crude remarks all day.

If this continues, it may create a hostile work environment. The target of the harassment finds the situation so unbearable they fear coming to work or can't concentrate on their job.

As a form of workplace discrimination, sexual harassment violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Filing a Sexual Harassment Claim

The EEOC generally handles sexual harassment claims as it does all employment harassment complaints. Workers can file a formal complaint with the EEOC, which investigates the claim according to federal law. A sexual harassment complaint can take two forms:

  • Quid pro quo harassment happens when the worker's job depends on accepting unwanted sexual advances.
  • A hostile work environment exists when the harassment creates a situation that is intimidating, abusive, or toxic to a reasonable person.

Sexual Harassment vs. Sexual Assault

Sexual harassment is a serious offense, but in most states, you won't get jail time if the EEOC finds you guilty. But, some types of sexual harassment cross the line into more serious offenses, such as sexual assault and sexual battery.

Most forms of harassment are verbal: suggestive statements, rude comments, or dirty jokes. Sometimes, harassment is visual or electronic, like sending pornographic emails. When harassment becomes physical, grabbing, pinching, or groping, it may become sexual assault.

Stalking, one of the most frightening crimes, can flow from sexual harassment. If a sexual harassment case becomes a stalking case, it's time to bring in the police.

Sexual Harassment in Court

Small business owners may find themselves between a rock and a hard place when an employee makes a sexual harassment report. Business owners may hesitate to investigate or enforce disciplinary action in a small company with few workers. If a worker does report harassment, you should immediately get legal advice.

Under most state laws, workers can file a sexual harassment lawsuit against the harasser. They can also file against their employer for failing to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Employers can defend themselves by showing they took all reasonable steps to prevent harassment and provided adequate reporting opportunities.

You will have better luck with your defense if you can show the court you have a solid sexual harassment prevention policy. You also provide a better work environment for your employees.

Court Considerations

Whether the EEOC reviews the case or the state court takes it, they consider the same factors in establishing a hostile work environment. Some things the court looks at include:

  • The company policy about sexual harassment, especially if there is an employee handbook
  • The size of the company and number of employees
  • State laws on training and the company's compliance
  • Where and how the inappropriate behavior occurred
  • Management response, if any

Get Legal Help for Your Sexual Harassment Case

If an employee has filed a sexual harassment claim against your business or a co-worker, don't wait. Get a business law attorney immediately. No matter the situation, you should protect your and your employees' interests before things proceed further.

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