Sexual harassment is the number one problem in the workforce today. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine what constitutes sexual harassment and what does not. It’s important to understand what is not appropriate. Unfortunately, some actions, however crude, are not considered harassment, so it is difficult to tell.
Any action that makes you feel uncomfortable is important to bring attention to so the offender knows you won’t allow them to treat you that way. Know what to watch for and stand up for yourself in the workplace, so you don’t find yourself dealing with human resources or any other complications that make working with your co-workers uncomfortable.
If you do feel like you are a victim of harassment, make sure you follow the appropriate course of action to report it to human resources. The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as any “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
Even worse is when the submission to or rejection of this conduct affects an individual’s performance at work or creates a hostile or offensive environment. In the five years between FY 2012-16, the EEOC has seen more than 35,000 sexual harassment charges. On average, more than 17% of these charges were filed by males (source). Many people feel so uncomfortable reporting sexual harassment that these numbers are likely very low. However, no incidents should go unreported.
Forms of Sexual Harassment
Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo is a form of sexual harassment where the harasser promises their victim some sort of compensation for performing a sexual act. When a boss tells a subordinate that they will get a raise if they sleep with him or her, or threatening termination if they don’t, that is sexual harassment. Sexual favors should never be offered or demanded in return for going easy on the deadlines, for not making you work overtime, or for not making you do something that’s already not part of the job description.
“The boss says, ‘sleep with me and you’ll get a raise’ or ‘if you don’t sleep with me you’ll get fired’.”
~ remarks prominent Los Angeles-based attorney and counselor at law, Scott I. Barer to give a rather plain perspective on what constitutes quid pro quo sexual harassment.
Hostile Work Environment
According to Andrew Milne, a senior counsel with Garson Claxton LLC, even a workplace that regularly plays a radio program featuring frequent vulgar references to sexual activities, sex acts, and body parts can create a hostile work environment.
Any coworker who tells crude jokes or passes around inappropriate pictures is also contributing to a hostile work environment. Comments that are played off as jokes may make a hostile work environment if they are about age, race, religion or gender, and should never be tolerated.
Roberta Chinsky Matuson, President of Human Resource Solutions remarks, “if the other person finds the joke offensive, and it makes the work environment uncomfortable, then this would be considered creating a hostile work environment.”
Behaviors Mistaken for Sexual Harassment
Only unwelcome conduct is considered sexual harassment. If two employees reach an exclusive agreement, it is not considered harassment at all. Two consenting adults in a sexual relationship are often confused for sexual harassment. However, it is important to realize that sometimes things may start out consensual, but turn into something entirely different. Both parties should feel comfortable ending the relationship at any time without fear of the repercussions.
A boss telling his assistant that she looks nice today or complimenting her outfit is not sexual harassment. His actions are not unreasonable. While paying someone a compliment does not constitute sexual harassment, complimenting someone often or in excess could make them feel uncomfortable.
You should also never tell anyone in the workplace that a particular outfit makes them look sexy or make references to the way it makes certain parts of their body look. There is a fine line here that is easy to cross, but in general, compliments about the way someone looks is not harassment until it involves comments of a sexual nature.
Screaming at or criticising an employee for inefficiency in front of other coworkers is not harassment. Open criticism makes people feel uncomfortable, which is why some may confuse it with sexual harassment.
“If a male supervisor yells at a female subordinate in front of other people in the office for poor performance, and the female employee gets embarrassed, that is not harassment,” comments Beth Hinsdale, a partner with Fox Rothschild in the labor and employment practice group.
“Swearing in the workplace is not harassment,” opines Anne Caldwell, president of Outsourcing Solutions.
Using crude language such as swearing in the workplace could be considered unprofessional, but may not amount to harassment. Unfortunately, it’s a reality of the workplace today, and while it may make some people uncomfortable, they have no grounds for claiming sexual harassment.
Again, there’s a fine line between swearing and comments that are sexual in nature. Swearing is not an effective way to communicate your thoughts, but as long as the comments aren’t sexual in nature, it’s not harassment.
Erica Pinsky, principal consultant at Erica Pinsky Inc, feels that sometimes things as innocuous as asking someone out once or complimenting someone sparingly could be mistaken for sexual harassment when they are actually not. Only if the behavior is repeated frequently, it can be regarded as a matter of sexual harassment.
Working Late in Exchange for Dinner
If a supervisor asks a subordinate to work late and offers dinner in exchange for the employee’s trouble, it’s not sexual harassment. The boss didn’t suggest sexual favors or lay out terms of the subordinate’s employment in exchange for sexual favors. It’s a simple gesture to compensate for long hours and hard work.
“Suppose a male supervisor asked a female employee to work late, and he told her that he would buy her dinner for her trouble. That is not sexual harassment… He has not requested sexual favors and conditioned the terms of her employment or employment opportunities on sexual favors. He simply offered to feed her as a thank you for her hard work.”
~ B. Allison Borkenheim, Attorney at Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch LLP
Action Steps in Cases of Sexual Harrassment
You should never tolerate sexual harassment. It’s not acceptable in any circumstance. Victims of sexual harassment are everywhere, and unfortunately, much of it goes unreported. The people doing the harassment are still working, perhaps with you.
Sexual harassment is a demonstration of power. Don’t let others in the workplace assert dominance over you. You can follow the steps below if you find yourself a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.
1. Confront the offender. You should always try to resolve the issue directly first before going to human resources.
“Interns and entry-level employees, like all employees, should first try to resolve the matter directly with the offender.”
~ Lily M. Garcia, HR professional & employment discrimination attorney
2. Identify your allies. If confrontation makes you feel uncomfortable, or you feel your job is at risk, you need to know there are people you can trust. Someone in HR or a sympathetic manager can help. You should seek out a senior member of management to help you air the issues.
“This is certainly a valid concern, and where HR or a sympathetic manager can help. Many members of management are sensitive to sexual harassment issues and will take any such complaints very seriously. The employee should actively seek out a senior level member of the company – even if not in his or her department – and air the issues.”
~ Josh King, vice president of business development and general counsel for Avvo, Inc.
3. Put it in writing. Keep track of the situations in which you feel harassed. Make a note of dates and your response to the behavior, so you have a record.
“Keep a log of situations where you have felt harassed. Be sure to note time and dates along with your response to this behavior.”
~ Roberta Chinsky Matuson, President of Human Resource Solutions
4. Check the policy. Your company has a sexual harassment policy. If you feel harassed, double check the appropriate courses of action. If there is no sexual harassment policy, you should always involve your immediate supervisor.
5. File a complaint. Your company should also have a complaint procedure. Follow it when you find that you haven’t made any progress with your sexual harassment situation.
6. Go outside the organization. If you are uncomfortable with an ineffective sexual harassment policy, enlist the help of a local EEOC office or an agency that specializes in sexual harassment cases. They can refer you to the appropriate parties to get the situation resolved.
“If an employer does not have an effective sexual harassment policy, or doesn’t actually follow their written policy or investigate allegations of sexual harassment, employees can seek guidance from the local offices of the EEOC, state agencies that handle employment discrimination matters and private attorneys.”
~ Andrew Milne, a senior counsel with Garson Claxton LLC
It is often difficult to determine whether a certain act is considered sexual harassment. If something makes you uncomfortable, you should always ask that it stop and remove yourself from the situation. However, the nuances are complex and having a better understanding of each situation can help.
Never tolerate anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, but don’t jeopardize someone else’s career by jumping to the conclusion that they are trying to harass you. Do your research, make notes of patterns of behavior, and follow the correct path for recourse when you feel certain you have grounds for a case.