What is Sexual Harassment? A recent ruling in a court case in California has opened the door for businesses to know what is sexual harassment. The ruling stated that there is a clear distinction between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the workplace. Simply put, the definition of “sexual harassment” includes any unwelcome sexual advance, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or visual conduct of a sexual nature which directly or indirectly impacts an employee’s performance or creates a hostile work environment. When these types of conduct are not tolerated, it can create a hostile work environment.
Sexual harassment is often a feature of an offensive or unsavory work environment. Unnecessary touching, forcing an unwilling or unable subordinate to engage in sexual activity, requiring a sex act in front of others, or intimidating a coworker on grounds that the employee is a female, will all be found to be harassment. Any of these actions, taken without impunity, will have severe consequences for both the victim and the employer.
The Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as amended by the 1996 Fair Credit Reporting Act, has long defined the meaning of sexual harassment and has made it illegal to discriminate against employees in the workplace based on gender, race, national origin, age, religious beliefs, or even a disability. In addition to requiring employers to prohibit sexual harassment, this same legislation also makes it illegal for an employer to retaliate against a victim for complaining of discrimination or other conduct related to sexual harassment. If an employee feels that he or she has been subjected to discrimination, even if it is unwarranted, they are protected under the Title VII. Similarly, a former employee who complains about being fired because he complains about discriminatory conduct, has a claim for Title VII retaliation.
Another area of confusion regarding what constitutes harassment is that of “hostile work environments”. Some courts have held that a co-worker who comments on a colleague’s outfit is not within the definition of a hostile work environment. However, other courts have held that a supervisor who lectures employees on how to behave around fellow co-workers who are sexual attracted to them violates the definition of a hostile work environment. The majority of courts have held that there is nothing in the definition of “hostile” that can reasonably be construed to require that a situation create an unsafe or unpleasant working environment. Simply put, if a person is subject to ridicule by another employee, or if that person’s supervisor makes embarrassing statements about his or her employees, the conduct does not amount to harassment.
Many individuals who experience sexual harassment experience confusion regarding whether or not their experience was considered illegal. A number of legal professionals argue that in many cases a remark by a co-worker that creates a hostile work environment is actionable, while other individuals disagree. To determine what, if anything, may constitute a violation of your rights, you should seek an attorney with experience in this type of case. This field of law is very complex and it is important to hire an attorney who is familiar with the nuances of this area of the law.
If you do decide to file a complaint regarding a work environment that is considered to be sexually harassing, you will want to document every instance of conduct that occurs. Additionally, you will want to gather information regarding any repercussions that resulted from your complaint. Be sure to keep all documentation pertaining to your complaint, from the date of the comment to its outcome.
As an employee it is critical that you understand the meaning of harassment and how it affects your ability to work. You must also be familiar with the expectations of your employer and understand the procedures that are required of you should you feel the need to make a complaint. Finally, it is important to understand that you have certain legal rights when it comes to making a complaint. First, you have the right to speak up at any meeting that is considered harassment based on what you have experienced. Second, you have the right to know whether or not an incident you’ve described actually occurred.
If you have decided to file a complaint, your next step will be to notify your supervisor or the employer. You must first be given the opportunity to express your position and give details about what occurred. Should your employer not respond appropriately or take actions against harassment, you have the right to file a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission or EEOC. This government agency protects all employees, regardless of gender, race, religion, or national origin.