Many types of sexual behavior can be the basis for a harassment case. This behavior can include verbal remarks and comments. In fact, some of the most extreme examples of sexual harassment that have led to harsh consequences were verbal in nature, even when no sexual favors were demanded or requested.
If you have been the victim of verbal sexual harassment, you should see an sexual harassment lawyer to learn about your legal rights and a possible lawsuit against your employer.
Verbal Harassment Can Fall Into Both Categories of Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment involves unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. Certainly, this includes actual physical contact. It also includes retaliating against a subordinate because they reject sexual advances. Many different things can be “of a sexual nature.” Words and other non-physical behavior can fall under the umbrella of sexual harassment.
There are two primary types of sexual harassment, and verbal sexual harassment can fall under each category:
- Quid pro quo sexual harassment literally means “this for that.” Here, sexual favors are requested or demanded in exchange for a particular job benefit. Quid pro quo sexual harassment cases can include verbal sexual advances and direct sexual remarks to an employee. These acts of harassment often include direct vulgar remarks made to the employee about things like their body or sexual suggestions.
- A hostile work environment is when employees create an abusive work environment because of pervasive conduct. This conduct can include remarks that happened in the employee’s presence or objectifying women in the workplace because of their gender.
The Victim Must Have Personally Suffered From the Conduct
Verbal harassment is not something only in the eyes of the victim. It is possible that one can be overly sensitive, and a reasonable person would not consider the verbal conduct to be abusive.
When it comes to a hostile work environment, the victim must show that they suffered personally from the conduct, and that it disturbed their tranquility and ability to perform their job. Usually, this suffering will be repeated and pervasive, and it will occur on more than one occasion. An employee cannot seek financial compensation if they were in the presence of a dirty joke but it did not bother them.
Whether It Is Harassment Depends on the Facts and Circumstances
Whether something is sexual harassment depends on the facts and circumstances of the situation. Usually, courts are looking for a pattern of conduct, but one remark or occurrence can be enough to constitute sexual harassment if it is severe enough.
Everything depends on what a reasonable person might consider to be hostile or abusive and whether the employee suffered personally from the remarks.
For example, if one employee tells another, “You look nice today,” on one occasion, and the employee who received the remark suffers severe emotional distress, it may not be sexual harassment because distress will be an unusually sensitive and unusual reaction to have.
A Famous Example of Verbal Sexual Harassment on Wall Street
In the 1990s, the public learned of one notorious case of verbal sexual harassment that brought attention to this illegal pattern of conduct in the workplace. One branch of the Wall Street brokerage Smith Barney had an area they called the Boom Boom Room where male employees gathered to drink alcohol and make lewd remarks. This conduct occurred throughout the office, where male employees directly referred to female employees using vulgar terms.
Even with no overt sexual advances, the environment was a hostile one towards women. Smith Barney settled a lawsuit filed by 26 female plaintiffs for a total of $150 million. The liability from the case was supposed to change the way that many workplaces operated, but many things never changed.
Examples of Verbal Sexual Harassment
Here are some examples of things that can constitute verbal sexual harassment:
- Jokes and innuendo of a sexual nature made to a co-worker or around them
- Asking a co-worker out to date or have sex
- Unwanted questions about an employee’s sex life
- Comments about one’s sex life directly to or in the presence of another employee
One does not even have to make remarks about sex to verbally sexually harass someone. In the Boom Boom Room case, the women were called derogatory names that referred to their sex. For example, addressing women as a “b” can be verbal sexual harassment. Of course, the case discussed above also had numerous other derogatory and sexual remarks that made the situation far worse.
Verbal Sexual Harassment Does Not Require Intent or Actual Sexual Remarks
Verbal sexual harassment also does not have to be derogatory remarks aimed at a particular employee or group of employees. For example, excessive complimenting can be sexual harassment when it is unwelcome. Making remarks complimenting an employee’s body or clothing can be harassment, depending on the atmosphere it creates for the employee.
Verbal sexual harassment does not have to come from a supervisor to be illegal. Any employee can sexually harass another, even if they do not talk to them directly. Telling sexual jokes to an employee in one’s cubicle can be harassment when it happens where others can hear the joke. Sexual harassment can be every bit as much about the atmosphere in the office.
These remarks also do not need to be made with the intent to be sexual harassment. One can commit an illegal act without even knowing exactly what they are doing.
A co-worker may think they were trying to be nice to the other employee without knowing they were making their co-workers uncomfortable. They may have made a statement to someone else without knowing that there was another employee in the vicinity who can hear what they said. It is best to be careful and not make any remarks that can be construed as verbal sexual harassment.
A $168 Million Jury Award for Verbal Sexual Harassment
One of the largest sexual harassment lawsuit payouts of all time was for conduct that was predominantly verbal. Hospital staff had explicit conversations about their sex lives in her presence and made jokes laden with sexual innuendo. One of the surgeons greeted co-workers with inappropriate sexual comments and often detailed his frustrations about his own sex life in front of his colleagues. The nurse had made 18 written complaints about sexual harassment to human resources. Instead of taking action to stop the sexual harassment, the hospital retaliated against the nurse by firing her.
The nurse won her case at trial. At the conclusion of an 11-day trial, the jury awarded her a stunning $168 million in damages. Included in this total was $39 million for mental anguish. In addition, the jury slapped the hospital with $125 million in punitive damages for their egregious conduct.
Damages in Your Sexual Harassment Case
Although not every case may be worth that staggering amount of money, it gives you an idea of what may happen when your employment attorney can prove horrible employer conduct to a jury. In a sexual harassment case, a jury of 12 human beings with their own emotions and sensitivities decide the case. Thus, you do not have to be a continuous victim and live with the awful conduct you experienced at work.
In a sexual harassment case, you might seek:
- Payment for the mental anguish that you experienced from the conduct
- Lost income if your employer terminated you from your job or did not promote you or increase your pay because of retaliation
- Any harm to your reputation as a result of the harassment
- The costs to treat any physical or emotional issues that you experienced because of the harassment
- Job-search costs if you need to look for a new job
The court may even award you attorney’s fees and costs if you win a lawsuit, meaning that you can keep your entire award.
Your Employer Has Every Reason to Worry
As you have seen, punitive damages are also possible for examples of egregious conduct. This fear is very real for employers. The prospect of punitive damages may make your employer more willing to settle the case before it ever comes close to the inside of a courtroom. This can make the process less stressful for you.
In addition, your employer may also be afraid of bad publicity. In the #MeToo era, companies have been subjected to withering criticism when examples of sexual harassment have gone public. It can be bad for the employer’s reputation and business. You may have some leverage when you are either trying to put a stop to bad behavior or seek compensation for the harassment that you have endured.
You Can and Should Take Legal Action
What you may have been experiencing at work may not just simply be off-color jokes and normal humor. Instead, it can be illegal. You have the right to take legal action when the behavior crosses the line.
You should not act alone. If you have been the victim of verbal sexual harassment, you need to contact an experienced employment attorney today. Your lawyer will work with you on your response and how to address the situation. It is difficult enough to endure sexual harassment. You do not have to go through it alone, feeling helpless and powerless.
Many people do not come forward when they are victims of sexual harassment. Whether they are afraid or they do not think that they can do anything about it, people may not know about their full legal rights. Speaking with an attorney can let you know that you have legal rights of sexual harassment victims and the potential for financial compensation. An attorney will explain the law to you and let you know how best to handle the harassment.
What to Do When You Have Been Verbally Sexually Harassed?
Here is what you should do after verbal sexual harassment or any other kind of illegal harassment on the job:
- Try to document everything that you can about the conduct, including when it occurred and other details that can be helpful in proving your case
- Keep a contemporary log of the offensive sexual remarks
- Speak to your supervisor or human resources and raise your concerns about the conduct (making a written request whenever possible)
You generally should have evidence that you raised your concerns to management to let them know that you felt you were experiencing harassment, and they should take steps to end the illegal conduct. You are protected when you come forward because your employer can pay a severe price if they fire you to retaliate for making a complaint.
To be clear, there is no right way to address sexual harassment. Everything depends on the facts and circumstances of the situation. An employment attorney in San Diego can assist you with the best response in your own particular situation.