Workplace sexual harassment refers to many phrases, words, and actions that might cause an employee to feel worried, upset, or frightened to the extent that it impacts their working conditions and ability to perform their job as they should. It can often lead to distress or illness and can affect a victim’s day-to-day life.
Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be directly sexual in nature. It can also come in the form of intimidating or offensive comments or teasing based on stereotypes, such as those about how certain people are or should act or bullying an individual or a group of people because of their sex, or gender identity (woman, man, trans, intersex, non-binary), or sexual orientation (straight, queer, bisexual, gay, lesbian, pansexual, asexual, two-spirit).
Sexual harassment can also be about sex and something else, such as race or ethnicity. For instance, a woman of color might experience workplace harassment differently from a white female coworker. A woman of color might be the target of abusive or hostile behavior due to the combination of her sex and race or ethnicity.
Sexual harassment in the workplace usually falls into one of two categories: quid pro quo or hostile work environment. Both are illegal under state and federal laws.
Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo is Latin for “something for something.” This type of sexual harassment involves a supervisor, manager, or another superior requesting sexual acts or favors in return for the employee’s continued employment, a raise, a promotion, or some other type of benefit.
Hostile Work Environment
The other category of workplace sexual harassment is a hostile work environment. When most people hear the word hostile, they probably think of aggressiveness or anger. Unfortunately, people you work with can treat others poorly, but it doesn’t count as a hostile work environment. For the purposes of the law and in terms of sexual harassment, a hostile work environment is one in which sexual harassment permeates the work atmosphere.
Under the law, the harassment must target certain employees, such as those of a specific gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation. Other people can be rude to you at work, but as long as their behaviors do not target these qualities, in particular, it’s not generally breaking the law. You should also note that isolated incidents or petty slights aren’t enough to fulfill the legal definition of a hostile work environment. Instead, the behavior must be ongoing or highly offensive one-time occurrences.
To be a hostile work environment, sexual harassment must be so severe and pervasive that it impacts your ability to complete your work duties. The other party’s behaviors must go beyond just offensive to objectively abusive. The harasser doesn’t have to be a supervisor or someone above you.
Anyone in the workplace can harass you, including:
- Supervisors and managers
- Customers or clients
- Others doing business in the building, such as a delivery driver
The person harassed isn’t the only victim; anyone in the workplace can be affected by the harasser’s conduct, which will qualify as creating a hostile work environment.
To determine if the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, courts as:
- How often did the offensive behavior happen?
- Was the conduct directed towards someone due to their status (gender or sexual orientation)?
- What type of behavior was it?
- Will a reasonable person agree that the work environment is hostile based on the harasser’s behavior?
Signs of a Hostile Work Environment
If you suspect your work environment has become hostile, there are some signs you can watch for. Some examples of sexually offensive conduct that can create a hostile work environment include:
- Displaying or sharing offensive pictures, texts, or other messages
- Threatening or intimidating behaviors
- Physical assaults or unwanted touching
- Requests for sexual favors
- Physically blocking a person’s movements or standing in their way.
- Brushing up against another person, even if the person makes it seem accidental
- Staring or looking at another person’s body up and down
- Following someone around or paying them excessive attention
- Insulting comments about someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity or inquiring about someone’s sexual orientation
- Sexually offensive remarks, gestures, or facial expressions
- Lewd jokes or telling stories about sexual experiences—this doesn’t have to be directed at you but done in front of you to make you uncomfortable.
- Inappropriate and suggestive touching, rubbing, kissing, or caressing a person’s body or clothing.
- Suggestive or unwanted lewd letters, emails, or other communications or sharing images of a sexual nature in the workplace
- Displaying items, posters, or screensavers of a sexual nature
- Repeatedly asking for dates despite being turned down.
Remember that hostile work environment behaviors must be offensive to a reasonable person. Behaviors like this may present in different ways in real-time interactions. If you are experiencing hostile behaviors, it’s crucial to recognize when they occur and document them.
These are only a few examples, and many others exist. If you believe you are experiencing workplace sexual harassment, you must speak with an experienced employment attorney to discuss your specific situation, legal rights, and options.
What to Do if You Experience a Hostile Work Environment
If you or someone you know was subject to a hostile work environment, you have the right to take action. You may be afraid or worried about reporting workplace sexual harassment or taking other actions to get it to stop. However, you have to do what is right for you in the situation, and only you can be the judge of that. You have many legal protections, and you may want to discuss the circumstances with a seasoned employment lawyer before moving forward. Even still, here are your options in dealing with workplace sexual harassment.
Ask the Harasser to Stop
If you feel comfortable doing so, you can ask the person, either verbally or in writing, such as an email, text message, or letter, to stop their harassing behaviors. If you make the request in writing, keep copies for yourself as proof that you asked them to stop. If you tell them in person, you may want a trusted coworker to accompany you as a witness and for moral support.
Keep Detailed Records
If you don’t feel comfortable approaching the harasser or the behavior continues, be sure you keep detailed notes and records about their conduct. Keeping these records in a safe, non-work-related place, such as your personal email account, journal, or cell phone, is best.
Document what the harasser says or does, where they do it, if they direct it towards anyone or any specific group of people, if there are witnesses present, and any other essential details. Being as descriptive and detailed as possible can help. Since later other parties might read your documentation as a part of an investigation, you should do your best to document the facts and be as objective as you can.
Suppose you receive texts, emails, or pictures from the harasser. In that case, save those in your files too. If you speak to a supervisor or human resources, document those meetings and their details as well.
Research Your Employer’s Policies and Complaints Process
Find your employee handbook or manual. The law requires your employer to have policies and procedures in place to deal with workplace sexual harassment. If you can’t find a copy or aren’t sure if it’s up to date, request a new one from your human resources department or manager. You should find the applicable policies or documents with others that mention discrimination or harassment. Ask your human resources department or employee relations if you can’t locate this information.
Make a Report to Your Supervisor
It’s generally best to report sexual harassment within the workplace internally first. Usually, your supervisor is the person to start with. If your supervisor is the harasser or has done nothing about your experiences, go to their boss or human resources.
You can make your report verbally or in writing. Most attorneys recommend making it in writing so that you have a record of your report. If you decide to do it verbally, try to have a witness present and take notes about what each party said. You can then send a follow-up email to the person you made the report to that reviews what you said and what they said they planned to do next.
You should also be aware that you have the right to report sexual harassment anonymously. For example, some companies have an anonymous tip line for employees to call about these matters or an Ombudsman you can make a complaint with. In addition, some third-party services help employees make anonymous harassment complaints to their employers. However, be aware that if you decide to make an anonymous report and don’t give enough detailed information about who the harasser is or what is going on and when your employer may not have enough information to do anything about it.
Your Employer is Prohibited From Retaliating Against You
You should also file a complaint if your employer retaliates against you for reporting sexual harassment.
Retaliation can include actions such as:
- Firing you
- Demoting you
- Reducing or changing your hours or shifts
- Reducing your pay
- Making your job more difficult for you in other ways
Contact a Knowledgeable Employment Lawyer Today
Experiencing any kind of workplace sexual harassment can be extremely degrading, concerning, and overwhelming. You must make several decisions, none of which are very pleasant. You might be worried about your safety or retaliation at work if you make a report or even the safety of or retaliation against a coworker.
Many people in your shoes choose to seek legal counsel at this point. A knowledgeable employment lawyer can help you understand your circumstances in light of your rights and state and federal laws. They can explain your choices in a way you can understand so that you can make the best decision for yourself under the circumstances. The sooner you contact an attorney, the sooner the situation can improve.
No one should have to tolerate sexual harassment or a hostile work environment. Find an employment attorney who will stand up for you.