The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and federal law define sexual harassment as a type of sex discrimination. Sexual harassment occurs when a person makes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors or makes other verbal remarks or directs physical actions of a sexual nature towards another person. Actions of this kind are all considered to be grounds for a civil claim of discrimination.
In addition, sexual harassment includes offensive comments or remarks that are made about a person’s gender, but this is more commonly classified as gender discrimination. When conduct of this kind occurs in a person’s work environment, the law may also treat it as a form of employment discrimination. If a person should prove that they were the victim of sexual harassment, it is considered to be a violation of a federal law known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII). Title VII is one of the set of statutes that is supposed to protect employees from discrimination in employment.
For the purposes of a claim of sexual discrimination, federal law recognizes two main types of sexual harassment. The first is called, quid pro quo sexual harassment, and the second is known as “hostile work environment” sexual harassment.
It is important to note that both quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment can be experienced by a person of any gender. Additionally, the victim and the perpetrator can be of either the same gender, or of a different gender.
What is “Quid Pro Quo” Sexual Harassment?
Quid pro quo sexual harassment is committed when a person who acts as a supervisor to other employees asks them to provide sexual favors in exchange for some type of promised employment benefit.
For example, quid pro quo sexual harassment may occur when a supervising employee requests that a lower-ranked employee provide some kind of sexual favor for them. In return, the supervising employee will then receive a benefit that is not offered to other employees, such as extra pay, promotion to a higher-ranking position, or more seniority within the company.
This form of sexual harassment differs from hostile work environment sexual harassment in that it must involve a coworker of a higher rank than that of the employee being sexually harassed. The higher ranking employee must have the authority to provide the promised perk. Generally, it only requires a single incident of sexual misconduct rather than a pattern of this type of behavior in order to have grounds for making a claim of quid pro quo harassment.
What is “Hostile Work Environment” Sexual Harassment?
Hostile work environment sexual harassment occurs when someone who is working in an enterprise does one of the following things: makes intimidating or threatening comments or jokes, or repeated sexual advances which then impact the ability of an employee to do their job properly.
This kind of sexual harassment focuses more on the hostile and offensive nature of conduct that pollutes the entire work environment, and it arises when one employee or group of employees harasses a colleague or group of colleagues.
Examples of hostile work environment sexual harassment include the following:
- Repeatedly telling off-color jokes or stories with sexual content;
- Creating images of any kind, including, for example, pictures or icons that are sexual in nature, or have a sexual undertone to them;
- Communicating in writing through work-related documents, such as memos or emails, that include comments that are sexual or imply sexual advances;
- Making insults or discriminatory comments towards an individual or group of individuals that are of a sexual nature; or
- Behaving in a manner that is inappropriate in the workplace and doing so repeatedly, such as having physical contact with someone, especially if it has sexual connotations. The sexually-oriented behavior might be unwelcome or it might even have been done with permission.
- However, even if it is consented to, it might be creating a hostile work environment for others who are aware of it.
As mentioned above, this behavior is usually repeated so that it creates a pattern that causes the work environment to become hostile. A hostile work environment does not usually arise from a single incident. Keep in mind that the list above is not exhaustive; there may be other ways to create a hostile work environment.
What is “Non-Direct” Sexual Harassment?
The examples of sexual harassment described above are common types of what is known as “direct” sexual harassment. Non-direct or indirect sexual harassment takes place when a secondary victim has been offended by hearing or seeing sexual misconduct not directed at them per se. For example, if a bystander hears or observes something offensive, but it was not aimed at them specifically, then indirect sexual harassment may have occurred.
This can also happen when a bystander overhears an off-color joke or comment, sees an email or letter that is sexual in nature, or comes across pictures (e.g., on another worker’s screensaver or the nude photos of a colleague being passed around at work) that are deemed to be sexually offensive. Additionally, non-direct sexual harassment may take place when one employee witnesses the sexual harassment of someone else.
Most states also have state laws that address sexual harassment. Of course, these harassment laws can differ from state to state. For instance, California sexual harassment laws may differ from laws in other states.
In addition, many county and city governments have local laws that prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace. For example, New York City has laws that prohibit both quid pro quo and hostile work environment sexual harassment. And the state of New York has comparable laws. The New York City Human Rights Law does not require that harassment be severe or pervasive for the victim to have a cause of action.
The Illinois Human Rights Act also prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace in the state of Illinois, and the city of Chicago has a policy prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplaces of city government.
If a person has been the victim of sexual harassment, they would want to have their lawyer consider state law as well as county or city laws in any analysis of their possible claim.
Should I Contact a Lawyer If I Have Been Sexually Harassed in the Workplace?
If you have experienced sexual harassment of any kind in the workplace, you should consult with an experienced local sexual harassment lawyers as soon as possible. Your chances of being successful with a claim are better if you make the claim with the appropriate government agencies closer in time to an incident, or sooner rather than later.
If, even after making a formal complaint to your employer, the sexual harassment has not stopped, consulting a lawyer who handles these types of matters is the next best option.
Your attorney will be able to provide further guidance, assist you to file a claim with the EEOC or the appropriate state or local government agency, and help you to build a case that will put an end to anything unlawful and inappropriate that you experienced.