What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that involves sexual misconduct. In essence, sexual harassment involves forcing, coercing, or including someone in unwanted sexual activity. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines and proscribes sexual harassment. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) oversees enforcement of Title VII for federal, local, and state level companies.

Sexual Harassment Activities

Sexual harassment includes behaviors such as:

  • Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Requests for sexual favors
  • Threats or bribes involving sexual activities
  • Sexually suggestive actions (such as: innuendo, jokes, or comments)
  • Unwelcome touching
  • Inappropriate use of sexually suggestive imagery or media (graphic content)
  • Sexual assault

Despite having a defined list of actions, determining what constitutes sexual harassment can still be ambiguous based on the wants of the victim. This divides the group of actions into two categories including possible and compulsory sexual harassment.

  • Compulsory sexual harassment - involves actions that are never considered to be acceptable or wanted such as sexual assault.
  • Possible sexual harassment - is comprised of actions that may not be considered sexual harassment by the victim.

Most potential causes of sexual harassment fall into the compulsory category, but innuendo and other non-aggressive actions may not always be considered sexual harassment. The key is how the involved parties feel about the situation. If the recipient perceives no harm and it takes place in an appropriate environment, joking and innuendo may not qualify as sexual harassment. However, it is important to note that these actions are generally prohibited by law or workplace policy.

Understanding Sexual Harassment

An easy way to understand sexual harassment as a concept is to look at it from a victim's point of view. Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behavior. Any sexual activity that the affected person does not want will qualify as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment may also arise in situations where the affected person is not unwillingly subjected to it. "Unwelcome" does not necessarily mean that a person did not want to participate in such activities. It simply means that those activities were prohibited in some way. Two consenting adults could participate in sexual activity, but it could still be considered sexual harassment based on the limits of the situation. In many workplaces, sexual activity is prohibited by law or by the company's regulations and can be considered sexual harassment.

Effects on the Workplace

Sexual harassment is a major focus in workplace management and development. This is because it can be pervasive and disruptive to workplaces. It can also create significant liabilities for the company if it is not handled properly. There are a range of methods you can employ to keep harassment out of the workplace.

Despite these efforts, recognizing sexual harassment can be difficult. In many cases, the victims of sexual harassment in the workplace are, otherwise, treated fairly. Most victims keep their jobs, receive appropriate pay, and are evenly considered for promotions. This makes it hard to spot or prove sexual harassment by its effects in the workplace since there may not be any tangible side effects that change the quality of a person's work.

There are cases where sexual harassment can show signs of affecting the workplace. Sexual harassment usually requires a conducive environment which can result in a hostile work environment. A hostile work environment develops when employees cannot do their jobs and face continued harassment of a sexual or other nature. In hostile work environments, employees often become ineffective at their jobs and for reasons that are easier to see like consistent inappropriate behavior.

In the United States, sexual harassment is considered to be a form of discrimination on the basis of sex. This is prohibited in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It provides protections against discrimination based on a person's sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. It applies to workplaces that meet the following conditions:

  • The company has 15 or more employees.
  • It is a federal, local, or state government institution.
  • The company is an educational institution.

Title VII protects against discrimination by providing a clear definition, outline of processes for handling discrimination claims, and affirming a victim's right to legal action against harassers.

Types of Sexual Harassment

There are different types of sexual harassment to look for. These types include:

  • Quid Pro Quo Harassment: A superior influences a subordinate to get sexual favors.
  • Hostile Work Environment Harassment: Extensive sexual discrimination in the workplace.

Hostile work environments are a particular problem for all employees because it is an environment that makes it difficult or impossible to work effectively. It is possible to have a hostile work environment that does not involve sexual harassment. However, it is a conducive environment for sexual harassment to develop. When looking for signs of sexual harassment in the workplace, hostile environments are a leading sign that sexual harassment may occur within the workplace.

Hostile Work Environment

Sexual harassment can be found in workplaces that are conducive to it, including hostile work environments. A hostile work environment consists of a workplace that institutionalizes offensive and intimidating actions by employees. In these workplaces, actions that would normally be a reason to take disciplinary action against employees are condoned by members of the company, or by the overall company itself. When these actions become sexual in nature, such as putting sexual images around the office or making sexualized comments that are inappropriate, it becomes conducive to sexual harassment. Hostile work environments are illegal as they place an unacceptable level of stress on employees and facilitates discrimination.

Reacting to Hostile Work Environments

There are several things that you can do if you discover a hostile working environment. If you find yourself in a hostile work environment, follow company protocol to file a complaint. This is the fastest pathway to resolving your issues with the work environment. You can get the information that you need from the HR department or from a direct supervisor. If the company is indifferent to your complaint, you can file a complaint with EEOC to address the hostile work environment externally. In your complaint, you will need to prove a pattern of behavior as well as the indifference of the company.

Responding to Sexual Harassment

If you experience sexual harassment, your response will be determined by the nature of the incident. If dangerous and ongoing, the most important thing that you can do is to remove yourself from the situation. If you need to seek assistance, make sure you do so immediately. This will serve as documentation of the incident as well as ensure that you can prevent any potential long-term effects.

In less malicious cases of sexual harassment, the first step to take is to address the harasser directly. You are more likely to resolve the situation and prevent future incidents by addressing the harasser about his or her actions immediately. While it is important to stand up for yourself, it is also important to manage how you address your harasser. In many cases, harassment is unintentional and can be addressed with a simple conversation. To get the most effective results:

  • Address the harasser directly in a firm but inoffensive tone.
  • Explain your perspective on the situation and explain what actions you feel are harassment.
  • Ask for the actions to stop immediately.
  • Document the incident, the conversation, and the response.

It is important to keep records of the incident for your personal files. It will be useful if you do not get the response that you are looking for. If the harassment continues or the harasser is not responsive to your requests, then your next step is to file a formal complaint with the company. Each company has a specific policy in place to handle hostile work environments. However, this may not produce the results that you are looking for if the company condones the environment. That is especially true if the harasser is a supervisor or superior within the company. When you file your complaint within the company, file the complaint with your immediate supervisor, or the harasser's supervisor.

Filing a Complaint

The process of filing a complaint will usually include the following:

  • Make a written copy of the complaint including the time and location of the incident.
  • Include information about any actions that you took to resolve the complaint.
  • Submit the complaint to the appropriate company staff.
  • Follow the instructions for further action provided by the staff member that handles complaints.

Seeking Outside Assistance

Many companies can resolve sexual harassment complaints internally. However, that is not always the case. If the complaint is not resolved, then you can seek assistance from EEOC. Submitting the information about the incident to EEOC will file a complaint. In response, EEOC will begin the resolution process by informing the company of the complaint. The next step will likely be mediation with the company, which may lead to a resolution.

EEOC complaints must be filed within 180 days of the incident. Legal representation is not necessary for the proceedings. Mediation could be an effective way of resolving the complaint but is not always effective. If mediation fails, then the EEOC can file a lawsuit on your behalf against the company. Alternatively, will send you a right-to-sue letter informing you of your legal rights. You could file a lawsuit against the company as well if the EEOC's lawsuit doesn't produce results. The EEOC could also dismiss the claim for various reasons, including that there is not enough evidence to prosecute.

Sexual Harassment Myths

There are several common misconceptions about sexual harassment. It is important to realize what common knowledge is fact and what is a myth. Here are some of the common myths about sexual harassment:

  • "Sexual harassment involves a man harassing a woman" – Sexual harassment is not delineated by gender. Any person can sexually harass any person. There have even been cases where women were charged with harassing men in the workplace. This even applies to people of the same gender as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • "Relationships with teachers isn't sexual harassment" – People that work in education and positions of authority including teachers and administrators cannot have relationships with students. Their positions of authority give them the leverage that others in authority use to commit sexual harassment. Therefore, it is possible for teachers and administrators to sexually harass students. It is best to avoid relationships outside of the classroom if you are a student or a teacher.

Who Can Commit Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can be committed by anyone. That includes co-workers and agents of companies. In many cases, companies can be held responsible for sexual harassment within the company. For a company to be held responsible for sexual harassment, it must meet these criteria:

  • The incident happened involving people in the company.
  • The company did not take reasonable measures to prevent sexual harassment.
  • The company should have known about the incident but was negligent.
  • The company knew about the harassment and did not respond to the incident.
  • The company ignores sexual harassment claims.
  • The company condones sexual harassment and hostile working environments.

Regardless of who commits and is held responsible for sexual harassment, both companies and individuals can face legal actions. These actions can be civil or criminal depending on the incident and how it is handled. Ultimately, it is possible to hold someone (including a company) responsible for sexual harassment.

Learn More About Sexual Harassment

Information about sexual harassment can be found on a local, state, and federal level since each agency is required to keep detailed documentation on sexual harassment laws. You can request this information by contacting the agency directly. However, much of the information that you are looking for can be found on websites related to each agency. EEOC keeps the documentation related to Title VII claims as well as federal guidelines on providing discrimination protection. EEOC also maintains the Youth at Work website that contains the information related to the sexual harassment of minors.

If you need help with a sexual harassment claim, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel’s marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.