Types of Sexual Harassment

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination that's put into two categories: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is where a supervisor asks or hints at sexual favors in return for employment benefits, whereas hostile work environment sexual harassment consists of repeated sexual advances, gestures, jokes, or other comments that prevent an employee from working without intimidation or threat. Sexual harassment can happen to both men and women, and perpetrators don't necessarily have to be of the same sex.

To protect workers from sexual harassment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) puts a broader definition on the topic. It states that sexual harassment of any kind is any unwelcome or unwanted sexual advance or conduct that impedes a person's job performance or creates a hostile, intimidating, or offensive work environment. Because the EEOC is the federal body that enforces sexual harassment claims, employers and employees should know this definition to avoid, prevent, or protect themselves in cases of alleged sexual harassment. However, it's important to note that the EEOC still makes its ruling on a case-by-case basis.

What Is Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment?

Meaning "this for that" in Latin, quid pro quo sexual harassment is when an individual, typically a supervisor, ask or hints at sexual favors in exchange for employment benefits. Some of these benefits may include:

  • Wage increases (raises)
  • A larger or newer office or cubicle
  • Promotion
  • Travel opportunities
  • More desirable shifts
  • Job retention

This is by no means an all-inclusive list, and there are certainly more promises a supervisor can make in a quid pro quo incident. There is no gender specific type of this instance, as it can occur from a man to a woman, woman to man, or even same sex.

Another type of quid pro quo deals sexual harassment with the repercussions of declining the supervisor's advances. This may include:

  • Termination
  • Threats
  • Demotion
  • Less desirable work assignments
  • Unsatisfactory shifts

Because of these negative consequences, the harasser uses their position of power to intimidate or coerce the other party into submission. It's important to note that even if the employee at first submits to these demands, they can still change their mind and file a claim or complaint against the infringing supervisor.

What Is Hostile Work Environment Sexual Harassment?

While similar to quid pro quo sexual harassment, hostile work environment sexual harassment has a few key differences. First, the harasser doesn't have to offer employee benefits in exchange for sexual favors. Instead, it's defined as repeated and unwelcome sexual comments, advances, or other content that creates a hostile, intimidating, threatening, or offensive work environment that prevents the employee from doing their job.

Unlike quid pro quo harassment, the perpetrators of hostile work environment sexual harassment aren't always managers or supervisors. This can include co-workers and third-parties such as clients, suppliers, customers, and even couriers or delivery people. However, like quid pro quo, hostile work environment victims can be either a man or a woman, and the offenses can be directed to either a person of the same sex or a person of the opposite sex. Some examples of this type of harassment may include:

  • Incessant or repetitious telling of sexual or dirty anecdotes or jokes
  • Cartoons, images, icons, pictures, and even dolls or statues with a sexual undertone or of a sexual nature
  • Insulting or using derogatory sexual terms toward another person
  • Writing emails, memos, or other correspondence that includes sexual innuendos or other material
  • Repeated, sexually oriented behavior such as touching, rubbing, or groping that's done without the permission of the other party, or the same type of behavior that's consented but creates a hostile work environment for others

In some instances, a person who is not directly the target of any sexual harassment may have a valid claim to sexual harassment. An example is if the third-party fails to get a promotion or raise because another party submitted or tolerated sexual harassment to get employee benefits.

To prove that a person was a victim of hostile work environment sexual harassment, they must meet both subjective and objective rubrics. This means that the victim subjectively thought that the conduct was abusive, hostile, or offensive. In addition, they must convince a court that a reasonable person of similar personality characteristics would objectively find the same conduct offensive to a safe work environment.

Employer Liability in Sexual Harassment Cases

Because it is the employer's responsibility to maintain a workplace free of sexual harassment, employers are often liable for their supervisors' actions or other employees' actions. To avoid negative press, a suitable work atmosphere, or a day in court, employers should do everything in their power to promote a sexual harassment policy. This policy should cover the prevention, investigation, reporting, and eventual disciplinary action should sexual harassment take place at work.

When employers fail to make these policy decisions or show reckless indifference to the matter, they can be held liable. While supervisory sexual harassment almost certainly holds the employer liable, an infraction by a low-level employee and even a third-party or non-employee may also put the employer at risk for a claim.

Another way that an employer can face liability in a sexual harassment case is when they've been aware of the situation or should have been aware of the situation and did nothing to stop it. In situations like this, there's a strong chance that the employer does not have a sexual harassment protocol in place.

What Are Some of the Side Effects of Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment, especially in repeated events, does great harm to individuals physically, psychologically, and vocationally. Women who have been victims of sexual harassment often describe many of these symptoms, and these symptoms feel akin to extreme stress.

Some of the specific psychological side effects of sexual harassment include:

  • Insecurity, low self-esteem, and feelings of powerlessness
  • Fear, frustration, anger, and irritability
  • Self-blame, shame, or guilt
  • Isolation
  • Depression, shock, or denial
  • Anxiety

Although sexual harassment may not have physical interaction, it can cause physical side effects due to stress such as:

  • Headaches or migraines
  • Night terrors, nightmares, or trouble sleeping
  • Fluctuations in weight
  • Lethargy
  • Sexual problems; lack of drive or ability
  • Skin reactions
  • Digestive or gastrointestinal issues
  • Panic attacks
  • Development of phobias

Because of the undue stress both physically and mentally, many victims of sexual harassment become forced to leave or change their academic programs, job assignments, career goals, and paths, or jobs. This can also lead to career-related side effects such as:

  • Decreased interest in job performance
  • Poor job performance evaluations
  • Termination or loss of promotion chance
  • Demotion
  • Sharp decline in work performance or academic work
  • Frequent absenteeism
  • Change in career goals or path without warning
  • Withdrawal from work, school, or even social situations

How to Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Because of the laundry list of negative consequences of sexual harassment, it's up to employers and employees to try to curb sexual harassment at all costs. For employees who are victims of sexual harassment, a direct approach to the issue is the best method. They should follow these steps if the instance occurs:

  1. Although difficult, direct confrontation is the most effective plan of action. This is because the harasser may not have any ill intentions and only saying something will help them stop the behavior. If let go, this could escalate into more offensive behavior.
  2. Tell the harasser exactly what the problem is so they can take this into account.
  3. If you're uncomfortable with the situation or against a direct approach, send an email, letter, or memo to the harasser. In the correspondence, describe the incident, how it affected you, and that it needs to stop.
  4. If neither of those methods are comfortable, the victim should tell or write a supervisor or someone in the human resources department. These employees are familiar with the process of rectifying sexual harassment issues, and they can suggest any treatment to alleviate stress or mental anguish.
  5. If you're a member of a union, you have another outlet. Unions are very committed to providing a harassment free workplace, and many times, there are instructions on how to deal with sexual harassment in the collective bargaining agreement.
  6. Remember to document everything that's part of the incident, follow-up, complaint, and investigation.

Every situation is different, and each personality is different. Only the individual can decide the best course of action for dealing with the situation. The only aspect that's 100 percent assured is that ignoring the problem is only going to make it escalate or remain part of the workplace routine.

What to Document During Sexual Harassment Cases

Because documentation is such an important part of filing a valid sexual harassment claim, it's important to include every detail, no matter how minor. Failure to do so may result in losing a battle in court. Here are the aspects to document:

  • Specific information, including the time and date of all details
  • The people directly and indirectly involved
  • Any reactions to the alleged sexual harassment
  • How the incident made you feel
  • How it affected work performance
  • How it affected your general well-being

If possible, victims should write down these aspects as they happen, so they're fresh in the mind. After documenting all of these things, remember to keep a backup in a safe place, preferably at home or somewhere away from the office for safekeeping. Victims may also want to keep a journal that documents their feelings outside of work. This helps prove any type of mental anguish or stress they may feel, which helps to solidify their claim and court case.

Dealing with Sexual Harassment

Even if a victim takes all the necessary precautions and actions, it still doesn't relieve them from some of the effects of sexual harassment, and dealing with them isn't always as simple as it sounds. The first step toward dealing with it is to not blame yourself for what's happened, as it isn't your fault. Instead, put the blame on the harasser.

When victims put blame on themselves, it can lead to an excessive amount of stress that doesn't help curb the situation. If this describes the current situation, a visit to a mental health professional who deals with sexual harassment is the best move. These individuals are highly trained in their field to help individuals deal with the situation and problems caused by sexual harassment.

Another effective method of dealing with sexual harassment is to confide in a friend, family, or co-worker. Telling friends and family will help lighten the load and give you the support you need to overcome the situation. If talking to a co-worker about the situation, you may find that you aren't the only person who's been a victim of sexual harassment from the same individual. Not only will this help your stress level, but you can feel good knowing that you helped keep others from falling prey to sexual harassment.

Protection Under the Law

Victims of sexual harassment may find that their employer handles the situation quickly, effectively, and efficiently. However, not every workplace has the policies to deal with the issue swiftly. If that's the case, the next step is to file a civil lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To do this, victims will need to send their complaint to the EEOC. This is the federal agency that enforces the act.

The EEOC then investigates the allegations. If they do not bring a settlement in your favor, you may have to file a Title VII lawsuit in addition to the EEOC filing. States may have different protocols for filing a sexual harassment suit. More than anything, remember to file quickly before the statute of limitations runs out.

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