A person working in an office is dreading the arrival of a coworker. The coworker has long made them feel uncomfortable but yesterday made an inappropriate comment about their body. Across the hall, a manager tells their young intern that management can provide great opportunities for those who "cooperate" and makes a sexually suggestive gesture. An individual sitting in the corner cubicle, meanwhile, has been offending several of their coworkers for months by looking at pornography at their desk. What do these have in common? They're all examples of sexual harassment, a federal workplace discrimination claim that takes several different forms.
But how do we draw the line between acceptable behavior and unlawful harassment? In other words, how do we define sexual harassment and -- more to the point -- how do the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the courts review a sexual harassment claim?
What is the Law on Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is considered to be a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to all U.S. employers with 15 or more employees (some state laws may provide additional worker protections). Anyone affected by the offensive conduct in question, not just the person to whom it is directed, may be a victim. The EEOC defines the offense as follows:
"Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."
The EEOC offers additional guidance on what constitutes sexual harassment, including the following:
Types of Harassment: Quid Pro Quo and Hostile Work Environment
There are two different types of sexual harassment claims, although the manner in which a court will distinguish between the two for purposes of deciding whether harassment has occurred has become blurred in recent years:
Each state is different with regard to protections against sexual harassment. For example, Alabama allows for an employee to sue an employer for sexual harassment based on a theory of invasion of privacy. Vermont law, in comparison, requires every employer to adopt a policy against sexual harassment. Other states have no specific law prohibiting or punishing sexual harassment and thus rely on federal law.
Learn more about state-specific laws on our sexual harassment legal answers page.
Applying the Definition
While it is easy to define sexual harassment, it is very difficult to apply that definition to a set of particular facts. Court opinions can seem inconsistent about whether sexual harassment has occurred, sometimes deciding differently in cases with very similar facts. This is particularly true in hostile work environment cases where it is more difficult than in quid pro quo situations to prove that harassment occurred.
The U.S. Supreme Court has held that employers may defend themselves in hostile work environment cases brought against them for actions of a supervisor or managerial-level employee by arguing that they took reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment and made efforts to correct harassing behavior. Employers may also argue that they are not liable if an employee did not take advantage of available reporting or remedial measures to complain about incidents of sexual harassment.
Factors for Review: Hostile Work Environment
The court will base its decision on the facts in the case, with an emphasis on context. This was tested in a sexual harassment claim filed by a writer for the hit television show "Friends" who claimed she was the victim of harassment in the writing room, where they would often engage in taboo banter in order to stoke ideas. The California Supreme Court dismissed the suit, claiming the banter was all part of the "creative workplace" required for a comedy show with sexual themes.
Factors a court will consider in hostile work environment cases include the following:
Note: If the alleged victim willingly participated in sexual banter or risqué jokes, it will be more difficult for them to prove that they have actually been harassed.
Dispelling Sexual Harassment Myths
Get Legal Help With Your Sexual Harassment Claim
Sexual harassment can disrupt a working environment, traumatize workers, and result in costly litigation. Whether you've been the victim of sexual harassment, are accused, or manage a workplace that you want to keep harassment-free, you can benefit from the advice of a lawyer. Contact a local employment law attorney today.
Contact a qualified employment discrimination attorney to make sure your rights are protected.