You would think that everyone who holds down a job is aware that sexual harassment is illegal and should simply not happen. However, when you add email and online social exchanges to real-time interaction among employees, you can see that there are many opportunities for bad behavior to take place. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.”
The two definitions of sexual harassment
The type of sexual harassment that gets the most press coverage is the quid pro quo variety, whereby a boss grants a promotion or pay raise in return for a sexual favor of some kind. The employee might even be threatened with termination or blackmailed in some other way if the requested sexual favor is not forthcoming. The other type of sexual harassment concerns hostile environment, which is more problematic for the employer who is trying to maintain a decent, employee-friendly workplace.
The issue of victim participation
A hostile environment is created by employees who share risqué jokes, pictures, websites and the like. Conversation among employees can also be risqué in nature. You may find this sort of atmosphere very offensive. An off-color remark, suggestive computer image or cartoon that another employee passes around can be termed sexual harassment. Physical contact is out-of-bounds behavior. You may chuckle at a suggestive joke, but that does not give a coworker permission to touch or fondle you. You must make this clear, and if the offensive action is repeated, you must report the incident.
Affirmative defense and management personnel
In 1986, the Supreme Court affirmed Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which made sexual harassment illegal, and companies must be especially mindful of the conduct of management personnel. If, for example, you are demoted, lose your job or are faced with some other kind of negative treatment due to sexual harassment by your supervisor, it is known as tangible employment action and the company itself is held responsible. If there is no tangible action, the company may have what is called affirmative defense if it can be shown that there was a sexual harassment prevention policy in place and the situation involving the offense has been corrected. However, this does not necessarily mean that the wrong that was done to you has been remedied.
Sexual harassment training should begin on day one
The EEOC encourages sexual harassment prevention training, which should take place as soon as a new employee begins work, or at regular intervals for existing employees. Training should cover topics such as the difference between welcoming and offensive behavior, how to identify non-verbal sexual harassment, the different types of discrimination, how to manage the complaint process and the fear of retaliation for filing a report. If your coworkers pay attention to the training, you should be able to enjoy a comfortable, congenial work environment.
The need for legal expertise
Unfortunately, despite the best efforts and preventive measures put in place by the company you work for, sexual harassment can happen at any time and take many forms. Remember that you have rights that must be protected. If you have concerns about an incident that has taken place and are not sure what to do next, you can seek the help of a compassionate attorney experienced in handling sexual harassment claims.