Sexual harassment is a form of illegal discrimination. It may include the unwelcome behavior of a supervisor, co-worker, or third party. It covers male-to-female, female-to-male, male-to-male, and female-to-female actions. Sexual harassment may occur verbally, physically, or visually.
The right to a sexual harassment-free work environment is protected by federal and state law.
There are three categories of sexual harassment. As a supervisor you need to know sexual harassment not only encompasses your employees but also non-employees, such as independent contractors and professional relationships. Harassing individuals are not limited to employees; they may be outside third parties. The victim need not even be the person harassed but can include anyone affected by the offensive behavior.
Sexual Harassment Examples
- Quid Pro Quo
Quid pro quo harassment occurs when employment decisions or conditions of employment are impacted by the employee’s consent or refusal of the unwelcome sexual behavior. Only someone in a supervisory position who has the ability over the employee to modify a person’s wages, position, or job status can create quid pro quo harassment.
- Offering to employ, promote, increase pay or other employment benefits to an individual in exchange for sexual favors.
- Threatening to demote, not hire, decrease pay, or create an unfavorable work environment for an individual who refuses a supervisor’s advances.
- Hostile Work Environment
Hostile work environment is the more common form of sexual harassment. It may involve supervisors, co-workers, or third-party individuals. It is unwelcome conduct and may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
Examples of conduct creating a hostile work environment include:
Unwelcome sexual advances or comments pertaining to the individual’s sex, sexual preference, or body part; making comments or calling someone an unfavorable gender stereotype, such as bitch, just like a man, queer; threatening someone who rebuffs a sexual advance; using graphic language to describe a body part in a sexual manner; unwelcome off-color jokes or jokes that demean a gender; obscene language or obscenities directed at an individual; catcalls, whistles, or suggestive sounds, (i.e., kissing noises); unwelcome questioning or comments regarding sexual preference, type, or proclivities; unwelcome comments regarding an individual’s clothing.
Physical contact, including physically touching, grabbing, or brushing against an individual’s body, clothes or hair; unwelcome hugging, back or neck rubs, placing an arm on someone’s shoulder, pinching, caressing, or patting; blocking an individual’s path; suggestive physical gestures such as leaning towards someone, over an individual’s shoulder, “invading an individual’s personal space.”
Leering, staring, or facial expressions that are sexual in nature; posting suggestive calendars, pictures, jokes or statues that present gender in a suggestive manner; sending, displaying or providing unwelcome e-mails that are sexual or have sexual innuendos; viewing sexual web sites or material that may be viewed by others; sending unwelcome notes, memos or any other written messages to co-workers that are romantic or sexual via any medirum; giving unsolicited, unwelcome gifts that may make the recipient uncomfortable.
- Constructive Termination
Constructive termination occurs when an employee quits because they can no longer tolerate an offensive working environment.
Preventing Sexual Harassment
Know your company policy regarding sexual harassment. As a supervisor you are the gatekeeper. Recognize that your company policy may be more strict than the letter of the law. By knowing the policy, you can more fully enforce it. Educate your employees regarding acceptable behavior before an incident occurs.
When you observe unacceptable behavior, address it immediately. Don’t wait! Employ this standard: “Would this behavior offend my mother, sister, wife, or daughter? Would it offend my father, son, husband, or brother?” Institute a system where co-workers can let potential harassers` know they are beginning to offend them. Sometimes there are situations that just occur, people start talking, and the conversation starts to go into unsettling waters. If the individual is uncomfortable, using a phrase like red light can defuse the situation. All parties involved would know the conversation needs to stop. Isolated incidents, trivial comments, or occasional harassment may not rise to the level that is actionable by a reasonable woman, but it needs to be addressed and dealt with as quickly as possible. Training employees on what is expected in your work environment and continuing to enforce the company policies are the first steps in preventing sexual harassment claims.
Know the company policy regarding relationships in the workplace. Are such relationships forbidden? Does the policy require employees to inform management that they are dating? Do you have a “love contract” both parties sign stating their relationship is reciprocal? Also, if the relationship ends, must the employees notify management? By requiring a contract signed by both parties, you will able to ward off the unfounded allegations of sexual harassment.
The bottom line: everyone has the right to work in an atmosphere free of sexual harassment. It is your duty and responsibility to ensure this occurs.
If a supervisor is found liable for sexual harassment, he or she is personally liable for damages. Further, the employer is strictly liable for the wrongful acts of a supervisor. In other words, liability attaches to the employer even if it had no knowledge of the sexual harassment committed by the supervisor.
Sue Bradford is Director of Human Resources at Bradford & Barthel, LLP.
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