What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment is deliberate or repeated behavior of a sexual or sex-based nature, which is unwelcome, not asked for, and not returned. The behavior can be verbal, non-verbal, or physical.
Examples of verbal harassment include sexual comments, suggestions, jokes, or innuendoes; non-verbal harassment includes suggestive looks, leering, ogling; and physical harassment could include “accidentally” brushing up against somebody’s body, “friendly” pats, pinches or squeezes, and forced fondling or sexual relations.
The law recognizes two basic kinds of sexual harassment. The first is when an employee suffers or is threatened with some kind of financial injury. A supervisor or someone else with authority over the victim makes a “put out or get out” demand – “submit to my sexual requests or you will be fired, demoted, intimidated, passed over for promotion, or in some other way made miserable on the job.” This type of sexual harassment is called quid pro quo, meaning “this for that,” and can be committed only by someone in the corporate structure who has the power to control the victim’s job destiny.
The second kind of sexual harassment is called “hostile environment.” A supervisor, co-worker, or someone else with whom the victim comes in contact with on the job creates an intimidating or abusive work environment, or interferes with the employee’s work performance through words or deeds because of the victim’s gender.
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has issued clear guidelines with respect to sexual harassment in the workplace. These guidelines state that it is the responsibility of management personnel to ensue that the work environment is free of sexual harassment and to take appropriate action to stop possible sexual harassment once aware of it. Management has a responsibility to act on possible situations once it has received knowledge from any source, regardless of whether a complaint has been filed or received.
How Can I Be Sure That It’s Sexual Harassment?
If the answers to several of these questions are “YES,” then the conduct may be considered sexual harassment according to the EEOC Guidelines:
- Is the verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature?
- Is the behavior directed toward employees of one gender only?
- Is the conduct offensive to the person it is directed toward? Has the employee receiving the attention objected in any way, or been asked if the attention is objected to or unwanted?
- Does the employee feel demeaned, degraded, or embarrassed by the behavior?
- Has the behavior or similar behavior happened before?
- Does the employee have to tolerate that type of conduct in order to keep his/her job?
- Does the offending employee behave in the way deliberately or on purpose?
- Is the conduct so pervasive that it interferes with the employee’s job and makes his/her environment unpleasant, intimidating or offensive?
Most people are not sexual harassers. The overwhelming majority of men and women treat each other in appropriate ways in the workplace. It is actually a small minority of people who cause serious sexual harassment problems for co-workers and companies. However, any of us can occasionally, and unintentionally slip into inappropriate and potentially harassing behaviors. Many people will hesitate to tell us if our behavior is unwelcome, especially when we hold actual or implied power over them. Keep in mind that it is the impact of the behavior on the recipient, not the intent of the person who engages in the behavior that determines if subtle or sex-based harassment has occurred. It is important to assess whether or not your behavior is welcomed by the recipient and non-offensive to other persons in the workplace who witness or overhear the interaction.
What To Do If You Are Sexually Harassed
- Be assertive – tell the person if their behavior or comments are offensive.
- Check with others in the office – are they being pressured by the same person? There can be safety in numbers, but others may be afraid to speak up.
- Keep a diary. Document everything that has occurred – be factual.
- Keep performance documents so that no one can say you were being incompetent.
- Consider writing a letter to the harasser – it could increase your feelings of power and control.
- Seek appropriate counseling for support and guidance.
- If unwelcome attention continues, tell a supervisor and follow the guidelines in your workplace policies and procedures.
- File a complaint with the EEOC (within 300 days from the incident) or with the PA Human relations Commission (within 180 days from the incident).
- Seek a new job – if you quit, be sure to tell your supervisor why.
- File civil or criminal charges as a last resort.
For more information:
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission