Those who have gone through it know that sexual harassment in the workplace is emotionally loaded because it involves both sex and power. It is a very personal and intense experience, and the aftermath of sexual harassment can stay with someone for a lifetime.
Understanding what exactly constitutes harassment is an important first step. Ultimately, if someone at your job is making you feel uncomfortable or threatened, you need to speak up. It is your right to make this behavior stop. You should never have to work in a place where you feel unsafe!
So, exactly what is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment in the workplace is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. However, boundaries have become more blurred as our work and personal lives become enmeshed and we spend a good chunk of our waking lives at work. You may not realize it, but many acts can constitute sexual harassment in the workplace, including:
- Unwanted jokes, gestures, offensive words on clothing, and unwelcome comments and repartee
- Touching and any other bodily contact such as scratching or patting a coworker's back, grabbing an employee around the waist, or interfering with an employee's ability to move
- Unwanted flirting or repeated requests for dates that are turned down
- Transmitting or posting e-mails or pictures of a sexual (or other harassment-related) nature
- Displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures, or posters
- Playing sexually suggestive music
Sexual harassment happens in both white-collar and blue-collar jobs, in all industries, in all regions of the country. It is a gender-neutral offense, at least in theory: Men can sexually harass women, and women can sexually harass men. However, statistics show that the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment claims and charges are brought by women against men.
Am I protected by the law?
The same laws that prohibit gender discrimination prohibit sexual harassment. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act is the main federal law that prohibits sexual harassment; in addition, each state has its own sexual harassment laws.
Some states define two broad categories:
- Quid pro quo harassment is an exchange based on "You do something for me and I'll do something for you.” This type of sexual harassment occurs when a job benefit of any kind is linked to whether or not an employee submits to an unwelcome sexual advance. That includes agreeing to a date with a supervisor, having sex with the supervisor, or a workplace decision based on another employee’s submission to sex.
- The other category involves the hostile work environment. More frequent these days — and often harder to legally pinpoint — this harassment occurs when employees are made to feel “uncomfortable” in the workplace due to sexually charged behavior or comments, including electronic communications. Examples include treating men differently from women, displaying sexualized images or objects, or making unwelcome sexual advances or sexually derogatory comments.
Get it in writing.
It’s important for employers to protect themselves and their employees by drafting written policies that clearly explain what to do if workers think they’ve been harassed. With a formal, written policy in place businesses are legally protected because they can show that they took preventive measures to avoid or stop harassment. Written guidelines should include a designated person in the company to receive any report or complaint that an employee is being treated differently based on gender. Also, it’s important to illustrate the chain of command that will kick in when complaints surface so the authority and procedure for handling complaints will be clear.
Receiving unwelcome sexual advances or any type of demeaning comments should never be part of anyone’s job. Whether you’re an executive or an aesthetician, a lawyer or a laborer, sexual harassment does not belong in your workplace.