Workplace sexual harassment is deeply unpleasant to the victim but they may not be aware of their rights. This article clarifies what workplace sexual harassment is, how it affects employees and what they can do if they feel they are being harassed. It also looks at how employees can make their voices heard and change the workplace culture.
What is workplace sexual harassment?
Workplace sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination and contravenes Title VII of the Civil Rights Act 1964. If a company has more than 15 employees, they have a legal duty to protect their workers from such harassment (though some industries are exempt).
Harassment is any form of unwelcome sexual advance or sexually-related behavior which creates a hostile work environment. Workplace sexual harassment can take two forms:
- ‘Quid pro quo’ sexual harassment is where a colleague, superior or customer asks an employee for sexual favors in return for a tip, promotion, time off, extra pay or another advantage. Alternatively, the employee may be told they will lose their job, be denied a role or be docked pay if they don’t comply with a sexual request.
- The creation of an intimidating, humiliating or hostile work environment through sexual comments, physical touching, sharing images or similar. Speaking in negative sexualized terms about other people can also be counted as harassment.
To be regarded as harassment, the behavior must be ‘unwelcome.’ Therefore, consensual sexual activity is not counted as harassment.
There is also a level of acceptance of sexual innuendo and commentary if a work project involves sexual topics. One-off incidents are not normally deemed harassment unless they lead to a negative work event (e.g. demotion, being fired, etc.)
How workplace harassment affects employees
The effects of workplace sexual harassment should not be underestimated. Targets of harassment often report feeling:
Workplace sexual harassment also directly works against efforts to improve inclusion and diversity.
How to tackle workplace sexual harassment
If an employee feels their situation corresponds to the definition of workplace harassment above, there are several steps they can take.
First, they should get into the habit of recording every action they take and every conversation they have and storing it somewhere off the work premises. Details should include the date and time, location, witnesses and what all parties did and said.
It is also a good idea for the employee to request access to their personnel file and to collect evidence supporting their productivity at work.
Next, they should ask themselves whether they are confident speaking directly to the harassing person. Sometimes a person may not realize their behaviour is unacceptable and a one-to-one conversation is enough to solve the problem. They should record the details of any conversations as evidence they have raised their concerns.
If they don’t feel able to talk to the harassing person directly or their complaint has gone unheeded, they should follow their employer’s policy for reporting discrimination or sexual harassment. If no policy exists, they should speak to a trusted supervisor, a member of HR or a union rep and raise an internal report.
If the internal report is not sufficient, they can raise an external report with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC will advise on the next steps which may involve raising a discrimination charge. This must be done within 180 days of the harassment (some States have extended the deadline to 300 days).
When to contact a sexual harassment lawyer
In some cases, the employee may feel they want to take out a lawsuit against the person/s harassing them. Before they can involve a sexual harassment lawyer they will need to have first reported the offense to their employer, the EEOC and, in some cases, the local fair employment agency.
Changing the culture
When an employee experiences harassment, they often realize the lack of protection they have. There is a lot they can do to help change the situation for the better. This includes:
- Helping employers to create or improve a workplace sexual harassment policy. This might include clarifying unacceptable behaviour, holding regular climate surveys and training employees on sexual harassment.
- Advocating for policy change to expand legal protection to cover workplaces of all sizes and in all industries.
- Eliminating tipped minimum wage contracts. Employees under such contracts are often harassed in return for tips.
By ending the culture of harassment, workplaces will become more inclusive and productive environments.