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What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination. As a result, when it occurs on the job it violates the laws against sex discrimination in the workplace, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance or conduct on the job that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment. Any conduct of a sexual nature that makes an employee uncomfortable has the potential to be sexual harassment. Given this broad definition, it is not surprising that sexual harassment comes in many forms.
Sexual harassment can be verbal and include:
- Comments about your body, clothing or sexual activities
- Sexual jokes, remarks or teasing
- Requests or demands for sexual favors that come with hints or stated threats about your job
- Repeated advances and requests for dates when you have already said no
Sexual harassment can be non-verbal and include:
- Insulting sounds
- Leering or staring at your body
- Obscene gestures
- Creating a hostile work environment
Sexual harassment can be physical and include:
- Insulting sounds
- Touching or pinching
- Constant brushing up or bumping against your body
- Sexual assault
Anyone Can Be Sexually Harassed
Sexual harassment 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 claiming that they were sexually harassed by men.
People of the same sex can also sexually harass each other, even if the harassment is of a heterosexual nature. For example, if a man's coworkers constantly bombard him with sexually explicit photos of women and sexually explicit jokes, and if this makes him uncomfortable because he is married, this behavior can constitute sexual harassment.
- Sexual harassment is very widespread and affects women in every workplace setting and at every level of employment. Surveys indicate that almost half of all working women have experienced some form of harassment on the job, a proportion that has not changed since the issue gained visibility in the early 1980s.
- No occupation is immune from sexual harassment, but the incidence of harassment is higher in workplaces that have traditionally excluded women, including both blue collar jobs like mining and white collar ones like surgery.
- Very few harassed women, only 5 - 15%, formally report problems of harassment to their employers or fair employment agencies. Women are sometimes reluctant to make allegations of sexual harassment for a number of reasons, including fear of losing their jobs or otherwise hurting their careers, fear of not being believed, the belief that nothing can or will be done about the harassment, and embarrassment or shame at being harassed. From 1992 - 1999, however, the EEOC has seen a 45% increase in sexual harassment charges.
- Workers can be, and are, harassed by anyone in the workplace. That includes supervisors, co-workers, and even customers and clients. Men as well as women can be harassed, and the harasser can be the same sex as the victim.
- Sexual harassment often has a serious and negative impact on women's physical and emotional health, and the more severe the harassment, the more severe the reaction. The reactions frequently reported by women include anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance, weight loss or gain, loss of appetite, and headaches. Researchers have also found that there is a link between sexual harassment and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
- Harassment can also cause substantial financial harm for victims. Victims often try to avoid the harassing behavior by taking sick leave or leave without pay from work, or even quitting or transferring to new jobs. This results in a loss of wages, for example costing federal employees $4.4 million over 2 years.
- Employers also suffer significant financial losses from the job turnover, use of sick leave, and losses to individual and workgroup productivity that result from harassment. The federal government lost $327 million due to harassment from 1992 - 1994.
- Harassment can poison the work atmosphere and negatively impact other workers who are not themselves harassed. In fact, decreased work group productivity was the largest single cost to the government in its survey of harassment.
Employers can be legally responsible for sexual harassment against their employees and liable to them for damages. Liability depends on the type of harassment, and who committed it.
Harassment by a supervisor:
- If the harassment results in a tangible employment action (such as firing, demotion, or unfavorable changes in assignment), the employer is liable.
- If the harassment is a hostile work environment, then the employer can also be liable, but it has a possible defense, if it can show that (1) the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassment and (2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of the company's preventive or corrective measures.
Harassment by a co-worker:
- The employer is liable if it knew or should have known about the harassment, unless it took immediate and appropriate corrective action.
- Significant monetary damages are possible and not uncommon in sexual harassment cases. Victims of harassment may receive both compensatory and punitive damages, and they are entitled to a trial by jury.
Strategies for Prevention
As an employer, you have a responsibility to maintain a workplace that is free of sexual harassment. This is your legal obligation, but it also makes good business sense. If you allow sexual harassment to flourish in your workplace, you will pay a high price in terms of poor employee morale, low productivity, and lawsuits.
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. (For more information on Title VII, see Federal Antidiscrimination Laws.) In addition, each state has its own anti-sexual harassment law.
There are a number of steps that you can take to reduce the risk of sexual harassment occurring in your workplace. Although you may not be able to take all of the steps listed below, you should take as many of them as you can.
- Adopt a clear sexual harassment policy.
In your employee handbook, you should have a policy devoted to sexual harassment. That policy should:
- define sexual harassment
- state in no uncertain terms that you will not tolerate sexual harassment
- state that you will discipline or fire any wrongdoers
- set out a clear procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints
- state that you will investigate fully any complaint that you receive, and state that you will not tolerate retaliation against anyone who complains about sexual harassment.
*For tips on creating an employee handbook, see Why You Should Create an Employee Handbook.
- Train employees.
At least once a year, conduct training sessions for employees. These sessions should teach employees what sexual harassment is, explain that employees have a right to a workplace free of sexual harassment, review your complaint procedure, and encourage employees to use it.
- Train supervisors and managers.
At least once a year, conduct training sessions for supervisors and managers that are separate from the employee sessions. The sessions should educate the managers and supervisors about sexual harassment and explain how to deal with complaints. To learn more about dealing with employee complaints, see Guidelines for Handling Discrimination and Harassment Complaints.
- Monitor your workplace.
Get out among your employees periodically. Talk to them about the work environment. Ask for their input. Look around the workplace itself. Do you see any offensive posters or notes? Talk to your supervisors and managers about what is going on. Keep the lines of communication open.
- Take all complaints seriously.
If someone complains about sexual harassment, act immediately to investigate the complaint. If the complaint turns out to be valid, your response should be swift and effective. For more about dealing with complaints, see Guidelines for Handling Discrimination and Harassment Complaints.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the federal agency that enforces sexual harassment laws. To learn more about sexual harassment, refer to the agency's website at www.eeoc.gov.
“Strategies for Prevention” Reprinted with permission from the publisher, Nolo, Copyright 2008.