Employees should feel safe in their work environment. Unfortunately, many employees experience some kind of harassment at their jobs or in interviews for jobs. This harassment can take many forms and can have a serious impact on an employee’s job performance and quality of life.

But, an employee has options and remedies to fight sexual harassment at work.

What is Sexual Harassment?

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as simply harassment of a person (whether employee or applicant) based on the person’s sex. But, what exactly does it mean to harass someone?

Harassment can include behaviors such as making unwelcome sexual advances, requesting sexual favors, and other verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature.

Additionally, making offensive remarks about a person’s sex (such as saying something like, “women really should stay home with their children” or “women aren’t as smart as men”’),can be considered sexual harassment.

Generally, one isolated comment may not necessarily be considered sexual harassment. But, a systemic or frequent occurrence may amount to sexual harassment, particularly if the behavior creates a hostile work environment.

Further, any person of any sex could be a victim of sexual harassment. And, any person of any sex can be a perpetrator of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can even occur between or among people of the same sex.

Most people are familiar with the concept of a supervisor being the perpetrator of sexual harassment against an employee. However, the perpetrator doesn’t necessarily have to be an employee’s supervisor.

In fact, the perpetrator could be an employee sexually harassing a supervisor, the perpetrator could be a supervisor in another department, a co-worker or colleague, or even a non-employee. Clients of the company, customers, vendors, or other non-employees could be the aggressors in a sexual harassment situation as well.

Examples of sexual harassment may include:

  • Making inappropriate comments about others’ bodies or appearance
  • Using slurs that are based on gender or sexual orientation
  • Making vulgar, explicit, or offensive jokes or statements that are sexual in nature (about sex or sex acts)
  • Gossiping about an employee’s relationship status or sex life
  • Making rude, offensive, or sexual genders

As you can see, sexual harassment doesn’t always have to be a physical act or even verbal in nature to be considered harassment.

Further, it is not necessary to show that an employment retaliation, action, or economic injury including termination, demotion, or change in terms of employment occurred. It is enough that inappropriate comments, jokes, or language was used or that inappropriate physical conduct occurred in order to have a potential claim for sexual harassment and hostile work environment.

What is Quid Pro Quo?

One of the most commonly known forms of sexual harassment is where a supervisor offers to trade advancement opportunities in the workplace in exchange for sexual favors. In Latin, ‘quid pro quo’ means ‘this for that.’

There’s an exchange of favors. The employee (usually) gives sexual favors. The supervisor (usually) grants some kind of career opportunity such as a raise, promotion, or training opportunity or agrees to not take some kind of negative action like firing the employee.

Even if the unwanted sexual advances are implied, it is still illegal to engage in this kind of bargaining in the workplace.

What is a Hostile Work Environment?

As mentioned before, occasionally, a one-off comment like a single joke may not necessarily be considered sexual harassment even if the joke was sexual in nature or about a sex act. However, when the comments, jokes, or other language or actions are to such a degree that they create a hostile work environment, then the language or actions would be considered sexual harassment.

So, what is a hostile work environment?

The U.S. Supreme Court has explained that to determine whether there is a hostile work environment, the entirety of the circumstances must be considered. These circumstances include: the frequency of the discriminatory conduct (how often it occurred), the severity of the discriminatory conduct (how bad was it), whether the conduct is physically threatening or humiliating, and lastly, whether the conduct unreasonably interferes with an employee’s ability to do their job.

The Court went on to admit that it could consider the psychological impact on the plaintiff, essentially what psychological harm the plaintiff has incurred. But, the Court noted that the psychological impact on the plaintiff must also be considered along with the other factors.

So it is unlikely that a court would consider a single comment to be a hostile work environment, but a single comment coupled with multiple physical acts or threats might amount to a hostile work environment.

Bottom line, whether sexual harassment amounts to a hostile work environment depends largely on the individual circumstances of each case. Furthermore, individual states have their own standards, statutes, and regulations that address sexual harassment within those states.

What Should I Do If I am a Victim of Sexual Harassment?

If you feel you may be the victim of sexual harassment in the workplace, contact an experienced workplace lawyer today. An employment law attorney can assist you in determining how likely your case is to succeed and what remedies are available to you.