SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN THE WORKPLACE – Part 1: What is Sexual Harassment?

This is the first entry in a 5-part series about workplace sexual harassment, the Federal and State laws against such conduct, and what you can do if you are or become a victim of harassment.  Today’s entry will provide an overview of the definition of sexual harassment and the types of activity to look out for.

 

It is an almost universal principle these days that employees should feel comfortable and secure in the environment in which they work, free from harassment and discrimination based on their gender.  And in the past few decades, great steps have been made toward ensuring that this notion can be a reality for our nation’s 155 million workers — from the Equal Pay Act to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Even American businesses have come on board, with around 90% of companies offering sexual harassment prevention training to their employees in order to combat workplace harassment.

 

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of Congress and State legislatures, sexual harassment is still very real and very common in today’s workplace.  In 2011 alone, over 11,000 complaints of sexual harassment were filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in a recent study, 31% of female workers and 7% of male workers reported being harassed at work.

 

The problem of workplace harassment is widespread and pervasive, and you need to know what you can do if you become a victim of harassment.  Over the next few weeks, we’re going to provide you with information you need to know to determine if you’ve been a victim of harassment and what you can do about it.

 

To Begin With:  What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment, while having many forms, often includes at least one or more of the following:

  1. Unwanted sexual advances;
  2. Hostile or offensive acts based on a person’s gender; or
  3. Sexually charged workplace behavior.

 

Now, these are pretty broad descriptions of sexual harassment.  To be a little more specific, sexual harassment could come in the forms of:

  • whistling or cat calls
  • indecent gestures or suggestive body contact
  • remarks about someone’s body
  • offensive jokes or lewd comments
  • display or sending of sexually explicit pictures
  • demands for dates or sexual acts

That list is just some of the more common examples of harassment, but by no means does it contain all the ways a person could be victimized in the workplace.  Sexually-charged conduct that is used against a person in order to embarrass, intimidate, humiliate or to generally make a person feel uncomfortable at work can all be considered unlawful harassment.

 

The Two Categories of Sexual Harassment

While there are many examples of actions that constitute sexual harassment, generally these actions fall under two categories:  (1) “Quid Pro Quo” harassment, and (2) “Hostile Work Environment” harassment.  These categories make up the two legal theories, or grounds for a lawsuit, that a victim of sexual harassment can recover under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and KRS 344.040, the Kentucky law modeled after Title VII.

 

Quid Pro Quo Harassment

Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means “this for that.”  The basic concept is an exchange of one thing for something else.

 

Imagine that there’s an opening at your company for a higher position — a bigger paycheck, better benefits, and better hours — and you’re qualified to move up into that position.  The person in charge of deciding who gets the promotion tells you that he or she is going to pick you for the position.  There’s only one condition – you have to go on a date with that person in order to get the promotion.  That’s quid pro quo harassment, and it is, without a doubt, sexual harassment.

 

That’s just one example, however.  Quid pro quo harassment can take on a number of forms:  sexual favors in exchange for more money, less strenuous work, or even in order to simply keep from being fired.  At the base of these situations lies the same, consistent theme:  you do this for me, and I’ll do this for you.

 

Hostile Work Environment Harassment

While you may not be faced with a quid pro quo situation, harassment may take the form of a hostile work environment.  A hostile work environment occurs when co-workers or supervisors engage in unwelcome, inappropriate sexually-charged behavior that makes the atmosphere of your workplace intimidating, hostile, or offensive.

 

Any number of acts, such as the examples touched on above, can make a work environment hostile enough to qualify as harassment, but under Federal and Kentucky law, the harassing conduct must be so severe or pervasive that it alters what courts have called a “condition of employment.”  This basically means that the harassment at your workplace is so harsh and/or common that it has negatively affected your job performance, or even caused you to consider quitting.

 

What to do if you find yourself in one of these situations…

This article just covers the basic types of sexual harassment; our next entry, however, will go further in discussing what courts look at when evaluating a sexual harassment claim, and what you would have to prove in order to successfully recover damages from an employer that has allowed harassment to affect you.

 

But if you believe you have been the victim of any of the above situations, you should get help now.  The attorneys of Abney & McCarty are fully experienced with sexual harassment issues, and will fight to make sure you receive full compensation for your claim.  Contact us now to learn more about your options.