Definition of Sexual Harassment


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Claims of sexual harassment have been all over the news lately, with various celebrities coming forward to tell their stories.

These publicized incidents have prompted others to evaluate whether they too have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. To determine this, it is helpful to understand the definition and types of sexual harassment, as well as the recourse available to victims.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency responsible
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for enforcing laws against workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. It defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature” in the workplace. Sexual harassment can take place between the victim and a superior, supervisor, co-worker, or non-employee, such as a client or customer. Perpetrators can be both male and female, and the victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.

According to the EEOC, simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents are not recognized as sexual harassment. To constitute illegal sexual harassment, the conduct must be severe or pervasive, often indicated by a pattern of behavior. There are two types of illegal sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile or offensive work environment.

Quid Pro Quo

Quid pro quo is a Latin term meaning “this for that”. It occurs when the victim’s response to sexual advances is used as a basis for employment decisions, such as the firing or demotion of the employee. Such sexual advances do not have to be overt; the request can be hinted at or communicated non-verbally. If a supervisor offers an employee a raise that is contingent upon his or her agreement to engage in sexual acts, that behavior constitutes quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile or Offensive Work Environment

This form of sexual harassment is categorized by a work environment that is hostile or abusive due to the unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of an employee or non-employee such as an outside sales representative or delivery person. As with quid pro quo harassment, the unwanted verbal or physical conduct must be severe or pervasive. Courts have described such conduct as that which creates an “arbitrary barrier to sexual equality at the workplace”.

Legal Remedies

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that employers are liable for sexual harassment reported by their employees. Sometimes, employees may be able to put a stop to the inappropriate behavior by complaining to management or human resources. Other times, it may be necessary to file a complaint with the EEOC. The EEOC will investigate the complaint and upon finding that the harassment took place, will attempt to reach a settlement. Victims may be entitled to lost wages, punitive damages, and other compensatory damages for emotional harm. Employees who have exhausted these resources without achieving a fair resolution may be able to file a civil lawsuit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Richard D. McComber
Richard D. McComber was admitted to the New Jersey and Federal District Court Bars and then served as a Captain in the United States Army, Judge Advocate General Corps, for three years in Washington, D.C. Upon his discharge from the Army, he joined the law firm of Giordano, Giordano & Halleran, later Giordano, Halleran & McOmber. Thereafter, he left that firm to start a new firm with his wife, Adrienne H. McOmber. His primary practice areas include business law, employment law, estate planning, land use, real estate, sexual harassment and hostile work environment, wills, and trusts.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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