Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Defined

By J. Marcos Perales Piña

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the Federal agency that enforces this Act. The EEOC receives and investigates complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace. When investigating complaints of sexual harassment, the EEOC looks at whole records including the circumstances and context in which the alleged incidents occurred and makes its determinations from the facts on a case-by-case basis.

Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. There are two types of sexual harassment recognized by federal law: quid pro quo and hostile work environment. Quid pro quo refers to situations where employment decisions such as hiring, firing, or promotions are contingent upon the employee providing sexual favors. Examples of quid pro quo sexual harassment are when a supervisor threatens to fire an employee who does not submit to sexual advances or where a supervisor promises to promote an employee in exchange for sexual favors.

Hostile work environment sexual harassment refers to situations where the employee's work environment is made intimidating, hostile, or offensive due to the unwelcomed sexual conduct and the conduct unreasonably interferes with the employee's work performance. This could take the form of unwanted sexual advances by a fellow employee, but it need not involve sexual advances at all. Examples of hostile work environment sexual harassment include making offensive sexual comments or jokes, discussions about sex, and the display of sexually oriented materials.

The victim of sexual harassment may be either a man or a woman and the harasser may be either a man or a woman as well. The victim and the harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex. The victim does not have to be the person to whom the sexual conduct is directed, but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.

It is the employer's responsibility to maintain a workplace that is free from sexual harassment. The employer may be held liable for sexual harassment committed by their employees whether or not the employee is in a supervisory position. The employer may also be held liable for sexual harassment committed by non-employees. Therefore, it is in the employer's best interest to prevent sexual harassment in the work place and, if sexual harassment occurs, to take remedial action as quickly as possible. Employers should establish a policy for the prevention, reporting, investigation, and punishment of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Winter 2018


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