Over the past decade, harassment in the workplace has become a major employment issue. The term harassment as it applies to the workplace generally refers to harassment of a sexual nature.
Employers have a legal obligation to ensure that their employees have a safe environment in which to work that is free from all forms of discrimination. This includes that which is based on an employee’s gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or sexual expression.
What is Sexual Harassment?
Sexual harassment can be defined as the unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that takes place at work. Sexual harassment in the workplace is all too common and can occur in a variety of circumstances.
Some studies suggest that the vast majority of sexual harassment in the workplace is perpetrated by a male supervisor against a female subordinate. But, the victims of sexual harassment can also be of the same gender as the perpetrator, and a male can also be the victim of sexual harassment perpetrated by a female.
Types of Sexual Harassment
There are two main types of sexual harassment:
- Quid pro quo – when employment decisions are based on an employee’s acceptance or rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, when a supervisor agrees to promote an employee only if the employee complies with a particular sexual request.
- Hostile Work Environment – this is a negative work environment that is created by unwelcome sexual conduct directed at an employee that in turn unreasonably affects that employee’s ability to do their job. An example of a hostile work environment is one in which employees are being constantly subjected to unwanted sexual behavior and do not feel safe. This can include name-calling, being subjected to obscene photographs, and/or inappropriate touching.
The behavior that constitutes sexual harassment can be broken down further into three categories:
Verbal sexual harassment can include comments about the way someone dresses, comments about gender-specific traits, unwanted sexual or romantic propositions, and sexually related threats and insults.
Nonverbal sexual harassment includes making suggestive or insulting noises, obscene gestures, sexually suggestive whistling, and the sharing and displaying of obscene material.
Physical sexual harassment can include unwanted touching, pinching, standing or sitting too close, intentionally brushing against someone else’s body, coerced sexual intercourse, and sexual assault.
Examples of other workplace behavior that can be considered harassment include:
- Making sexist jokes
- Using gender slurs
- Requesting sexual favors
Though victims of sexual harassment often cite repeated incidents, a single incident of an egregious nature, such as a sexual assault, can also be considered sexual harassment. In general, however, whatever a “reasonable person” would consider sexual harassment, will be considered sexual harassment in a court of law.
What to Do If You Suspect That You Are a Victim of Harassment in the Workplace
If you believe that you are being harassed in the workplace, the first step to take is to report the behavior to the person in your company who is designated to handle these types of complaints. The next step is to file a claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Tennessee Human Rights Commissions.
Depending on a variety of factors, you may then be eligible to file a civil lawsuit against your employer to seek damages. An experienced employment law attorney can help you determine how to proceed and guide you through the process.