What Constitutes Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is an issue that has generated much discussion and debate in the 1990s. While (almost) everyone agrees such conduct is unacceptable, the legal struggle has been in defining what constitutes harassment. Nonetheless, sexual harassment is an illegal form of sex discrimination, and the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that an employee has the right to work in an environment free of abusive sexual harassment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." The agency categorizes such conduct as either "quid pro quo" or "hostile environment" harassment.

Quid pro quo occurs when a superior asks an employee for sexual favors in return for a promotion, raise, work assignment, or overtime pay or threatens to fire him or her unless he or she submits. A single incident of sexual advances linked to the granting or denial of employment benefits is sufficient to establish harassment. If the employee rebuffs such advances, yet the work environment becomes so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit, quid pro quo harassment has still occurred.

Hostile environment harassment describes an abusive, offensive or intimidating work atmosphere which interferes with the employee's work performance. Sexual, verbal, or physical advances that the employee did not incite and considers offensive define such an environment. To establish the behavior as harassment, the victim must express by his or her conduct that it is unwelcome, even if he or she submits to the advances.

The Supreme Court has ruled that to claim hostile environment harassment, the victim must usually show a pattern of repeated offensive sexual conduct or remarks that are pervasive enough to create an abusive work atmosphere. Immediately lodging a formal complaint every time the conduct occurs helps build such a case.

Sexual harassment may come from employers, supervisors, agents of employers, co-workers, or customers. Management may find itself liable for other's actions if it does not take steps to create a safe work environment for employees--males as well as females. Having a grievance procedure or non-discrimination policy in place may not necessarily protect the employer, but taking immediate and appropriate corrective action in response to a complaint may decrease liability.

If you find certain work place behavior sexually offensive, you should first tell the harasser directly or through a third party that such conduct is unwelcome. Notify a supervisor, the employer, or personnel manager and file a grievance report. If no corrective action is taken, you may file a complaint with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act or acts. The EEOC will investigate and decide whether to sue on your behalf. If the agency chooses not to litigate, it issues a "notice of right-to-sue," allowing you to pursue a court case on your own. By law, an employer cannot take retaliatory action against an employee for filing a sexual harassment complaint.

Pending and future court cases will attempt to define sexual harassment more clearly. However, the fact remains that employees have a right to a work place free of abusive or intimidating sexual behavior. Know your rights and exercise them.